Is Nature Cruel?

As children develop an awareness of the world, they often grapple with the question of whether or not nature is cruel.  Maybe as adults we still have occasion to wonder.  Plants and animals are meeting their survival needs, continually evolving as species in ways that ensure that survival.  Claws, poisons, sharp teeth, thorns, and other defense mechanisms can seem cruel or savage, especially when considered in human terms.  We can see that the wasp was just defending its home, but this is hard to explain to a child who has just been stung.

Humans are a part of nature.  Is violence among humans acceptable then?  Are we just doing what nature does?  I don’t think so.  Our higher developed conscience carries understandings that foster responsibilities toward other life on earth, be it our species or others.   Also, we are circumnavigating evolution in many ways with our health care advances and our ability to better protect ourselves from natural disasters.  We are setting ourselves apart from nature for better or worse.  Sometimes we seem incredibly advanced when I think of how much society and culture have changed over the last 10,000 years.  Then I think of all the war, poverty, and crime that still exist.  We don’t seem so advanced when I consider all the human rights violations that occur daily across our planet.  We can probably never fully consider the needs of other species if we continue to denigrate our own species.

This is a huge and heavy topic!  Yet, every summer I think about this subject when I find a parasitized tobacco hornworm in my garden.  My feelings when I see this small part of a food web in action do not make sense.  Before I had chickens, I would toss any hornworms over the fence, hoping they’d make it on their own, but figuring they probably wouldn’t.  At least the problem of them dying – of me killing them – wasn’t in my ‘backyard’ anymore.  Sometimes though, this callous act of mine would bother me enough to let one or two live, munching away on my prize tomatoes, because I love the beautiful Carolina Sphinx moth they become when they metamorphose.  Now I feed any hornworms I find to my chickens, relishing the omega-3 fatty acids that will end up in my eggs someday.   Isn’t a quick death more humane than starving to death on the other side of the fence?

The tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta, feeds on plants in the Solanaceae family.  Every year an adult female moth finds my tomato plants and lays her small green eggs on the underside of the leaves.  I marvel at the adaptations that allow a flying insect to find the exact host it needs for its eggs, especially when the species is host specific like the relationship between Monarchs and milkweeds.  Anyway, these little caterpillars grow fast and eat voraciously.  They are so well camouflaged that I usually don’t notice them until their frass gets big enough.  Frass is another name for poop, scientists’ way of sounding professional.  Yes, the caterpillar’s poop gives it away!  There are caterpillars that actually fling their frass away from the leaf, presumably to make it more difficult for predators to find them.  However, the hornworm species hasn’t ‘figured’ this out yet.

Tobacco Hornworm

Any garden plant we want to harvest is part of a very small food chain.  In the case of the tomato, its food chain consists of:  sun to plant to me!  The word to represent arrows which show the direction of the flow of energy.  Now, I wouldn’t get that tomato if a bee or other nectar-seeking insect didn’t pollinate the flowers, but that is a separate food chain connected to the food chain illustrated above.  Two, or more, food chains connected together denote a food web.  It would have a second arrow going from plant to bee (I’ve left out the decomposing part of these chains for simplicity’s sake).

We know that pollination has to happen for any plant in which we eat the fruit: tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, apples, etc.  So our simple food chain is already not so simple.  Enter the tobacco hornworm.  The caterpillar is a member of a third food chain we could add to this web, and he and I are in competition for that tomato.  It’s getting more complicated.  Then, if you’re unlucky, another creature joins the scene, the creature that inspired the topic of this post.  This creature just wants to insure the survival of its offspring.  Now this is where it gets gruesome, at least to me.

There is a parasitic braconid wasp that lays it eggs inside the body of the tobacco hornworm.  When the wasp larvae hatch, they feed on the juices of the caterpillar.  By the time I find the tobacco hornworm with small white egg-like projections on its body, it is way too late.  These white projections are not eggs; they are the cocoons of the wasp larvae, which migrated (bore their way to the outside of their host’s body) before beginning to pupate.  When metamorphosis is complete, they will fly away as adult wasps.

One would think I’d be thrilled.  I don’t have to kill these caterpillars myself, problem solved, tomatoes saved.  But I’m not thrilled.  I’m horrified.  I’ve studied ecology.  I know this is just nature’s way, but part of me thinks oh how cruel!  Something strange happens every time I stumble on a parasitized caterpillar.  Those same caterpillars that I usually curse and view as nasty voracious eaters.  When I see those cocoons and know what happened, I actually feel sorry for it.  I can’t really empathize, and I don’t want to know what it feels like to be eaten from the inside out while still alive, energy fading day by day, but I just feel sad seeing it languishing.  I leave it alone.  There is nothing I can do for it.

