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Airport Love, Actually

March 12, 2011

March 11, 2011

By Maggie Dwyer — permalink

My son Dylan is a freshman at the University of Arizona in Tucson and is flying back to Texas to spend Spring break here. He has only returned home one other time this year, during the long holiday break between semesters. I think I saw him four times during that month, and am resigned to the fact that our drive in from the airport tomorrow may be the longest conversation we have until May, when I will drive him with his stuff back here for the summer.

I love this photo – a candid shot my mother took. I sometimes miss the days when they were little and their worlds revolved around us, but I am so thrilled to see that all of the reading and attention has contributed to the wonderful young man he is today.

I’m not surprised, or even dismayed, because I see him maturing as he should, becoming an independent and autonomous young man, and he doesn’t crave long visits with his parents. I have to choose the right moment to ask any question I really want an answer to, or to say something I think he needs to hear. And I have to resist the urge to give this wonderful young man a hug every time I see him. Without that restraint, it is my belief that over-eager parents end up pushing away their children. Holding them too tightly won’t keep them close – quite the opposite. His sister shares a house with other college students 45 miles north of here, and I see her only a couple of times a semester for the same reason. I am not aloof, far from it. They know I love them.

When he flew to Tucson in January, I had it planned. We pulled into an empty spot adjacent to the skycap lines at Dallas Love Field. I turned off the engine, hopped out to ostensibly help him with the door as he put on his pack then pulled his classical guitar in it’s very large case from behind the seat. As he turned, his hands full, I ignored the people standing next to us on the sidewalk and stepped in to give him a big hug and a kiss. He stood patiently, and I released him quickly, and told him to have a good flight.

I’d had an audience, and there were several knowing smiles as we watched this tall handsome college student walk alone into the airport. A woman in the line caught my eye, and I said “he’s 18. I have to choose the moment when I can get that kiss and hug these days.” Again, knowing smiles.

It was so different at the airport in Seattle 14 years ago, when my husband, not my son was the one flying. The four of us had managed three weeks together in a road trip from Texas to Seattle. He had only three weeks off and we wanted longer with the grandparents, so he left from Seattle to go to his work meeting. I’d make the drive home alone with the kids, stopping with friends and family along the way.

This photo appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after Dylan provided music at a UTA Library faculty reception.
Last year Dylan played classical guitar in the UTA Central Library atrium as a faculty reception was getting underway.

Good plan, but the hardest part was when we were at SeaTac airport, waiting at the gate (you could, back then) for the flight to be called. I was carrying then-four-year-old Dylan as we gave his Dad a kiss. As he realized that Dad was in fact leaving without him, my son lunged forward in my arms, stretching out and crying “Dad! Dad! Daaaaaaad!” at such a pitch and in such anguish that it was like someone had released teargas in that portion of the airport.

The brief tableau is frozen in my memory. The urgency of a child so distraught brought all eyes our way, and brought tears to those eyes. We managed to recover, I don’t remember what I said, but after a few minutes of sadness and sniffles, his seven-year-old sister and I had his full attention and we spent more time with grandma before heading south along the Pacific coast in another week of parks and beaches, of sleeping in guest rooms, motel rooms, and sleeping bags. I’m glad I have that memory of my son, as poignant as it is, because our airport visits these days are so restrained. But I know the passion is in there. Maybe one of these days I’ll be the one leaving on the plane and my son will be holding a child, sad to see grandma go.


Getting Back to the Blog

February 17, 2011


When I set up this blog, I was planning to focus my thoughts in one place where interested readers could follow along. In its natural state, ADD seems to be a feature of the Internet Age; inquiring minds are easily led to the next fascinating story, and are lulled into posting remarks everywhere. At the same time, sharing with friends in one place is comfortable; the shorthand of familiarity means you don’t need to spell out everything or reintroduce each subject. I wanted to challenge myself to write in a more thorough manner, but I distracted myself back to my old ruts, and continued to spread myself too thin.

