Monday, January 31, 2011

A World Away ― Pelargonium

This fragrant variety is called 'Old Fashioned Rose"

A World Away, a series, which begins on January 28th, continues with this scented-leaf Pelargonium (geranium), native to South Africa. It thrives in the greenhouse and loves to be outdoors in the summer garden. Lightly rubbing the deeply-cut, lacy leaves releases a delicious rose scent and takes me a world away from winter.

The late, great Adelma Grenier Simmons, founder of the now defunct Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, Connecticut, loved Scented Geraniums. She purchased a deserted farm in 1929 and began raising goats. But after a summer drought when everything died but the herbs, she believed she'd been "spoken to," hence Caprilands, which is Latin for goat lands, was born.

I was lucky to meet her in 1991 when she was still in good health and her wit was sharp. The following excerpt is from one of her many books, Breath of the Past: The Little Book of Scented Geraniums:

In the early days of the 17th century, Dutch and English sailing ships brought these sweet smelling geraniums home after their long voyages to the South African Cape. By 1870 they had gained such popularity that over 150 varieties were listed in growers catalogs. The name Pelargonium was derived from the resemblance of the seed case of the blossom to a stork's bill. Pelargonium is the Latin name for stork.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A World Away ― Camellias

This pink camellia (C. japonica) has classic and exquisite form

These striped camellias remind me of 'Rosa Mundi,'
a Gallica rose famous for its dashes of red stripes.

This post is part of a series I'm calling A World Away (it begins on January 28th). The sight of these camellias in full bloom is one of the best ways I know to banish the winter blues.

Nearly 200 years ago the fashion among the privileged class in Boston was growing camellias in glasshouses to provide rare winter bloom. The sight of them blooming this winter is a tonic for the soul.

Camellias are native to southeastern Asia, belong to the small plant family, Theaceae or tea family, and there are three distinct groups. Much remains to be discovered about this genus, which occurs over a wide area that is mountainous and rugged, and where little botanical work has been done. New species are still being discovered.

To learn more, visit the
American Camellia Society.

A World Away will continue...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A World Away ― Orchids

These purple and white orchids have an ethereal appearance
and these beauties have a sweet, gardenia like fragrance.
But neither these orchids nor any of the other flowers in the greenhouse can surpass the alluring beauty of Marguerite, the cat in residence. See what I mean as this series called, A World Away, continues...

Friday, January 28, 2011

A World Away

When I walk into the greenhouse and close the door behind me, I leave winter behind and enter another world.

If you're feeling winter weary, come along with me in a series of posts I'm calling A World Away.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

50+ in 30

Too many snow scenes like this one

Beset, overwhelmed, major case of cabin fever ― all describe how we humans are feeling after more than 50 inches of snow have fallen in the last 30 days.

Now, think of the wildlife. Winter is always a struggle for them (unless you happen to be a wolverine), but this much snow on the ground makes it nearly impossible for wildlife to forage or travel any distance to find food.

The flock of wild turkeys is doing what comes naturally in a severe weather event like this ― staying put and relying on sheltered roosting sites, fresh water, birdseed and evergreens. They're very resourceful, finding insects hidden inside window mullions and along bare patches where the house foundation meets gravel and earth. But it's rough going.

Wait it out, that's all we can do.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cold Turkey

Eastern Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris)
soak up the sun on a bitter cold January afternoon
(click on the photo for a close up view)

They may be tough, but these turkeys could use a break during what has become an especially hard winter. We've had six storms with record snowfalls since the year began and in this part of Massachusetts the snow banks are waist high. Tonight, temperatures are falling well below zero, and arctic winds that have been howling since sunset will make it feel even colder.

However, I'm betting that this flock, 17 strong, will survive. Five mature Toms, six Hens and six young birds, born last spring, seem like a good combination. The Toms and Hens are experienced and know how to find food even in deep snow. I've observed them pecking for insects inside patches of treebark, eating hemlock pinecone seeds, which are still abundant, and they're experts at finding rose hips and other fruits that still linger on many trees and shrubs.