I’m not sure I can say plants and animals are cruel despite my horror at the thought of dissolving from the inside out.  Humans, however, are known to be cruel to each other and to other species.  I am guilty – stinkbugs in my house get squished or flushed or squished and flushed.  How can we practice more compassion for other life forms?  Plant more trees, let a snake slither away, slow down on the roads, help a turtle cross the street, and, remember from last week’s post, don’t litter!  Next time you see a spider in the house you could consider a capture and release – something my daughter and I do.  These are small simple steps, but I think they matter.   And next year, I’ll plant a few more tomato plants and I won’t feed all the hornworms to my chickens.

Elusive Neighbors

The call came during dinner with friends on the porch, as dusk was blanketing us.  Do you hear that?   It spooks some people at first, but I love it.  I delight in being able to share this night mystery.  Sometimes the call comes as I’m reading before bed. It floats into the room, mixing with the story I’m reading, a new character begging to be heard.  I am always enchanted.  I don’t just smile; I feel like a kid again.  Something stirs inside me, a vestigial of childhood questions reminding my soul there are still wonders to discover.  Who’s calling?  Megascops asio, the Eastern Screech Owl.

I think of a screech as an unpleasant sound.  A tire squeals and we cringe, expecting a crash of metal.  Fingernails scraping on a chalkboard make us shiver reflexively.  I’ve never heard our screech owls screech.  They most commonly make a trill sound that reminds me of a sad horse whinny.  I don’t know if horses can sound sad, but this is what comes to my mind.  You can hear screech owl sounds on this Cornell Lab of Ornithology link: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Screech-Owl/sounds

It makes sense that the owl got its name for a reason and most likely a screech sound is an alarm call.   The bottom of the following link has more vocalizations, including one labeled as a screech.  It is screech-like, though I’d call it more of a wail. http://www.theowlfoundation.ca/SpeciesInfo/specieseaso.htm

Screech owls are small birds.  Adults are only 6-9 inches tall, and this is when they stand tall, all stretched out.  They are nocturnal and crepuscular in habit – I often hear them in the morning around 7 am.  These traits make them hard to notice; I only know they live at Halcyon because of their calls.  I have seen screech owls up close, and fed them, when I volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center in New Jersey.  They are incredibly cute, yet are reported to be fierce hunters.  They were the most common bird of prey visitor at the wildlife center because, when hunting along roadsides, cars frequently hit them.  Mice have learned that trash, often containing food leftovers, can be found alongside roads.  In turn, owls have learned that roadsides are a good place to hunt.  That is, until a car approaches.  Owls whose eyesight is damaged or who are unable to fly again cannot be released back into the wild.  I am reminded of those owls living the rest of their days in a cage whenever I see litter, and I’ve taught my kids that even something as benign as an apple should not be thrown out car windows.

Tossing an apple to the side of the road seems harmless.  It is easy to not anticipate all the ramifications of a single action.  I wonder how many species I harm inadvertently in my daily actions at Halcyon – I know I harm the grasshoppers I feed to the chickens, but this is purposeful – and I wonder how many species I might help instead.  I understand my actions can be both harmful and helpful in general, but I’d like to recognize the chain of events that follow a single act.  I suppose these events are not scripted any more than our lives are scripted, and there isn’t one constant chain of events that happens for any one action.  There have been several grasshoppers this week that just happened to be at the right place at the wrong time.

My family cleans up a mile-long stretch of our road every year for our county’s annual trash pick-up day.  I quietly curse the nature of a person who can litter with no compunctions.  I wouldn’t come to their house and leave a mess. I assume they don’t think about mice or screech owls when they litter any more than they think about the person who owns the property they’ve just ‘trashed’.  I assume they just think about themselves, or worse, they don’t think at all.  I however, don’t just think about how the road looks prettier for me as I clean it up.  I think about how it is safer for owls and other small animals, and how I’ve helped mitigate my daily harm to the environment, one small act at a time.  I eagerly await the call of my small, elusive neighbors each night.

Eastern Screech Owl – photo taken from Tennessee Aquarium website:http://www.tnaqua.org/OurAnimals/Birds/EasternScreechOwl.aspx

 

A Little Help from a Friend

Motivation is something teachers and parents think about often.  We struggle for ways to instill intrinsic rather than extrinsic factors that motivate children to work harder, read more, show kindness, and in general, reach their potential.