I have a lot of partially written blog entries saved in a file, and quite a few photo illustrations. I’ll be posting those in my blog sites, probably in no particular order, to get them up and out there. And get back to the satisfaction of writing for a larger audience.

Not exactly a New Year’s resolution, but something I am resolved to do.

What’s the Buzz?

July 25, 2010

July 24, 2010

This "asp" or "puss caterpillar" is one to avoid at all costs. The pain they inflict is excruciating.

This is a hairy caterpillar with a sting so powerful that you want to sever the limb to get rid of the pain. I'm posting this photo, even though it has nothing else to do with this blog, just so you can avoid it.

Every year the population of insects and weeds in the yard varies. One year it’ll be more thistles than usual, or more leaf-footed bugs. Another year it will be creeping Charley mint in the turf , and occasionally we have an unwelcome population bloom like last fall when the “asp” or “puss caterpillar” appeared on my Japanese flowering quince.

There always seem to be ants, fireflies, cicadas, June bugs, katydids, tarantulas, mud daubers, flies, and mosquitoes, but every year something moves to the top of the population hierarchy in the yard. So this year I don’t consider it unusual to have a bloom of the huge cicada killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) burrowing in my garden, but for those who don’t pay attention to the ebb and flow of bug populations, this year the numbers have finally registered on the radar of the general public in North Texas. The wasps were digging, getting ready. The connection that many who noticed the wasps didn’t make is that the cicada’s electrical buzz hit a high pitch up about a month ago. These huge iridescent bugs are rarely seen and perhaps with our modern noisy household technology, many don’t notice their arrival. But it’s the wasp’s raison d’être.

The wasps do a great job of conditioning the soil, almost as good as fire ants.

On June 16 on KERA-FM’s community call in program Anything You Ever Wanted to Know a woman wanted to know how to kill these huge wasps that she said are attacking her children. To those uninitiated in bug behavior, it might seem to her like they are attacking. Chances are that what they are doing, in fact, is buzzing past anyone who gets too close to their burrows in the garden or turf. These B-52s of the garden insect world are flashing their wasp colors, buzzing their wasp buzz, and telling anyone who gets too close to “move along. There’s nothing for you here.” If you keep going back, they’ll keep chasing you off. Soon each female will capture and sting a cicada, drag the paralyzed insect into its hole, and lay her eggs. (You’ll find these featured on page 43 of Howard Garrett’s Texas Bug Book: The Good The Bad and The Ugly.) And then they won’t bother you. (As I finish editing this, a week later, I can say that I think we’ve reached and passed that point. I didn’t see any wasps for the last couple of days. Their work here is through, for now.)
These drop and roll exercises happened all morning when the males were ardently fighting off competitors.

The males don’t have a stinger, but at nearly two inches long, they can be pretty intimidating. The females do have a stinger, but you really really have to annoy them to get a sting. My frequent forays into the garden have been fine and I do manage to get a fair amount of work done even with these masters of soil conditioning hovering nearby. These wasps are active during the daytime; they’re big and noisy and advertise their presence so they’re easy to avoid when they’re working an area. To the left you see two males in one of their frequent confrontations. They slam into each other in midair and drop to the ground, where they roll around for up to 30 seconds.

Last year I photographed some of the pairs mating, and this year I witnessed the mid-air bug battles that occur prior to mating. They literally slam into each other eight feet up and drop straight to the ground as they tussle. They separate and do it again. Landing this hard on the concrete of the driveway doesn’t seem to hurt them. The only photo I don’t have yet is of a wasp actually dragging a cicada.

This pair stayed connected for quite a while, perched next to my air condition unit and near many of the mounds of dirt they'd been digging.
I captured a male wasp on a window in the house this weekend. I tried to catch it in thick layers of a folded up dishtowel but it twice struggled out of the folds. I finally released it after catching it on the glass with a plastic food container and sliding across a piece of cardboard.

