Sunday, May 14, 2017

Buzzing with curiosity

I need a steep learning curve, always have, always will. If you want me to stay interested in something, you have to keep my attention, once I know all the rules and the shortcuts and have learned all the information, if there still isn’t learning involved, my focus starts to wander. This has always been the way I operate. When I was a kid, I had crazes. I’d totally immerse myself in something, and then 6 months later I’d be off that topic and onto the next. Some people like it when the master a subject, but me, I just get bored. It’s one of the reasons plants, gardening and the natural world continues to hold my interest. I’m always learning something new.

Just last week we had an amazing speaker at Murders who really made me think about bugs in a new way. I’ve never been especially freaked out by bugs; I actually think some of them are quite beautiful; but I do find some of them quite irritating, especially when they are eating my roses, but I’ve learned to tolerate a certain level of them, thanks to a talk I went to a bunch of years ago given by Doug Tallamy, a Professor of Entomology within the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources. He made me realize that without insects, there would be nothing for birds to feed their babies, and with that one fact changed my whole perspective on the way I battled bugs. I gave up chemical pesticides and switched to more organic treatments like neem oil, horticultural oil and insecticidal soap; treatments that worked by smothering soft bodied insects, not by coating them and the plants around them with toxic chemicals; and I started accepting more insects in my world. The fact that I was trying to raise bees also helped point me in this direction. I can honestly say that I was trying to create a more balanced ecosystem.

Unfortunately I was failing. Or so Jessica Walliser helped me figure out in the gentlest and most supportive way possible. Jessica was at Marders talking about her newest book, Attracting Beneficial Bugs To Your Garden, and although I invited a whole bunch of people, for some reason people weren’t as excited about learning about creepy crawlies as I was. What a mistake on their part. First of all the first thing that left me thunderstruck was an observation so obvious, I can’t believe it had never occurred to me before. Naturally, like everyone on the planet, I know ladybugs eat aphids and so are good for the garden. Also I am super proud of the fact that I could identify a lady bug in its larval form, but somehow, in all the years that I’ve been gardening with “less toxic” treatments, it never occurred to me that both ladybugs in larval form and ladybug eggs are both soft bodied and therefore would be smothered and killed by these “less toxic” treatments. Whoops! How did I not realize this?

I had been tripped up by the thinking that something that was organic or natural would be less dangerous. I should know better. I warn people that although you can use copper to treat black spot on roses, it’s still a heavy metal and as such can be toxic if used in excess.  Nicotine is not only addictive; it’s also a neurotoxin, not just for insects, but also for most mammals, including humans. This is why even though it’s a natural ingredient; it’s no longer used as an insecticide.

The second whammy of the day was the revelatory thought that since there was really nothing I could do to “fight” the bad bugs in my garden that wouldn’t also hurt the good bugs, I had the switch directions entirely, and instead of fighting insects, I had to encourage them. It sounds crazy doesn’t it, but stay with me. Jessica’s message was simple. Nature has already created predators for most of the bugs we’re battling, so the best thing we can do in our garden is to try to encourage them to not just drop by, but to come over and stay for a while. And for that we needed to know exactly what makes a garden attractive to the sorts of insects we need more of in our lives.

These two thoughts have opened up a whole new arena of thought for me, and two entirely new subjects I now need to learn all about.  The first is insects. Like I said, insects don’t freak me out, but I wasn’t really drawn to them in the same way I was fascinated by plants. I just used to tell people that I didn’t really know that much about insects because I was a horticulturist, and that to find out about the bug they had trapped in their baggie they’d need an entomologist. Now I’m realizing that I really need to know my bugs better; that it’s not good enough to just know what’s a beetle and what’s a fly, I need to be able to tell a Minute Pirate Bug from an Assassin Bug and a Syrphid Fly from a Robber Fly. And that I need to learn how to attract these bugs to not just visit my garden, but to live and bred and reproduce their since it’s sometimes the larvae that are the predators of the bugs I need to battle, not just the adults.

I’ve embraced planting to attract birds; I can spew forth the best ingredients for a hummingbird garden in a sentence or two. I know all sorts of ways to make butterflies happier. I’ve even embraced pollinator gardening, (this happens when you start raising bees and you’re trying to give them as many food sources as possible. Now I need to learn a whole new set of plant and critter interactions. I know what the deer love to eat, but what about parasitic wasps? They like coreopsis, goldenrod, angelica, boneset and veronicastrum; all plants I already have; but also mountain mint and yarrow, two plants I hadn’t really been desperate to include before that are now on my “have to have” list. The larvae of syrphid flies eat thrips. I loathe thrips. They disfigure my dahlias every year, are wrecking havoc on my hydrangeas and are super hard to deal with since they tend to hide in flower buds – so even if I was still trying to kill them with an insecticide, it’s difficult to do so.  However, if I add more calamintha, oregano, dill and cilantro to the asters and angelica I already have in abundance, I’m creating a fabulous an attractive garden for a nice syrphid mother to make into a baby palace of her very own. And those Zizia plants that I’ve been thinking are a nuisance; well perhaps I should encourage those, as a whole slew of beneficials think they’re the most delicious things on the planet (a nifty and generous early source of nectar.)

As I’ve said this is an entirely new way for me to think about my garden, and I’m just starting to incorporate these thoughts, by intermingling these plants into my existing beds and garden areas, but if I get really ambitious I can create a beneficial insect garden. It’s probably going to take me a while to get there, since I have a whole bunch of learning ahead of me, but frankly I find the prospect of needing to study and do research on something almost as exciting as the thought of finally making a dent in my current thrip explosion.

Paige Patterson has never seen so much vole damage so early in the year and it’s sort of freaking her out.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

It’s time to drag the little people outside.

No, no, no, I’m not talking about leprechauns, I’m talking about human between the ages of 2 and 17. I’m very specific about the age group since a market research company called NPD Group recently determined that 91% of that age group plays some sort of video game regularly. I find that statistic amazing, and sad, mostly because I can’t imagine being that age and wanting to inside on my computer for hours and hours and hours when I could be swimming in the ocean, or exploring a forest, or watching bees pollinate flowers instead.

I had an interest in the natural world when very young that was not only encouraged, it was nurtured. I found and devoured John and Mildred Teal’s book,  “Life and Death of the Salt Marsh’, and boom, my mother hired the high school biology teacher  Mr. Minardi, to take myself and a few other nature minded kids through our local salt marshes for a few weekends of exploration and in-situ learning. Oh and previously I’d had my own nature tutor, Barbara Hale, who had taken me to the Creeks while Ossorio still owned it, and to various other places where wild things still lived so I could get up close and personal with the natural world. I was lucky.