Sometimes though, I think a little extrinsic push helps.  I don’t need candy or stickers to go weed the garden, but some cool and dry fall weather sure would help.  Instead, I woke Thursday to a downpour.  Again.  It rained five times in the first six days of September and I’m starting to feel a little moldy.  I let a funk slide over me as I sat down to rearrange my plans for the day.  As I was moping and, not to be completely lazy, writing a letter to my daughter, I got a text from a friend.  In essence she said how lucky I was to be able to enjoy the rain.  Her words jolted me; they were just what I needed.  She was right.  I am lucky.  I shouldn’t be moping about a little rain.  Within minutes I finished my letter, donned jeans and boots, and headed out to the garden.

It certainly needed my attention.  Volunteer squash plants that delighted me in July were almost scary.  And while we have enjoyed some weird looking, but tasty cucumbers, the other squash forms maturing did not look appetizing.  I pulled them all out.  Their stalks were as thick as my forearm and made wet pops as I bent them, sounding like the beginning of a song played on PVC pipes.

Next, came the butternut squash I did plant.  This is the first year I’ve succeeded in keeping the squash bugs at bay.  I’ve been admiring seven butternut squash as they’ve grown from the size of my pinky to the size of my 9 x 9 baking dish, cut in half and decorated with butter and brown sugar of course.  The plant has been dying back for several weeks, but I was not sure when to harvest the fruit.  Given all the rain and the discovery of some black mold colonies forming, I decided it was time.  I washed off the mold and they are curing in the kitchen.

I weeded other areas too.  I picked beans that are still producing.  They give us enough for a vegetable serving every few days.  I picked my first radish and was so excited that I planted another row right away.  They’ll be ready in just 30 days.  In between all this weeding, I had a little fun.  I took any slug or caterpillar I found eating my vegies, and any grasshopper I could catch, to the chickens.  I quickly learned the mine, mine call they make when one chick deems an offering tasty and snatches it, running from the others.  The caterpillars on my chard were refused, while grasshoppers caused quite a scrabble.

I stayed outside for about two hours, weeding and listening to my chicks.  By this time my jeans had wicked water from the grass almost to my knees, and the mosquitos had not only found me, but also notified the whole neighborhood that there was fresh blood out and about.  I came in happy though.  My intrinsic motivation was restored with a few extrinsic words and some hard work.  Thanks LA.

 

 

Moving Day

We finished the coop yesterday and the girls are ready to move.  I am more than ready for this move since they are getting too big to have inside.  They love to come out of their cage when we come to visit, but are starting to fly to the couch, or if one spooks the rest causing a tangle of wings, feet, and beaks, a surprised bird finds herself on my head or farther in the room than she’s ever ventured.  No more calm little chickies walking around, they need a space of their own.

Coop is ready for some chickens!

The run portion of the coop is 32 square feet and the coop area is 16 square feet.  From what I’ve read this means I could raise between 4 and 8 birds depending on size and how often we move the coop for fresh foraging.  I opted to start small.  Right now the run looks spacious, but the girls are not even half grown.  Eight square feet per bird though does seem sufficient.

I took a good look at the coop this morning before initiating the transfer from indoor cage to outdoor coop.  I knew the coop would never look this nice again, just as a brand new house with fresh paint looks before a toddler with a need for creative outlet crafts Picasso-like, one-of-a-kind art on the walls.  The elements and seasons would weather the outside, and the chickens would decorate the inside, daily, with copious amounts of art best suited for my compost.

The coop cost about $200.00 to build.  This is considerably less than any coop I found online, all of which needed assembling anyway, or were too heavy to deliver to a residential address.  This cost does not include factoring in our labor.  It took 24 combined man, woman, and kid-hours to complete.  As I’ve found with our own house, though, the satisfaction from a do-it-yourself job is a hard thing to measure, and mystically seems to offset the time, sweat equity, and sometimes the frustration involved.  I’m pretty sure the girls will appreciate our efforts.

Finally it was time to introduce the chickens to their home.  I opened their cage and placed it, facing inward, at one of the side doors. They were definitely interested and excited, as noted by their chirping sounds, but no one ventured into the big open space right away.  After a few minutes, Darky entered the coop and the other girls followed.  I put my camera down so I could shut the door quickly because Pirate, our dog, was outside with us.  By the time I did, all four girls were back in the comforts of their cage.  This was not going to be easy.  They love being outside in the grass and dirt, but all the previous times I brought them out, I just tilted their cage into a penned in enclosure.  Tilting would not work this time.