The wasps are digging in the gardens on both side of my driveway, and digging in softened turf after we had two weeks of steady rain. The one place they have avoided is the area where I put down cypress mulch bark to delineate garden paths. I try not to step in the garden once it is planted, but I need a few ways in so I put down mulch so I can find the same path each time. I find piles of wasp dirt on my cypress mulch paths, but they are piled from holes dug outsize the mulch zone.
Cicadas are bouncing around everywhere now, and as big as the wasp are, the cicadas are larger.
On July 18, 2010, I called in to Howard Garrett’s weekly Dirt Doctor radio program and reported this observation. Howard isn’t fond of cypress bark mulch in general because it takes a long time to break down in the garden (he prefers hardwood mulch), but said the use for paths in the garden sounded good. He offered a useful suggestion for testing next year: Why not grind up the mulch to a finer powder and sprinkle it over a test area of the garden, to see if it repels the wasps without becoming an indigestible bit of organic matter in the garden? That’ll be my research next summer. For this summer, I have the camera handy as I watch for the wasp/cicada pas de deux, but I think it has passed. The heavy rain we had yesterday seems to have sealed the vaults on all of those cicadas, tucked deep underground with a clutch of wasp eggs laid next to them.

One has only to look at nature in our own yards to find the creepy inspiration for Science Fiction thrillers, doesn’t one?

Click on any of these photos to have a new window open with the larger image.

Here’s a more recent view of the veggie garden:

The garden became an overgrown jungle with two weeks of rain in early July.

The Dirt

May 10, 2010


Soaker hoses go into place as soon as garden contours are settled, to aid in planting placement.

My neighbor across the street teases me about the appearance of my garden–the design is one of a kind. I didn’t build a standard rectangle, I didn’t put in boards to support raised beds, but I did bring in a lot of topsoil and humus to mix with the existing soil and shoveled the rest of a pile of dirt from my back yard into these irregularly-shaped raised beds in my front yard. The planks on one side are to stabilize things, but the rest is shaped and tamped down. Once dirt was in the right place, I used homemade compost to top dress it before planting.

Organic gardening always begins with healthy soil. Lots of good biological activity is essential, and I add trichogramma wasps and beneficial nematodes to the mix. These beds are intended to avoid the wet feet that crippled eggplant and tomato production last year when I gardened on the existing land level. Too many low spots formed and put a period to healthy produce. Once the plant roots were soggy and weak, the predatory bugs piled on. As usual in my blog, click on any of these images to see a larger version open in a new window.

The raised beds have beveled sides. Next year I may want to reshape these beds and I don't want to dismantle wooden frames to do it.

The raised beds have beveled sides. Next year I may want to reshape these beds and I don't want to dismantle wooden frames to do it.

This year I allowed the form to entirely follow the function. I have a pie-shaped piece of property beside the drive, wide at the bottom of the garden, so I visualized a interlocking series of terraces when I started moving around dirt. I sculpted the garden, standing back frequently to examine the shapes, anticipating drainage results as I worked. I had to factor in the drenching spring rainstorms we get occasionally, so I sloped the raised beds and dug sloped trench paths between each. I can reach to the center of each raised bed from the paths between them, and I put down a generous layer of free mulch from the city to help hold the moisture in and make it a little less gooshy to step on the paths after a rain. (I started to write “step in the garden,” but in fact, once the beds are in place I try to never step off of the paths, if possible. You’ll find a few well-placed bricks if you come back to my garden this summer. Those are the spots where a step is deemed necessary, but the brick is the placeholder so I know only to rest a foot on that spot). I’m sure I’m not alone among gardeners in trying to avoid compressing the garden soil by stepping in it.

Pretty soon the shape of the land in the garden won’t be visible under the hedge of tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, and my neighbor across the street never teases me about the fine produce I take over regularly. When there is a glut in this little patch, I feed the neighborhood with what I won’t have room to eat,  time to can, or room to freeze. I should set up a little counter with a sign at the curb. “Tomatoes today. $1 a pound” or “Eggplants, $1 ea.” Last time I heard anything about it, it was legal in Texas to sell produce without a license. (This explained to annual occurrence of the itinerant grapefruit and orange sellers down our block years ago. Maybe I should load the kids’ old Radio Flyer and make the rounds?)