Of course, when I was a kid, there were only about 4 television stations to choose to escape in front of (even less for the years when we lived in London) and the only other options were books and the outdoors. Both habits, reading and interacting with nature, stuck and while I’ve been known to lose myself in a book for the day, or deep into the night, I’ve always got some sort of outside activity going. I’ve done it all. I’ve collected seashells and butterflies, used potatoes to make art prints, looked at snowflakes under a microscope, raised bees in a Plexiglas hive take lived in the living room (my mom hooked me up with that as well, she was awesome) and made tie dye with shredded beet juice. I’ve been a birder, a tree climber, a gardener, a naturalist and a flower lover as long as I can remember.  Bugs don’t freak me out, the ocean doesn’t scare me and I like getting dirty.

I have a bunch of these little people in my life now, and none of them are all that excited to join me in the outdoor world, and that freaks me out. I think (and studies suggest) that kids are happier when they breathe fresh air, that running in the woods or fields provides easy exercise and climbing trees improves balance. Lugging branches and brush to build a fort makes you stronger and just making up things to keep yourself occupied when told to “go outside and play” fosters creativity, teaches problem solving, and gives you confidence.

I believe that my generation, most of whom are the parents that are raising these kids, know this in their hearts. They too grew up like I did, without any really electronic stimuli, and yes, of course it’s very seductive to spend hours getting down a YouTube spiral or binge watching an entire season of a TV show in one sitting, but we have to do better. So I’m challenging all the adults I know to find a little person and drag him out into the fresh air.

To help I thought I’d give you a list of suggestions of things you could try to entice them with. I don’t think everything will work for everybody, but it might trigger your own brain to some of the things you did when you were a kid and you lost hours totally engrossed in something that wasn’t a screen.

Go fishing. Build a fort. Whether it’s in on the beach, under a bush, or up a tree, there is nothing like making a place that is your own and where you get to tell your parents not to enter. See how many pink rocks you can find in one day. Make art ala Adam Goldsworthy using pine needles to sew autumn yellow leaves together. Try balancing stones on top of each other to see how high a stack you can make. Do not use glue! Get a microscope and check out stuff you find outside on it. Pond water, dog salvia, snowflakes (this was super cool, but requires serious cold weather gear and really good gloves.

Collect tadpoles, put them in a large glass jar (we’re talking restaurant sized mayonnaise containers) or a fish tank with a bunch of the water from the pond you found them in. Watch them  transform into frogs  in the kitchen. Don’t forget to pay attention to them everyday or they will hatch and you’ll have to gather up hundred of tiny frogs from every corner of the room - even behind the spice jars – I speak from experience here. Feed the tadpole lettuce or flake fish food. We used hamburger, but it was not the right thing to do. Release them back into the same pond area where you found them.

Collect black rocks with white stripes. Figure out what leaf would be the best hat and wear it for the entire afternoon. Drag a futon onto the back porch, turn off all the lights and count shooting stars, or learn the constellations. See how many different colors of green you can find by gathering as many green living things as you can (leaves, grass, moss) and put them all out on a large sheet of white poster board. Do the same with brown or pink or purple. Take a photo so you can remember. Build drip castles with a bucket of water and sand.

Pick a whole bunch of berries, blueberries, blackberries or anything else that stains your fingers when you squish it. Take a tee shirt and boil it in a pot of 8 cups of water and ½ a cup of salt. Wring the tee shirt out but leave it damp. Put your berries in a pot with at least an equal amount of water and boil them for two hours with a lid on the pot. The longer they boil the darker the dye. Make tiny pigtails of the tee shirt using rubber bands or string.  Let your boiled berries coil and remove them with a strainer. Put the wet tee shirt into the pot and simmer for a little while. Turn off heat and let it cool down.  Remove from the pot and rinse with cold water until water runs clear. Take off rubber bands. Hang outside to dry. Wear gloves or have tie dyed fingers too. Play in the rain, jump into puddles. Don’t worry about staying dry and instead revel in being wet. Encourage nature photography. Use your cell phone and then use an app to publish them so they can be cherished and shared in person. Give your kid his own flower or vegetable patch to grow what ever they want. Use a whiskey barrel and potting soil so you won’t have to battle the weeds!

Create rock art. Collect a pile of rocks, decide on a certain size or shape or color and gather as many of them as you can. Then grab a bunch of newspapers and some nontoxic paint and paintbrushes and go crazy. Give them swirls, dots, stripes or into creatures. Give them each three or five or seven eyes. Put up a bird feeder and count how many different kinds of birds you see. Keep a list. Get an identification book. Ditto with butterflies, but instead of a feeder, plant a butterfly bush. Plant a serpentine of sunflower seeds. There is almost no chance of failure with sunflower seeds as long as they have soil, sun and water. Identify which flowers would make good dresses if you suddenly shrunk to the size of a honeybee and were invited to a ball. Collect interesting driftwood that looks like animals and create a zoo, or that resemble buildings and construct a city. On a windy day tie a magic marker on a string to a branch and holding a piece of paper under it, let the wind draw you a portrait of the day. Hook up an old-fashioned oscillating sprinkler and jump through it. Start a nature journal keeping track of everything interesting you see every time you step outside.

Take photographs of any animal or bird footprints you find and see if you can identify them. Take a ball of  colored bamboo yarn outside and wrap it around a branch of a tree. Wrap it tightly with the yarn touching itself to make a solid band. Add a second color, and a third. Do the whole tree. Learn how to tell the sex of a worm (this is a trick, most worms are hermaphrodites, but they still need another worm to create offspring.) Start some seeds in empty eggshells. Fly a kite, better yet make your own kite and fly it instead. Learn the difference between a frog and a toad and see if you can spot both on the same day. Make your own mud with a hose and make mud pies. Big ones! Make snow angels in the sand. Make sand castles in the snow. Get a sunprinting kit and make cyanotypes using the sun and found object. 

Collect fall leaves and place between two sheets of wax paper. Put old tee shirts or paper towels both under and on top of the paper and iron until the wax paper fuses. Let dry and place in front of your window.  Make a salad  including weeds and edible flowers. Use purslane, dandelion leaves, violet flowers and leaves, some garlic mustard and throw in a few chopped up daylily flowers for color. Buy a magnifying glass and stare at a flower and then everything else you come across. Marvel at leaves that have hairs on them the metallic looking powder on butterfly wings. Dry what you see. See if your flower is a single flower or if it’s a composite flower – one made of lots of tiny flowers. Think marigolds or asters. Learn how to skip flat stones. Go for a hike. Search for spider webs after the rain or when they are diamonded with dew. Make wind chimes from shells you find on the beach. Make herb infused vinegar, or basil butter, or freeze mint leaves in ice cubes to throw into iced tea.