Transferring chicks to new home

Finally I resorted to placing them in the coop.  This became a mini-exercise in juggling because, as I was reaching in to get a second bird out of the cage, the first one was coming out of the coop.  I had one hand blocking the bird trying to exit, one hand on the bird I wanted to add to the coop, and one eye on Pirate.  By the time there were three birds in the coop it got easier.  There is comfort in numbers, they say.  As soon as all four birds were in, they started enjoying the green carpet, eating some leaves, finding and eating ants on the wood frame, and scratching and preening.  I sat down to watch.  Which reminds me, the coop did have another cost.  I wanted a bench in the garden so I could sit and watch the chickens when we let them out in the evenings.  I figure all gardens need a good bench anyway.  I sat down to watch and suddenly I was filled with beginner questions.  How would I get them to go upstairs to roost tonight?  Will they understand what to do with the nest boxes when it is time to use them, months from now?  Did we really make it as predator-proof as possible?  How long will it take until they are not afraid of noises from planes or storms or crows?  Crows?  I realized there were several crows calling and the girls were silent and huddled.  One chick was making a low guttural sound very different from their chatty let’s-look-for-bugs-in-the-grass chirps.  Maybe all birdcalls are a cause for caution or maybe chickens can’t discern a hawk call from a crow call.

Turns out the chickens are smarter than I about the crows.  Well, I’d feel better to say their instincts are better honed.  Crows are apparently not only yet another of the many chicken predators at large, but crafty at their role.  They are known to observe the goings on at poultry farms, noting the movements of chicks, and attacking at times most advantageous to success.  The poetic phrase for a group of these small black birds – a murder of crows – insidiously crept into my thoughts as I watched my chickens warily listening to the caws. And now as I write, it seems the crows are very active today.  Their caws are frequent and ominous and their sentries fly off from the trees surrounding the garden each time I check on the girls.

I knew I would worry about the chickens the first few nights, but I hadn’t counted on crafty murderers, on critters working in pairs or groups, or even on anything noticing the chickens so fast.  My imagination was not helping to calm my worries so I went to vacuum the room the chickens had been raised in, protected from marauding crows.  As I worked, small light-gray downy feathers took flight on the air expelled by the vacuum.  I felt sad.  These lone feathers, unattached to a bird made the move to an outdoor coop seem more serious.  It reminded me of finding socks or some other remnant of my daughter’s while vacuuming her room.  She’s left the nest too, flown off to college, exploring a world far vaster than chickens have to face.  I don’t know just how much I have imprinted on the chickens, but they sure have made a big impression on me.  It’s not just about fresh eggs anymore.  There is something less tangible about our relationship.  I shut off the vacuum, heard more crows calling, and wondered if it is going to rain tonight.  I might have to camp outside.

Home Sweet Home

Chance Encounters

One day in late July I had a chance encounter.  I might not have been so surprised if I had put two and two together while picking tomatoes the previous evening.  I stretched to reach a beautiful, small yellow tomato only to discover that something else had beaten me too it.  One side had a nice-sized bite taken out.  The next day I was cutting out brown leaves and I spotted a box turtle, my tomato thief.  This happens every year, and I don’t really mind.  Then I noticed the turtle was sitting on its hind legs.  Huh?  What a weird position.  Was it reaching for a tomato? That’s when I noticed another turtle shell right in front of the sitting turtle.  Ah, of course.  I have never seen turtles mating, but I knew that’s what was going on.

Sex in the garden!  Sure I know it happens all the time.  This is why I have to check my squash plant for squash bugs, my potatoes for the Colorado potato beetle, and my tomatoes for tobacco hornworms.  So what’s the big deal?  Well, usually I don’t see the act itself.  I encountered the baby rabbits in my garlic bed when they were a few weeks old, and they undoubtedly weren’t conceived there.  The black rat snake eggs were discovered in my mulch pile with no sign of mamma.  I did chance upon two squash bugs mating on my squash plant last week – I put a quick stop to their prolific behavior – but, except for insects, I can’t remember ever seeing an animal mating in the wild.  I guess with insects in the garden, I don’t tend to think about babies and life cycles and food webs; rather I think problem.  And yes, while the baby rabbits grew up to be a problem because they like my beans, I still feel as if I’d been treated to something special.  I know I’ll never see the baby turtles, the female will lay her eggs elsewhere, but I got to see a chance encounter.

I watched for a few minutes, not wanting to disturb them.   I have to say that it wasn’t very exciting.  There was no sound or motion other than the male turning his head a few times.  He saw me, but made no attempt to abandon ship under threat of attack from a giant face peering from above.  I caught a raptured look in his eye, rather than the alert look an animal has when suddenly discovered.  I later read that box turtle sex relies on chance encounters; perhaps this encounter was just too good to give up.  Then, because I was in a very uncomfortable position, I finished cutting the leaves off the tomato branch still in my hand, and retreated quietly to get my camera.