Cranking up the Garden

April 1, 2010


There has been a hiatus on this blog over the winter, but now that I’m working in the yard again I’ve had several opportunities to pull out the camera. Alas, last weekend when lugging bags of dirt around I pulled some muscles in my lower back (if you’re a gardener you probably know which ones) and reinjured them again today. Progress will be measured for a couple of weeks according to how well I integrate stretching and allow healing to happen. This isn’t my first gardening injury, and won’t be the last.

There are 3 types of cactus in the mid-ground of this photo. The long pads are what were removed.
A recent injury, in fact, is marked by the scar on my left index finger that took ages to finally fester and reject the cactus spine I picked up when I dissected and dug up the roots of a large prickly pear cactus in my front yard. It was one of those ideas that didn’t pan out, a cactus garden in a spot where it was too much bother to keep dragging a hose to water landscaping plants.

Over time I found I liked a spineless upright prickly pear best–it was looking better than a larger sprawling one nearby that I started from a few elongated pads given me by the neighbor across the street. The bigger one, I found, attracted a type of bug (I think it is commonly called an Assassin bug) with a piercing proboscis, leading to a steady stream of juice from each meal site, and they sometimes migrated onto the prettier spineless plant. Grass and weeds grew between the branches and were painful to remove. The final negative for this cactus was that while the flowers were pretty, the tunas didn’t produce good tasting juice, like the other plant. So it came out this spring when I concluded that less is indeed more when it comes to having a cactus garden in your yard.

I used several long tools, a saw, pruner blades on extensions, and a long kitchen tong to pick up and place long pads into the many boxes I pulled out of the recycle bin down at Edgecliff City Hall. For once I was grateful to all of the recyclers who were too lazy to break down their boxes. On one trip for boxes an elderly woman dropping off her bagged newspapers helped support me by one hand while I leaned, hooked over the edge by one knee, and reached deep into the dumpster for sturdy boxes. I’m sure she had a story to tell at dinner that evening. It reminded me of the recycling day activities in March, 1992, when I went home and that afternoon give birth to my second child.  :)

The brown, disturbed area around the extant cactus is where the other one was removed. Less is more when it comes to landscaping with cactus.
After demolishing that plant, I had one last task. Cactus in the compost wasn’t an option, I didn’t want to bump into these spines again. Boxes and several bags were piled at the curb in the trash. I feared these men would refuse to ever pick up my trash again, like postal workers refusing to deliver to homes with viscous dogs, if I didn’t make sure they avoided injury from these pads. Several of the boxes were closed, but some were open flats with a few branches that could shift and stab, and woe to the man who bumped one of those plastic bags into his knee or thigh as he carried it to the truck. So on the first dark Monday after Daylight Savings Time began, I had my ears open for the distinctive engine of the trash truck. And when they appeared (I am their second stop) I popped out the kitchen door, gloves in hand, and waited at the curb in the dark for them to pull up. Despite their protests that they could move it all, I shifted the bags and lifted the open boxes and put them in the trash truck, leaving only the completely closed boxes for them. And I did see one man wince and pull his hand back, so I know there was at least one small injury.

My current task, one that is slowing the actual planting of my garden, but one that will materially improve the plant growth in my front yard veggie garden, is to build small terraces on the gentle slope down from the garage toward the street. Last year was the first for that portion of my "edible estate" (a vegetable garden put in the front, replacing turf and putting the spot into food production). I didn’t give enough thought to drainage and the plants in the lower corner of that bed were weak enough that they suffered the assaults of insect pests and disease. This year I lined one side with untreated lumber to shape the garden in order to to keep feet dry. Once the garden is in full swing, the boards probably won’t even be visible from under my hedges of peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant.