These turkeys will eat some birdseed but seem to regard it as just a supplement. Still, this winter every bit helps, like fresh, clean water in the heated birdbath and stands of tall trees to roost in at night. It's impressive to watch the flock fly up to their roosts. Just as the sun lowers in the sky they become restless and begin flapping their wings and scuttling up and down the road. Then, one by one, they fly skyward on some cue, perceptible to them alone. The young birds perform a kind of runway ritual in order to get the altitude required to fly to the highest tree branches. The Toms do a quick hop dance, but the Hens are the most graceful and usually the first to fly. The last bird up is a Tom; he waits until everyone gets safely to bed before going up himself.

Red foxes are out and about these nights. They returned two weeks ago to establish their dens and rendezvous with their mates. During a morning snowstorm last week, a red fox slept on a mound of snow just beyond a hemlock grove where the flock of turkeys had taken cover and were preening. His red coat stood out garishly against the white ground, and his massive tail looked like a warm muff curled around his head. The turkeys were not nervous as long as he was within sight.

Some people talk about "the dead of winter," but when you observe wildlife you understand how wrong that notion is. In my corner of the world winter is very much alive. Wild turkeys strut and call as the day warms up and red foxes are claiming their dens to mate. A new life cycle is already beginning and Spring will arrive in only six more weeks.

Looking up into the trees at night and seeing the dark shapes of sleeping turkeys against a starlit sky is enormously comforting and brings me a great deal of joy. Even the coldest night skies can be magical and beautiful. During last week's Full Wolf Moon, I could have sworn that the stars actually glittered as I watched the sky turn a silvery blue.

When I come and go on these winter nights, I find myself wondering what wild turkeys think about in their treetop roosts beneath the stars. And even after I enter my warm, bright home, I wish somehow I could be a part of their world as much as they have become a part of mine.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


A swaddled Moonshadow is ready for her eye ointment

Moonshadow has a minor eye infection and just getting the medication into her eye is a real challenge because she puts up such a fuss.

So, when her Mom asked if I would come by and help, I was happy to oblige because I like tending to animals, and because it seemed like some eerie karmic mission, which I wanted to accept.

My beloved Maine Coon cat Rachmaninoff developed an eye infection when he was just a kitten, but the breeder chose not to treat him because he was born with a heart murmur, which meant that he would not fetch her a good price. And so, she dumped him, but fortunately, he fell into the hands of some incredibly dedicated people who cherish this breed and all animals.

Weeks later, Fate brought him to me and the first thing I did was take him to a veterinary ophthalmologist. Sadly, the infected eye was permanently damaged by then, but Rock's vision in his good eye was perfect and he went on to live a normal and happy life. The veterinary ophthalmologist called the breeder's negligence "withholding medication for a treatable condition."

Thereafter, for the 18 years that I was lucky to have my Rock, he needed eye ointment in his good eye every day to make sure it stayed that way. (And it did!) Putting his ointment in became just another routine, like brushing your teeth. The fact that Rock was always an amazingly cooperative patient made it super easy.

Putting medicine in Moonie's eye reminded of the days when my Rock was still with me. Though it's now going on two years since he died, I continue to miss him very much.

"It's a two-person job," Moonie's Mom told me. But I knew that once I swaddled her (I wrapped her in two large bath sheets) she would calm down and allow me to get exactly the right amount of ointment into her eye. As soon as I did, I let her go, saying, "Have a nice day." The less you make of these treatment sessions, the better. Afterward, she didn't seem to hold it against me.

At last, this Moonchild is on the mend!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Secret Lives of Eels

Photograph by David Doubilet
(click on the photo for a better view)

I have a massive backlog of reading material and last night I tried to catch up, beginning with the September 2010 issue of National Geographic Magazine (yes, the original print edition is still in publication and better than ever), and I was thrilled to come across Eels, Mystery Travelers, by James Prosek, an excerpt from his recently published book, Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish.

Eels have long held a fascination for me for reasons I can't quite explain. I have been known to purchase adult eels at bait shops only to set them free (they spend their adult lives in fresh water) because it pains me so to see these wild, wide-roaming fish confined. I know that the eels I release may end up as captives again, but whatever freedom I can give them seems worthwhile.