Count fireflies. Create a scavenger hunt and find as many things as you can that start with the letter B, or that have red on them, or that have stripes or dots. Go on a paint chip walk. Grab some free paint strips in colors you think are either hard or easy to find in nature and then take a walk outside and see if you can find exact matches. Make a dandelion chain. Make a wreath out of bittersweet branches in the fall, or out of wild grape vines in the spring. Build warriors out of found sticks and carve them heads out of peeled and cored apples. Dip the carved heads in lemon juice (I cup) + salt (1tsp) for a minute and then mount them on their stick bodies and set them out in a warm dry spot for a couple of days. Watch as the faces shrink and warp to create fabulous alien beings. Have a battle. Make snowball with a squirt of food coloring in them and leave them out in the sun on top of thick white rag paper. When the snowball is melted, bring the paper inside and let it dry. Frame the result.
I could go on, but I think you have enough her to get started, and besides, it’s time for me to go outside and take my daily “what’s in bloom” photo walk.

Paige Patterson’s is going to enlist her nephews to help her make rosemary smudge sticks to battle insects with this summer.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Loathing and loving in the plant world.

I try to not use the “h” word as I think the negativity it connotes is pretty heavy and I’m really more of a lover than a hater. However when it comes to this one specific plant, I’m a card carrying, big time, hater.  Have you heard me rant about Lesser Celadine yet? If you work with me any time in the spring when this evil little plant is in flower, you’ve certainly heard me go off on a mad, crazed spiel about how hideously invasive and horrifyingly difficult to eradicate this plant truly is. I’ve been battling (Lesser Celadine or Ficaria verna, formerly Ranunculus ficaria) for three years now and I’m losing. Big time.

The plant is actually sort of pretty when you first come across it. It’s in bloom right now with a big, beautiful, buttercup yellow flower and glossy dark green leaves that make you understand how someone could decide to dig it up and bring it to this country as an ornamental. It thrives in full shade to full shade, can deal with all sorts of soil moisture levels and fertility and doesn’t really care what kind of soil it’s growing in. It’s low growing and makes a pretty weed smothering mat of yellow that makes everything look sort of cheerful and yummy when you’re feeling a little tired of waiting for spring. Plus it’s a spring ephemeral, which means it does it’s entire life cycle in a super compressed period of time and goes dormant by mid-June, just in time for the rest of the garden to show itself off.
Unfortunately, this lovely group of characteristics, all combined in one plant, makes it an impossible thug. And because someone brought it here and it’s not native, its got no natural predators or controls. If it were a native, there would be an insect, fungus, animal, bird, disease, or a bacteria that would have evolved with it and therefore would be able to keep it in check, but because it’s so far from home, it’s escaped all it’s fatal foes. Nothing eats it. Nothing infects it. Nothing bothers it. Not even me.

There are two suggested means of control -- both of which have failed for me in no uncertain terms -- herbicide and manual removal. Did I mention that I’m trying to be more organic? So herbicide is rarely something I chose, but last year I blocked out a previous bad experience and broke down and bought something toxic to try and control this stupid thug. What happened instead, is that in the process of spraying the invasive’s leaves with my vicious chemical, invariably some dripped off and went into the soil, where it traumatized and once again, almost killed my collection of magnolias, magnolias being more susceptible than any of my other trees to herbicide damage. I knew this would probably happen; 15 years ago, when my lawn people put down a pelletized broad leaf weed killer in the back forty of my property to try and control another vicious little invader, Creeping Charlie, they instead sent every magnolia I had into shock. All the other trees were fine, but it took the magnolias three years to recover. You would think I’d remember something as traumatic as that, but Lesser Celadine makes me crazy.

The other way to eliminate this pest is to remove it by hand. HAHAHAHAHAHA. Sorry, insert laughing like a lunatic here. It’s just that the plant can be pulled up by hand or dug up, but each plant has these tiny little tubers attached to its roots and if you leave even one (and they separate from the plant super easily) the plant comes back with a vengeance. Try and dug it out before it sets seed too, as those spread around like germs on a communal spoon.

Did I mention that I believe I got this weed by using compost from the dump? And that the folks that sometimes help me out weeded it a bunch of it up and threw it into my compost pile as well? Thus making it totally unusable as I can’t get it up to cooking speed? When it’s in bloom, I’m blinded to everything else. I see people working in their yard as I drive past and I stop the car to point out their own personal Lesser Celadine and give them tips on removal. I just can’t help myself. I’m digging it myself, but it’s slow go and I not that sure I’m even making a dent.

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system I need to balance out all my loathing by telling you about a plant I just adore. The Itoh peony (otherwise known as an intersectional peony) is a cross between a tree peony and an herbaceous peony and has the best of both their parent plants genes. Like a tree peony they have enormous silky petal flowers, but where a tree peony has only a few blooms and if you cut them off you are removing years of growth of the tree, the itoh peony likes being cut. They have all the blooming power of the classic, traditional peony, with tons and tons of blooms, the numbers of which increase each year. However, where the regular peony will flop over and drag itself on the ground with even the slightest hint of rain, the itoh’s stems are much stronger.

Vigorous, disease resistant and easy to care for with gorgeous, enormous flowers. A plant you treat just like a perennial and cut back to the ground, which comes back bigger and stronger and covered with more flowers every year and is deer resistant. What’s not to love about all that? Yes, they are expensive, but they make a huge impact and so treating yourself to at least one a year is something even the most frugal garden out there will understand. I already got mine this year. It’s divine, but I will confess that I have my eyes on at least one more.

Paige Patterson also needs to add a bunch of gaura ‘Whirling Butterflies’ to her garden this year… just because.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Trying to be better.

I garden for a lot of reasons – because I love flowers, because digging in the dirt, with a trowel or a shovel, with my fingers and my toes, makes me feel grounded, but mostly because I love the natural world. I’m a biophiliac, and as such I worry about my impact on the earth. I’m actually pretty good with my ecological footprint, but far from perfect, especially since I drive an SUV; but I am a vegan, I recycle, we use a lot of energy-efficient LED bulbs, I have bees, I turn off the tap when brushing my teeth and I try not to buy water in plastic bottles. I’ll admit, that sometimes the list of things you’re meant to do to help the planet can seem overwhelming, but other things just seem like a no brainer.
Every morning on my way to work, I stop at Starbucks, and I have to admit, that I used to tend to forget to bring my reusable cup. I’d feel a little bad about all the green and white coffee cups I was accruing, but not that terrible. I assumed that since my cups were paper, naturally they were both recyclable and biodegradable, so although I was definitely not helping with the plastic tops, at least the cups weren’t going to be a problem.