Pecan season

December 11, 2009


Pecan season is over for us; those we’ve picked up in the neighborhood haven’t been very good this year. A large number of them were rotten or dried out, and while I can open a shell and discard bad ones, my dogs chomp down and end up eating part or all of them. The pit bull spits them out if they’re bad, but I haven’t seen if the Catahoula actually rejects any of them (Poppy takes her nuts to the side of the porch to eat, afraid Cinnamon will mug her for it). We’re at the point in our walks when the dogs are still trying to veer back and forth across the street to check out the snacking possibilities under several trees, though we haven’t stopped to graze for a couple of weeks.

When I walk the dogs in the autumn I’m always reminded that they have a mental map of the neighborhood. Perhaps not as refined as the map squirrels cultivate to remember where they buried their nuts, but impressive nonetheless. The dogs, a Catahoula/blue heeler mix and an American Staffordshire Terrier, love to eat acorns, particularly the red oak (Shumard) variety. And they know every tree on our regular walk—they’ll eat live oak acorns if the red oak aren’t in season. If we walk up the middle of the street, they list from side to side, knowing they’re not supposed to pull on their leashes, but still wanting to strongly influence the direction we walk. Someone at the bottom of the hill watching us would see a drunken progression from side to side, and the staggering is even more fierce if a pecan tree is in the mix. If they like acorns, they adore pecans with a passion on a par with food scraps or their dog food. On days when I want to get in a walk swift enough to leave me puffing, I have to zigzag through the neighborhood, choosing the blocks with non-fruiting tree types in the front yards.

I’m sure I transmitted my intentions on the days I decided it was time to pick up pecans. We always set out for our walks with a brisk step, but as we approached the corner to head up to that one yard in particular, the dogs lean into the turn like a yoked team heading back to the barn. There’s no twitching of the leash to tell them where we’re headed.

I asked this neighbor, whose beautiful front yard has a pecan and a baldcypress, if I could collect nuts. He said yes. The first time I walked up there to gather some, the dogs hadn’t tried pecans, but as I picked them up they watched me and then started rooting. When they discovered the large wonderful nuts they ate them shell and all. On our pecan walks they’re like pigs rooting for truffles, only they get to eat the truffles.

Leashes become tangled as I try to pick up nuts before the dogs get to them, but because I am a creature with a different search method, I find this race to the pecans rather interesting. The dogs have good eyesight; enough to spot small distant prey, stalk, and catch it. But when they’re looking for something still and close by on the ground, they go by their noses. Sniffing for pecans is not practical for me, so I find them by feel, under my feet where they have slipped into the thick St. Augustine turf, or by sight, sitting in their hulls or out, on the lawn.

I know what you’re thinking. Pecan shells might not be good for dogs. I asked the vet—he said little dogs can have problems, the larger dogs don’t as often, but we’ve cut back and these days I mostly just give them occasional store-bought shelled nuts. They get plenty of other roughage out in the yard. This time of year piles of dog poop are so studded with hackberries that it looks kind of like dough for the filbert cookies I used to pick up at an Italian bakery in Brooklyn. Hackberries look like those rainbow peppercorns you see in gourmet shops, and my two pooches vacuum the back yard looking for the little morsels.

When they can, they mug a passing squirrel and steal his nuts.

Mown for the Holidays

November 17, 2009

This weekend I made a big push toward getting ready for Thanksgiving. I mowed the lawn.

Copyright by Margaret Dwyer and licensed for reuse under this Creative commons License

The back 40 (feet, that is, overlooking the creek). I only prune poison ivy back here.

I do some of the usual stuff as well. To my family and friends, it is no news that I am once again re-arranging furniture, because I inherited so much of it from elderly relatives and my parents that some rooms are over-full. I’m working on it. But I also have a large city lot adjacent to a wild stretch of prairie forest along the Sycamore Creek tributary of the Trinity River. I love this aspect of the yard, that’s why I bought it. So this Sunday, I mowed and trimmed the entire yard, something I usually do in two stages, the front and all trimming on one day, the back on the next.

This mowing is so that the yard will be welcoming on the day of the meal, if the weather is warm, whether for simply sitting outside or for taking an impromptu tour of our tarantula colony or a walk to the beach to pick up fossils (our local specialty is ancient sea urchins).