Overfishing and a never-ending demand for eels in Asia is putting enormous pressure on these fish. Eels are also taken from our own waters (Maine is the most active eel fishery) and shipped to markets in Japan and China. I believe that under most circumstances, removing a creature from its wild habitat is wrong anyway. But then to ship eels, as if they were merely merchandise and not living beings, thousands of miles away to be "consumed" by people who regard them only as food and do not value their important role in marine ecology, well, I find that downright disturbing. I know it's happening every day but that doesn't make it right.

Eels, like other fish and animals have become "products" of a consumer mentality that demonstrates how disconnected we are from the origins of our food. The decline of eels is another example of how mankind takes more than he needs again and again to satisfy his insatiable desire for profit. I am sorry to see these magical and ancient creatures caught up in our industrial wheel. They face enough obstacles in their efforts to perpetuate their own kind.

There is still so much we don't understand about the life cycle of eels. In many ways, like Prosek, I hope we never do; that is part of their mystique and it may ensure their survival. However, protecting them is becoming critical and such knowledge can be used to preserve the species.

I have met some Maori people on my own travels in New Zealand, and so I was not suprised to learn that they revere eels. "On Earth, the movements of eels make the rivers flow. The eel is integral to everything," say some Maori.

Without the amazing work of underwater photographer David Doubilet, this story would not be as compelling as it is. Click here to read more about him and his incredible images. Below is an excerpt from National Geographic:

"…The migrations millions of adult eels make from rivers across oceans must be among the greatest unseen journeys of any creature on the planet, spanning thousands of miles. Along the way they face a long list of dangers: hydroelectric dams, river diversions, pollution, disease, predation (by striped bass, beluga whales, and cormorants, among others), and increasingly, fishing by humans. Now, with climate change, another potential disaster looms: shifts in ocean currents that may confound eels during their migrations. Regrettably, although sublime in the eyes of some, the eel is not likely to be the poster child for a conservation movement anytime soon."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year, New Life

Mother Jade (left) embracing daughter Moonshadow

Who would have guessed that the year 2011 would bring such good fortune to this pair of Siamese cats? I met Jade (Chocolate Point, 14) and her daughter Moonshadow (Blue Point, 9) in October, just days after their mother had passed away, and immediately began a campaign to find them a new home.

I felt certain that an absolutely wonderful home was already waiting for them and had a strong sense that the people who would dearly want Jade and Moonie had recently lost a cat of their own.

I turned to my amazing network of animal friends who did their utmost to help me get the word out. But it was slow going and the wait became disheartening. Then, one day I received a message from a family who wrote to tell me that they had recently lost a beloved Siamese and that his mate was disconsolate. Would they be able to meet Jade and Moonie? And would I like to meet their lonely and grieving boy to get a sense of whether all three would get along?

Theirs was the perfect home I had envisioned, filled with love and laughter. A box in the family room overflowed with cat toys, photographs of beloved Siamese that had lived out their lives filled frames and photo albums. These were long time Siamese lovers who knew and understood the breed. Their boy was sad but allowed me to hold him in my arms and kiss his cheek! Looking into his eyes, I sensed he was ready to make a new start.

On New Year’s Day Jade and Moonie left the only home they had ever known to begin a new life just a few miles away. It was a blessing that they were able to remain in their familiar surroundings until their new home was found, but without their mother, that home had become a monument to grief and loss.

Siamese cats often live into their twenties and having a new lease on life and a brother to play with may make the coming years some of the happiest Jade and Moonie have known. They will be much loved by people who understand that animals grieve the same way we do. Together, feline and human family members will help each other grieve and move on.

While searching for Jade and Moonie's new home, I have felt their mother’s spirit lingering, as if in worry for the fate of her girls. May she now rest in peace.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Peace and plenty

A flock of wild turkeys at rest in a hemlock grove

A flock of wild turkeys has stayed on to help usher in the New Year. Watching them preen their iridescent feathers and soak up the sun as temperatures reached 60 degrees did my heart good.

In winter the flock must spend most of the day in a relentless search for food. But today they were able to enjoy a peaceful interlude in between foraging among piles of leaves I left standing in the garden. Many insects can survive the winter in these leaf piles and are an excellent source of protein for turkeys and other wildlife.

This is the first winter for some members of the flock, but a bounty of bugs, a bit of corn and a warm sunbath in a peaceful place where they are safe from predators can help them make it to spring.