Wrong! It turns out that Starbucks cups, like almost every disposable cup out there, are coated with a miniscule layer of plastic and thus can’t be recycled. They’re just trash. Discovering this made me feel like such a moron. According to, we Americans inhale about 146 billion cups of coffee per year or about 16 million cups an hour – and even if (like me), “you only buy just one cup of coffee or tea in a disposable cup every day, you’ll end up creating about 23 lbs of waste in one year.”  Plus, since I’ve been putting these silly things into my recycling bin, I’ve been contaminating the paper loads and possibly contributing to these loads just being dumped into landfills instead.   
So today I bought three different reusable travel mugs, a no brainer once I learned about the cups, as just one more step in my ongoing effort to have a gentler relationship with this planet we’re all perched upon.  Now I’m not going to lie and tell you that I’ll never use a disposable cup again, of course I will, but I’m going to try and use less, I’m going to try and do better. And that’s my goal today, not to be a zealot and tell you we all have to do the impossible and be perfect, but to tell you a few things I’m doing, as often as I can, and see if you’d like to join me.

Now that we all have our reusable cups in hand, let’s try and adjust our eating to a less impactful way. I read somewhere that the average American meal has traveled 1200 miles before it reached your plate. This is crazy. Instead we need to shop at farm stands and with our local growers, I want to know where and from whom our food comes from. Sure the apples in the supermarkets might be cheaper than those at the Milk Pail, but local apples are picked when ready, and although some may be stored to help them ripen, and they haven’t travelled anywhere but back and forth from their field to the Halsey’s storage facilities and back to their apple stand in Watermill. Not so for your typical supermarket apple, which was picked while still slightly unripe, sprayed with a chemical called 1-methylcyclopropene (an ethylene inhibitor) waxed, packed and stacked on pallets, then stuck in cold storage warehouses until they are needed in the stores, normally for an average of 9-12 months. Yuck.

I happen to grow my own apples, but I still get Pink Lady apples from the Halseys since mine ripen much earlier. I also have too many, which has led me to the world of canning. I think everyone should try canning. Personally, I’ve ended up with far too much applesauce and jams from canning, but I really believe in putting up local summer food to enjoy in the winter. Not that I always have time to do the whole hot, steamy, canning thing, so I’ll confess that I’ve also started using my basement chest freezer to preserve my food, by quickly blanching my veggies first (unblanched kale gets bitter in 6 weeks while blanched kale can last a year!!!) and either making my herbs into a pesto like paste with oil and freezing that, or stuffing them finely chopped into ice cube trays, topping them with water and throwing them in the freezer. Once you have ice cubes, stick them in a reusable freezer bag throw a cube  into your pot when you need a little  flavor.

Eat less meat, please. I’m not asking you to become a vegetarian or vegan, but the more meat we all eat, the more forest is cleared to grow the grains that livestock eat. The less forests there are – the less CO2 is absorbed from the air – the warmer our world gets.  And then there’s the methane livestock release, the second most significant greenhouse gas, not just by farting like people snicker about, but with breathe they exhale, based on the ways their multiple stomachs break down food. This combined with the gallons of fossil fuel used to transport and prep their feed as well as to transport the creatures themselves from factory farms to slaughterhouses and processing facilities and then again to our markets, makes eating meat a pretty bad idea.

I know I’m simplifying things, there’s a much more complicated argument when you take into effect the pasture land that animals graze is actually an excellent place to sequester carbon, and that converting said land to productively grow crops for human consumption will actually release more stored carbon into the air, but I think I can counter that argument with animal cruelty stories from both the life and death experiences of about 99% of the meats you put in your mouths.  Let’s just say it’s complicated, and the more local, less processed and closer to natural your food choices are, the better for both the planet and you.

When you do buy something, and we all do, please make sure it’s organic. I know, I know, it’s way more expensive, but if we grew all the corn and soybeans this country produces organically we’d remove almost 600 million pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere, since organic soils capture and stores CO2 at much higher levels than conventional farmed soils.

And since it’s organic food is much more expensive, let’s also cut down food waste by only buying what we know for sure we’ll consume. Food waste in the American culture is obscene – we throw out about 40% of our food a year! So even though I preach that it’s better to buy in volume (less packaging, only one plastic bag with a 5lb bag of rice as opposed to 5 bags with five 1lb bags) if you find you’re dumping half a gallon of milk out each week maybe start buying a size down. Remember also that wasted food in landfills quickly becomes methane, so if you do have waste, try, try, try and get it into a compost pile.

I confess that this is my real Achilles heel, and I even have a compost pile! I just can’t find the right temporary mechanism for holding kitchen food waste so that it can later be taken out to the compost pile. Nothing has worked for me because I don’t I don’t have the counter space for one of those great vacuum lidded scrap holder, I can’t handle fruit flies, I’m a little lazy and don’t really want to walk out to the compost pile after eating dinner and doing all the dishes. So I need to work on this. I presently have half a cabbage I fished out of the trash, that’s going to go to the chickens instead, but that’s easy, if I can get the tomato tops that are sliced off each night out there too I’ll be golden. What I need is a laundry shoot type thingie built into the kitchen backsplash that would let me collect all the waste outside in a nicely covered bucket I could take back to the compost pile when I’m in the mood. If anyone out there has solved this issue, please let me know.

I try and buy things in bulk to cut down on it, but of course almost everything I buy  comes with packaging. So I’m always trying to choose packing I can reuse. I have chickens that lay too many eggs for my family to eat, so my friends save their egg cartons, which I fill with my leftover eggs in exchange for homemade bread or extra produce from their gardens or their CSA weekly baskets. And I buy things in glass instead of plastic as much as possible since glass in much simpler to both reuse and recycle.

Another easy thing to do, is to read books online instead of tossing a novel after you’re done with it. I use Live-brary and all my novels and Swedish mysteries are free now. Granted I have to wait a little while for them to be available, but I read about 3 books a week so I’m keeping a lot of trees from becoming paper. Of course I also own a ton of actual books, I’m a huge bookaholic, but I try to buy them used. I don’t follow this second directive as often as I should as I’m not that patient, but if the books been out for a while, I almost always can find a cheaper, almost perfect copy on Amazon at a savings!

Speaking of paper, when buying paper products, look for those that are recycled or made with sustainable methods.  There’s actually an interesting bit of research as to whether washing and drying cloth napkins and dish towels is really better less impactful than using their paper equivalents, but for most home owners, cloth is the way to go, especially if you make sure you wash them (as well as the rest of your laundry) in either cold or warm water only.

Wash your hair less. No it’s not gross, it’ll save water and it’s better for your hair. Honest. Oh and please try and shut the water off  when brushing your teeth, it’s not hard, it’s just a new habit we have to create. You already know about low flow water faucets and water saving toilets, and I’m still looking for a toothbrush that’s recyclable and vegan ­– I’m pretty sure no one reading this is gonna want to gnaw the bark off a neem twig and then scrub their teeth using it’s exposed fibers. However, I think we can all follow the old, “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” adage.
I’m going to try to use my car less by riding my bike more, especially to work since as it’s 1.2 miles from my house (1.7 miles if I go to Starbucks first) and then, not only will I get a little exercise and pollute a little less, I might also be less apt to have plants jump into my bike basket instead of the trunk of the car. Or at least it’ll be fewer plants, so I’ll probably save money too.