For two decades a group of us have gotten together for Thanksgiving, regardless of our mix-and-match family status: my family (now split into two, after a divorce) and my former across-the-driveway neighbor, Bette, and her children, their spouses (some ex) and children, in-laws (some ex) and various friends who often come along. Ours is an inclusive group, and we revel in the fact that most of us are still friends despite the occasional failure of marriages. The work of staying friends has been an important lesson we have taught our children. We’re not perfect and we have had our share of culinary disasters, but we can all laugh about it and we love getting together for these meals.

Copyright by Margaret Dwyer and licensed for reuse under this Creative commons License

I accidentally took the top off of this bunny nest. No one was harmed, but I had to chase down a couple and stuff them back in.

Après my divorce and nearly three years crammed into an apartment, I bought this house with enough bedrooms for a guest room and an office. It was sound but out-of-date, so I stacked all of my furniture in the front living room and remodeled the kitchen and baths and had a new garage built. I signed the papers on Valentine’s Day, so with the cold weather I tiled and grouted and gradually moved furniture into our bedrooms and then the larger den/living room. When the weather improved, I confronted a tangle of tall grass, thatched weeds, brush, hackberry trees, and several dead fruit trees in the back. The first time I mowed the lawn I uncovered a bunny nest. I cut and dragged, building a huge stack of brush on top of stacked dead tree limbs. Through benign neglect of former owners and renters (notorious for not putting a lot into the landscaping) I had inherited a wonderful blank slate to work with, but I did have to clear out some of Nature’s Economy first. Since friends and family knew about this work, they were excited to schedule the meal here to check out the sweat equity I was pouring into the property.

Copyright by Margaret Dwyer and licensed for reuse under this Creative commons License

Dog proof old ratty chairs can be inviting.

Our first Thanksgiving dinner in this house was on a beautiful warm day. I arranged rooms for different activities, and in the cleaned-up the back yard I placed a couple of inviting old patio chairs next to a small baldcypress. I noticed several times during the afternoon that people would walk out to sit and talk. The yard transformation included the discovery of a gate. I didn’t know the gate was there when I moved in, and didn’t realize I actually owned part of the creek.

I need someplace to toss weeds and cuttings as I work in the garden. Alas, many of my fall tomatoes, demolished by snails, have landed here. Only a couple have come into the house.

Tantalus could have been a gardener, watching his tomatoes ripen as they simultaneously rot from snail incursions. The compost is surrounded by volunteers.

So here’s a non-surprising confession: I am probably better at keeping my lawn mowed than I am at wrangling dust kittens in the house. I don’t have a picture perfect gardening-magazine-yard unless a publication starts up for eclectic naturalists who, via xeriscape and nascent permaculture, want to encourage wildlife, create a beautiful view out each window in the house, and have as many year-round edible plants as possible. Via organic management I have encouraged the native animals to stay here; I love my tarantulas, toads, lizards, snakes, birds, and interesting bugs. As with the furniture, some of the plants and trees I’ve put in didn’t work and had to go, but it’s always interesting and inviting. So when this big group of friends and family appear, I aim at having the outside be as appealing as the indoors. Some years I get lucky when I mow at the end of the season and hit that perfect point when the lawn has almost stopped growing before winter. There’s something about catching it at that stage that keeps it looking good, whereas dragging a power mower over dead and dormant tall turf leaves it kind of scruffy until spring.

I keep plastic bags and clippers near the back door, to send home herbs and produce when friends come to visit. The basil seeded itself all over this year. Mmmmmm!

This year in addition to mowing I did some cleanup in my vegetable gardens on both sides of the driveway in the front yard. I scooped up the temporary compost (where, alas, despite frequent beer garden parties, most of my fall tomatoes have landed, due to the snail attacks at every turn) and added it to the big compost pile in the back. On the day of our dinner I’ll keep clippers handy to trim the oregano and the rosemary for anyone who wants some, and if the frost hasn’t come yet, I’ll invite people wade into the garden to pick peppers or cherry tomatoes, or a big handful of basil for the last pesto of the season.