And once I lose all that weight from biking to work (ha ha ­– like a year later) I’ll have to go down a size or two, but luckily, since I rarely toss clothing that no longer fits, I have a bunch of smaller sized jeans. I do however have some items of clothing that were just plain old mistakes. These don’t ever get tossed, but get traded, gifted or donated, whether to The Retreat or to the ARF thrift shop, there are a billion places for unwanted clothing to go. The challenge is ripped or stained clothing. If you put those into the wrong bins, the charity you think you’re helping will just toss them into the trash. Instead look for the donation bins put out by Big Brother, Big Sister. They sell clothing that’s too far-gone as rag weight, which is used to fill sofas and stuffed chairs, so it never goes into the landfill.
Can’t deal with all this? Feeling overwhelmed? Want me to stop talking? Okay then, I have one simple request for you. When you’re getting food to go or ordering takeout ask them to not to give you any plastic silverware and to skip the individually packaged condiments. By using your own silverware and by using soy sauce or hot sauce from a bigger bottle you’re keeping a lot of plastic packaging and waste out of our environment, and that’s a start. And a start is all any of us has to do.

Paige Patterson says if you use reusable chopsticks you get bonus points.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Houseplants at the Beach

I’m writing this sitting next to the largest begonia I have ever seen, almost the same size as an Endless Summer hydrangea, which is growing in almost pure sand about as far from the Caribbean Ocean as I could hurl a flip flop. It’s a mind blower. Not to mention the variegated philodendron that's climbing up the palm tree next to it, or the collection of sansavarias that's growing weed like along the driveway that snakes up to our rental house in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. By our pool we have hibiscus hedges as well as variegated gingers, banana trees, and elephant ears – all plants I love to use when designing summer pots for Hampton pool sides –  but unlike my pots, that tend to be disposable, these babies here are all planted in the ground.  We tend to think of tropical plants as annuals or as houseplants, but the palm trees we put in baskets, strategically placed on either side of sofas in living rooms that need a little greenery to give the room life, here  are planted alongside our deck as a wonderful wake up call to the true nature of all these beauties.

You wouldn't think a plant from the tropics would do well in a house, but most of these plants are thriving in a low light (jungle floor) environment, so your dining room corner where they only get indirect light but it never gets below 50 degrees is actually perfect for them. Here in Costa Rica it's like your home has been turned inside out and everything has been fed steroids.

Everyone should spend some time in the Jungle. I promise, that if you are a plant nerd like me and you’re heading to the beach down a winding dirt path through the jungle and you come upon a field of spathiphyllum (Peace Lilies) like I did, you too will let out a yelping OMG as loud as I did, and will almost cause your husband to drive the rental car into the drainage ditch that’s been following you towards the sea. I haven’t see as many anthurium as I thought I would, but we’re planning a trip on an upcoming (predicted) rainy day to go searching for them. (I have the best husband!!)

Bromeliads stuck in the dirt next to pizza joint, the grocery store and the fish shop made me laugh as did the tillandias casually sprouting from the branches of citrus fruit trees and telephone wires. Trees wear a variety of pothos with same elan as some woman sport gold jewelry, clustered, and snaking around their entire bodies.

Although I will confess to being totally enthralled by both the solitary sloth and the company of spider monkeys that dangle from the trees as we enjoy our morning coffees, the Monstera (like philodendrons but with sharply incised leaves that's look like Swiss Cheese – thus the common name Cheese Plant) that both were using to transverse the canopy were fairly impressive as well. I went off on a haphazard hike trying to find the Howler monkeys we could hear (but not see) from the pool, and although totally not successful on my monkey search I did discover a couple of pileas, and a few baby tibouchinas that I desperately wanted to bring home with me. The pileas are fabulous houseplants, but tibouchinas aren’t. They are however one of my go to plants for summer color and to pet their fuzzy leaves in February is a total joy.

I tried to get a photo of a Birds nest fern that was taller than my husband by at least a couple of feet but the light was bad. At Marders we sell them in 6 inch pots and stick them in bathrooms.
The difference was revelatory. There were Peperomia like green guys everywhere I looked as well as deffenbachias (Dumb Cane) just casually hanging out. There are rumors of poinsettias trees that are 40’ tall in these parts, but I haven’t spotted one yet. We sell Dracaena Maginata in a variety of sizes in the shop, but nothing came close to the enormous ones we saw just growing along the route we took to our rental  in Costa Rica. Ficus elasticita (Rubber Plants) casually spring up like dandelions, but with much bigger leaves.  

Bill Smith and Dennis Schrader the two brilliant minds behind the Landcraft Tropical Nursery on the North Fork have a home on the Pacific side of the continent where they have made an apparently brilliant garden.  Dennis is the author of Hot Plants for Cool Climates: Gardening with Tropical Plants in Temperate Zones and is one the man to see about bringing tropical into your home and garden both as summer only plants as well as ones that can hang out in your house and I’m dying to visit his home. If it wasn’t a 5 hour trip (one way)from where I now sit typing I’d be poolside at his villa ASAP. Oh and if you've never taken a trip to his North Fork nursery you must try and get there when it’s on the Garden Conservatory tour. It’s a wholesale nursery so you can't just drop in, but the garden amazing, and definitely worth the visit.

I wish I had Dennis with me right now so we could geek out on plants together, and I’m sorry I. missed the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons (HAH) trip there this Past Christmas. I’ve seen what I consider annuals growing in the wild before, a huge lantana in Mexico that was growing larger than my largest viburnums at home and which is actually considered a pesty weed in it’s home town, but Acosta Rica is revelatory.  Yesterday at lunch I sat catty corner to a self sown clump of Ptilotus exaltatus ‘Joey’, a plant I tend to be quite fond of as it has fuzzy, soft pinkish lavender flower spikes, that I love to pet when it’s slow at the nursery.  The patch at lunchtime was growing from the base of a telephone pole that was jammed next to a broken down wall in a sort of Costa Rican hell-strip where the only water it’s getting is whatever has come from the sky. Browallia americana is a native here as are two begonias and the variety of butterfly weed, Asclepius curassavica, that I sometimes use as a cutting flower at home – they last forever in a vase. We grow calathea for its foliage as house plants, here it's a roadside plant that flowers fabulously. The Wandering Jew we know from hospital waiting rooms? Here it's a ground over. And the Crotons, wow, don’t even get me started on the Crotons.

I'm planning a trip to the Finca la Isla Botanic Garden,  a farm that's commercially growing fresh fruit and organic chocolate, just to see the iridescent Jade Vine in all it’s electric turquoise beauty in it’s natural state. I’m in love with the one that's growing in the Bronx Botanic Garden’s Conservatory, the color is off the hook, but to see it growing in the wild, that's certainly worth leaving the spider monkeys behind. Plus they also sell plants and we all know I'm a sucker for a plant shop.

Paige Patterson knows she can't bring any plants home with her but wonders, will anyone notice the baby spider monkey in her pocket.  

Monday, January 23, 2017

Thinking Yellow Thoughts on a Gray Day

I used to say I didn’t want any yellow in my garden, which is sort of strange because I happen to really like all kinds of yellow as a color. I wore yellow, I used yellow in my paintings, I even had yellow in the art I hung on my walls, but I really didn’t want it in my garden. I guess it was because I was just so enamored with pink and blue and lavender and white and I felt that yellow would stand out too much, and be an eyesore. So I planted only white daffodils, banned Black Eyed Susans from all my planting schemes and pooh-poohed forsythia.

Boy have I changed. I now embrace yellow to such a huge extent that not only are a large majority of my roses yellow, but I crave yellow plants for the impact they bring at all seasons of the year. I lusted for and now own a baby yellow rhododendron that I am coddling from a twig to smallish shrub and which I hope becomes a huge statement plant. I have lined the entire back wall of my property with a mass of forsythia that is a wall of electric egg yolk yellow when March is at it’s bleakest and dreariest. I jam clumps of Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Lemon Queen’ into the backgrounds of all my largest flower beds (at my house it grows to 8’ tall) and I invested in a gaggle of Cornelian Cherries (Cornus mas) just to make sure I had something yellow bridging the gap after my witch hazels but before my magnolia’s kicked in and did their thing. I have three yellow magnolias, which made me feel somewhat superior. Then, last year, Marders brought in six different yellow varieties, so now I feel that I have sort of dropped the ball slightly.

I’m not sure if my change of heart about the color yellow came about because I matured, or if I just suddenly realized that if I wanted flowers that bloomed all year long I would have to get over myself and embrace this color. Not only that, but After gardening for a little while, you realize that the high, bright, white light of July and August washes out all those delicate little soft pinks and lavenders and only bold, bright and strong colors really pop when the sun is beating down on them.

Of course it also helped that I fell in love with witch hazels. To be honest, I first noticed a witch hazel when it was doing its fall peacock thing with leaves that looked as if they had been dipped in day-glow paint, yellow, red, maroon and green all on one leaf. It was fantastic, so I started paying attention and noticing them in gardens around town. Honestly, I’d not really noticed them before I started working as a gardener, because in February or early March, when ‘Arnold Promise’ was doing its incredible acid yellow, lemony, blooming thing none of the nurseries I was visiting out here really had them. Or if they did, by the time I started shopping, I’d have missed the blooms, but most of the time the nurseries didn’t have them because most of their customers are not year round gardeners.

Once I was out here full time, and once I realized exactly how important yellow was to battle the dismal grayness of late winter and early spring, I started seeing witch hazels everywhere. I once was actually almost rear ended when I slammed on the brakes after catching a tantalizing glance and at enormous fan shaped wall of something lemon shimmering in the snow that had followed a pretty shallow dusting of snow. The plant was an old one, with what I now know to be it’s classic vase shape, and it was filled with flowers. The gentleman in the car behind me had some choice words for me as he veered around my vehicle, but I was entranced by the possibility of blooms in the snow. I had, of course already invested in two Prunus mume trees, the Japanese apricot that had lent its image to the classic Chinese export pottery pattern referred to as Hawthorn on a Cracked Ice background. They flowers weren’t Hawthorne, but no one outside of China had ever seen a Prunus mume, so they named it after a more familiar flower. The Prunus mume, does however, have a habit of blooming in the snow, both here and in the Far East, so of course I had to have it, especially as Chinese Export Porcelain was a family hobby, but the witch hazel I saw in the snow that day was revelatory, so I tracked one down and bought it immediately.

‘Arnold Promise’ is a cross between two species of Hamamelis, H. japonica and H. mollis and thus is called Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise. I actually now have either 6 or 7 different varieties of these intermedia witch hazels, specifically for the note of electric promise they bring as the days slowly start to get longer. One of my favorites has the most enormous and fragrant flowers, but its leaves are marcescent (meaning the old leaves stay on the tree until the new leaves push them off) which is a bummer as the dead foliage spoils the elegance of the long tassel flowers. It was marked as Luna but I think it was mismarked as Luna’s leaves normally drop long before it blooms. Anyway, I have been adding witch hazels to the garden for at least a decade and planting most of them intentionally at the far back end of the property (where the whole back property line billows with my sea of forsythia) so that when I walk all the way back there, I’m rewarded by things in bloom. Today I took that stroll to cut some branches to force in the house and three of my witch hazels were in bloom. All orange ones of course (so I’ll have to write about orange on another day) but one of the Arnold’s was just starting to push.

It was a balmy 48 degrees, so I also noticed at least a dozen dandelions pushing through the lawn. I have always loved dandelions, and although they self-seed into my flowerbeds like crazy, I leave them up for my bees to feed upon on unusually warm days like today when the girls are tempted to leave their hives. Other flowers of note in bloom today, my Lenten Roses (Helleborus niger), a number of my pussy willows (although not the pink or the black yet) and my Edworthia is looking like it’s getting ready to pop.  Both of my Prunus mumes died last year; I guess the temperature ratcheting from 50 degrees to in the single digits and back up again was just too stressful; or they’d be in bloom. I miss having these trees since no one else had them in the area, much less knew what they were. They weren’t yellow, but they consistently flowered in the snow, which naturally made them plants I adored.

 Paige Patterson’s hydrangea buds have started to crack open, so if the temperatures drop there’s going to be no hydrangea flowers next year. Bummer.

Monday, December 19, 2016

There’s a hole in my heart.

There have been enormous changes in this area in the 50 plus years that I’ve been living here, and there have been many things that I grew up always expecting to remain that no longer do. Wonderful places that no only remain in photographs, super 8 movies, paintings and my memory. These losses are things that pain me deeply.

Georgica Pond used to be covered with lily pads so thick that you couldn’t see the surface of the water as you pushed softly through a haze of dragonflies with your rowboat, your oars lifting the flower stems which slide gently off like the thickest, most elegant green noodles you could ever imagine. Now the waters are 190 acres of dangerously polluted toxic soup.
I used to celebrate my birthday with Mr. Nichol’s and his pony rides on the triangle of land where the western end of Georgica Road bifurcates before joining up with Montauk Highway. I got one free turn for each year of my age and I remember wishing only to be older so that the ride would last longer. If only I was twelve! I think there was a house on the property and a tiny barn where my birthday porters spent shivery winters, but for me it was a tiny slice of heaven. That property, now complete with house and pool, two years ago was for sale for $3.55 million. Bye bye ponies, I miss you.

From the time you crossed the Shinnecock Canal until you got out to Montauk there was only one place where, if you looked south on sunny days, you could see a stretch of silver shimmering just above the dunes, a sliver of the sea. That was Sagaponack and that view is long gone, visible only in the paintings of Barbara Thomas and Sheridan Lord.

The enormous dune that I grew up hiding from the wind behind, building complicated secret dune grass shelters in which imaginary sand fairies played, and in whose sheltering shoulders I reveled in the power of teenaged kiss, was erased by hurricane Sandy, rubbed flat as completely as if it had never existed.

I used to ride my horse bareback from Patsy And Alvin Toppings Swan Creek Farm diagonally northeast to get to Carvel where we would both have soft serve ice cream cones. I had chocolate with chocolate sprinkles and my horse had vanilla with multicolored sprinkles. Then we would swim, or rather my horse would swim and I’d clutch his mane, as we ventured into Kellis Pond to cool off. To get there and back we could have headed straight through the farm fields, without a single house to block our path, the only structure being the strange bowling pin shaped structure (later learned to be a radio transmitter for the East Hampton Airport) that lived in Jack Musnicki’s fields. We stayed on the roads (most of the time) out of respect for the farmer’s crops, but there was never a more incredible open sky view then that of laying flat back on your horse’s wet haunches, reins slack as he walked patiently and determinedly back to the barns, with nothing surrounding you but fields and clouds.
There have always been out here places where you can experience wonder, and when they are gone we mourn their losses deeply. I don’t think it’s just about growing older and losing the ability to see and be and experience life as a child, although that change is, in it’s own way, somewhat devastating, and although I wish I could give the people I love the ability to see this area through the eyes and the heart of my younger self, I wouldn’t want them to share the pain.

Last week we gained more pain.

A part of me died when I watched the fa├žade of the Sag Harbor Movie theatre crumble and fold in upon itself. I know they saved the sign, and that’s great (although it’s not the original sign – that was removed in 2004) but for me that building was a lot more than just a sign.

What makes us mourn a structure? Is it the way the building felt? Or the way we felt when we were within it? Or just the loss of the familiarity of something that has been with us for a long time?
I love the Sag Harbor movie theater and everything it represents. It determinedly persisted in being the theater I remember it to be, and wanted it to stay. A single screen theater, like the one on Southampton once was, with it’s incredible, and to a child, awe inspiring massive chandelier that I still miss, the Sag Harbor movie theater has been with me my entire life. I am a regular now and have always been so. I had planned to see Moonlight there last week, the previous week I had gone with my father to see Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. We’ve been sharing movies there together my entire life.

I loved the seats, even though I know they were uncomfortable. I loved that there were no previews. That the popcorn was not that great. That if this theater didn’t didn’t exist the only way I’d ever see the films they showed would be if I rented them at home. But isn’t that the point of going to the movies? To not be in your home. To step out of your own world and become engulfed in a new one, to sit in a dark room with no hint what’s going on outside the walls, no idea if the sky is blue or black, and just be taken to another place by the way colors and sound have been mixed and rearranged on a huge screen that fills not just your vision, but your whole soul?

I have fallen in love in that building and also had my heart broken. I’m been terrified, overjoyed, disappointed, inspired, agitated, filled with hope, brought to tears, astonished, awed, devastated and laughed until I couldn’t breathe. I sobbed there so hard once that the strangers sitting a few seats over from me offered me not just their tissues, but comfort as well. I’ve been mesmerized, challenged, transported, staggered, amused, educated, and totally swept away.

I’ve been blessed, as have we all, but now that cavernous gaping space on Main Street only reflects the enormous gulf in my chest I feel knowing that The Sag Harbor movie theater is not there anymore. Luckily I know that the reason we love Sag Harbor is that I am not the only person here that relies on these kinds of quirky, non-mainstream, noncommercial stories to keep her whole. And that as a community we will come together to make sure this part of the Hamptons is not going to be lost forever.

Paige Patterson mourns the drive-in too, but in a different way, as that’s where she first saw Dumbo.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Explainations of Acorns

There are about a billion acorns all over the ground this fall and people keep asking me what it means. I had always heard that a huge number of acorns presages a cold winter, a winter that arrives late and is bone achingly cold, but honestly neither I, nor most scientists that study these things, really know what triggers these overabundances.

There are lots of trees that have years of overabundance, and in Europe, where people have kept notes on the fruiting patterns of many species of trees for hundreds of years (because that’s what Europeans do) there’s been no real rhythm or rhyme in environmental clues as to why trees in some years have such a large number of fruit or nuts. 

What we do know is that when oaks do this, they are having what is a called a mast year. The phrase comes from the word masticate, and it refers to any fruit, seeds or nuts that any trees or shrubs produce which could be considered food for animals. A mast year is when a fruiting tree produces 5 to 10 times as many seeds, or fruits or nuts than it normally does. Although these bumper crops are cyclical, the cycles don’t seem to be regular. My apples do this, some years we have crazy heavy crops and the next many of the trees are much lighter, but not all of my varieties of apples do this, so I always have a lot of apples, but not always on all my trees. And it’s not as simple as the heaviest fruiters taking a break the next year. This year I have three trees that aren’t really producing any apples, but none of them are the tree that had the most apples. The tree that made the most apples last year, so many that branches the size of my thigh in diameter snapped and dropped under the weight, was again this year, just plain overwhelmed with apples.

But back to our masting acorn trees. According to some scientists, the phenomenon might be weather related, and since acorns take one to two years to form and fall (depending on the species), it would be the temperature and precipitation (or lack of it) from the previous year that determined the rate of acorn production from year to year. Unfortunately, it’s not can’t be quite that simple, since masting trees tend to happen simultaneously across a geographic area so large that the weather patterns within it are too diverse to be the only cause.

Some believe this widespread synchronization is caused by a chemical signal or cue the trees are giving off that triggers them to have such abundance. Another thought is that masting trees are just the results of trees that are have succeeded in maximizing the efficiency of their pollen. If all the oaks everywhere can release their pollen simultaneously, they will have a seriously improved their chances of germination and thus increased acorn production.

Every year oak trees drop acorns, acorns they’ve produced to guarantee they have offspring. These offspring are the way to ensure the future of the oak population, so each year every oak tree should try to produce more acorns than they need to, just to make up for those that the various squirrels, turkeys, chipmunks, voles, deer and mice (the masticators) are going to eat up over the winter. And this is the basis of the last theory on masting trees.

In a regular year a single oak tree will produce thousands of acorns, but in a mast year it can produce up to 10,000 acorns. This strange occasional cycling of massive amounts of produce and then a dearth (boom and bust) means that the acorn predators are kept off balance. If a tree produced the same amount of seeds or apples or nuts every year, the predators of those seeds, apples and nuts would have a reliable food source and would just keep growing in population until there were enough of them that the would gobble up every single thing these trees dropped, and there would be no chance for the trees to have offspring. Have a few years when there are not a lot of acorns (a series of bust years) and the population that’s been dining on their nuts will starve and crash. Then, if you can follow a bust year with a boom year or two, and the predator population has crashed, some of your boom year acorns will have a significantly better chance to sprout and become seedling oaks. Evolution will of course favor those trees that reproduce the best, and the ones that do it by tricking their predator population with mast years seem to be leading the way.

There are two additional side effects things to a mast year of which we need to be mindful. First that when there’s plenty of food for the voles and squirrels and mice, the following year there will be plenty of food for the predators of these small mammals, the raptors.  This is great news, and I’m super excited that this abundance of acorns means that the owl and hawk populations are going to explode. Unfortunately one of the top acorn eaters in our area is the white-footed mouse, and when there’s an explosion of acorns, the following year there’s normally an explosion of these mice, the same mice that are really more responsible for the deer tick population in our neck of the woods than the deer they are named after.

So more acorns also means more mice which means mores ticks which means more Lyme disease. Sigh. Thanks acorns.

On a side note, when I tried to explain the cycling of the acorns to my husband Dereyk, he asked why if all these other mammals ate acorns, humans didn’t and I proudly got to tell him that acorns are actually a great source of protein, fat, carbohydrates, potassium, vitamin C, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and niacin and that the Iberian ham made from pigs fed on a diet consisting mostly of acorns is thought to taste as good as it does because the high level of anti-oxidants in the acorns prevents lipid oxidation in the ham. And of course I added that I had, in fact, once eaten dotorimuk, a thick Jell-O like substance made from acorns when I was dining in a monk run vegetarian restaurant in Seoul, but that I wouldn’t make acorns a staple in our food pantry, since most species contained high levels of tannins that make them awfully astringent and bitter to the palette. And that acorns were once considered a staple food substance for Native Americans and that the ancient Greeks partook of them as well.

Dereyk just shook his head at me and said that right there was a perfect description of the kinds of people we were. That I was a person who ate acorns and he was a person that only ate things that ate acorns. And that he thought he was on the better team, but that next time I had the acorn Jell-O I should ask them to make it with a lot more sugar.

Paige Patterson is STILL picking up apples from all over her yard.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Being a biophiliac

I discovered a new word today, one that I wish to throw around with wild abandon and share with everyone. Biophilia. A word first used by Erich Fromm, a German born American psychoanalyst in his 1973 treatise The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a word he categorized as being, “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.”

This word is brilliant. This is a word that explains everything about the choices I made as I've moved forward and deeper into the world I define as my own. It encompasses everything I believe in. That I am happiest when I am able to walk on the beach with my toes digging deeply into the sand. That when I'm out of sorts I can go outside and stroke the leaves of my trees and change my mood. That just noticing that my tulpelo tree (Nyssa sylvatica) is a female and thus is covered with tiny black fruits with which the birds are celebrating will lift me to a different place than where I was before I spotted them. That no matter how stressed I am, spending a moment or two scratching a furry critter's head will make me breathe easier. It’s why carrying a twig of the electric fall foliage of a witch hazel around the garden and sometimes sticking it behind my ear changes my outlook on everything. I’m thrilled to possess this word.  

According to Edward O. Wilson, the entomologist Curator of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and a Pulitzer Prize winner, who wrote a book titled Biophilia in 1984, this condition is, "the urge to affiliate with other forms of life." It is this urge, he posits, that when followed, brings us to places of great joy.  And it is an urge that every human on the planet feels. In his book Wilson hypothesizes that it is this innate relationship we have with the natural world that will allow us to perhaps save it. He talks about how we not only have a practical dependence on nature (without clean water and usable soil we would all die) but that we also find solace and peace and emotional sustenance through our direct interactions with nature.

The natural world inspires us to make art, we find it’s sounds soothing and it’s visuals beautiful. Thus landscape painting and ocean recording to send us to sleep. I challenge anyone to find the sound of rain on a tin roof upsetting. We mimic its smells to make both ourselves and our homes more enticing, and are uplifted by the appearance of a rainbow for no other reason than it is beautiful. We create strong emotional attachments with both the land and with it’s other many creatures, and it’s all of this combined that makes us whole.

But many of us have grown disconnected from that wholeness, especially our children. They don’t have the same easy way with their natural surroundings that I, and many of their parents did. And it’s sad. It’s easy to blame technology, especially when you watch people you love staring at their various screens instead of watching the clouds rapidly shape shift on windy days. I want to drag those kids into the garden with me. I feel like an old person whenever I start a sentence with, “When I was that age….” But it’s true. When I was that age my world was accessible only by bicycle and I didn’t have a computer to play on. I had the back yard or a park or a garden or fields, woods and the beach. I knew that fall was not far away when the dragonflies thickened above my head and that winter was coming because of the smell in the air. I burned leaves, I climbed trees and I played in the dirt. I picked up caterpillars and tried to get butterflies to land on my nose. I had an intimate relationship with my outdoors, whether pressing fall foliage in the family’s heaviest dictionary, or cuddling with kittens in a farming friend’s hayloft. I wish I could force these experiences on the children I know and love, but it doesn’t work that way. They have to be coaxed, not dragged.

I was in a bad mood this morning, having not slept well and having worriedly spun myself up over all sorts of mental noodles, and I was irritated that I had to get up extra early to forage for a class I was teaching on how to decorate with things you can find outdoors. The trunk of my car wasn’t working and I couldn’t find the clippers I wanted and I broke a dried allium seed head I had hoped to use for this year’s Christmas tree as a star, so I started off the day pretty cranky. Gathering armfuls of purple and red foliage, slicing aged, faded, pink tardiva like panicle hydrangea flowers on arm length long stems and clipping branches ladened with berries helped. Noticing the bees leaving the hives in their endless search for sweetness helped. Smelling the errant mint that was captured by mistake with handfuls of purple flowered monkshood helped. The sky being electric blue helped as did the wind that blew all the anger from within my soul as it whipped my hair around my head like a wound up basket of cobras being directed by an overly enthusiastic snake charmer. By the time I got to work and started assembling all my pieces into an enormous vase I was calmer. And thankful. And happy.

I want to share this feeling, this biophilia, with everyone. I want to scream from the rooftop that everything is better when we stay connected with the natural world. I want to take each and every one of you out on the same walk I made through my garden this morning and share the way my brain’s song changed from strident and jagged to melodious. Let us all get muddy together, let us walk through rivers up to our knees and have the socks in our boots get soggy. Let us rub up against another living thing that isn’t human and whisper to it all our secrets, both fabulous and burdensome. Let us breathe deeply of this fresh fall air and embrace all that nature has surrounded us with. Let us reek with gratitude.

Paige Patterson has seven nonhumans cuddled up with her on the couch this evening and couldn’t be happier.