I actually managed to get a photo before the male removed himself awkwardly. He then walked away from the female a few steps and stopped under a thicker bunch of tomato stems.  I was worried I’d disturbed them before they were finished, but some Internet searching shows that they’d just continue later if so, and that what I saw was probably the third and last stage of mating.

I’ve seen a box turtle in my garden almost every year.  Sometimes one is walking across the garden, heading toward the fence, as if leaving.  Other times I’ve found one in the asparagus bed, and later in the season, in the tomatoes.  I always lose a few tomatoes to a turtle, and I’ve never minded sharing.  But I’ve never seen two at once.  Now I wonder if I’ve been seeing the same turtles as either (or both) of the ones today.  I’ve had a small garden most years since 2004.  It is possible these two turtles have been coming here since then.  Box turtles do not mate until they are 7-10 years old.  I like to think they like it in my garden and they’re putting down roots, just like me.

Turtles don’t have it easy.  A female box turtle may lay 200 eggs in her lifetime, but only a handful will reach adulthood.  Habitat loss, road kills – I will stop to help a turtle cross the road wherever logistically safe to do so – and collection from the wild for pets all make it tough for a species that matures late and lays few eggs (2-7) per clutch.  And then there’s that whole chance encounter stuff.  So I am feeling quite pleased with our property’s available habitat.  Including the two turtles mating, I have seen five box turtles on our property since May.  The locations were sufficiently far from each other and from the garden for me to assume that all sightings were different individuals.  Two individuals like tomatoes, perhaps have been coming to my patch for years, and by chance met this year.  I feel somehow a part of this improbable statistic.

I’m glad our species does not have to rely on chance encounters to procreate.  I find it hard to imagine an urge strong enough to follow through in high heat and humidity and in the middle of a tomato patch, and with a nosy neighbor peering down.

Eastern Box Turtle mating

 

They’re Here!

They’re finally here!  I feel like I’ve been waiting for them for years.  Well, OK, I’m not good at exaggerating.  I’ve only been waiting since mid-June when I placed my order.  But I’ve been talking about chickens, reading about options and talking to people about them for years, so it really does seem a lot longer than six weeks.  Finally, I have chickens!

Being born and bred in suburbia, where I learned nothing about farming,I am starting small.  I am the proud owner of four Australorp chicks, hopefully female.  They will live in a 32 square-foot arc-style coop that I can move around the yard for healthy foraging.  I picked Australorps because they can tolerate heat and cold as well as close quarters, they are consistent layers of large eggs, and I wanted a heritage breed.  They are also reportedly affectionate, and that seemed like a nice attribute for someone not used to farm animals.

A friend of mine shrieked when I told her I was getting Australorps.  Growing up she had an Australorp that actually would rub its head into her neck.  I never would have thought a chicken would cuddle!  I swear she said her bird lived for 17 years, but that would be one year longer than the hen listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.  I’ll have to check on this fact.  All this made me fall in love with my chickens before they arrived.  Now they’re here, and suddenly, already three weeks old.

Chickens are precocial by nature.  My chickens are especially so.  Not only did they leave the nest (incubator) in 24 hours, they travelled from Ohio to get to me.  As soon as I got them in their temporary coop in the warmest room in my house, they drank water and ate the chick starter feed I had ready.  They seem both independent and vulnerable, endearing themselves to me immediately.

Within days the chicks were trying their wings and by three weeks of age they easily fly to the couch or top of the cage when I let them out to exercise.  Twice, they’ve even flown onto my daughter Mauri’s head.  Their feet are amazing.  Once, in an attempt to fly onto their little cage, one missed and grabbed onto the side with its feet.  It then proceeded to climb to the top, easily maneuvering the wiring in the cage and using its wings for balance.  There are still some scientists who debate the dinosaurian origin of birds, and hence chickens.  For me, its hard not to look at their feet and the way they walk without imagining I’ve miniature T-Rexs in my house.

Amazing feet

I am fascinated by their eyesight.  It took a few days to realize they might not be associating our voices with our bodies, so we held them close to our faces or lay on our stomachs in order to make eye contact.  They became very interested in us.  Chickens are attracted to the color red.  Any little freckle or cut was fair game for a peck as they investigated their surroundings.  This quickly became annoying.  However, I discovered I can replace our freckles with torn bits of leaves containing squash bug eggs, which are orange.  With expert precision, each tiny egg is plucked off.  This is done very quickly so that whichever chicken was first to see the leaf handout, gets all the eggs.  I can’t wait until the chickens can walk through the squash plants and eat the adult squash bugs too.

By the third week of age, Mauri and I were able to name the chicks.  All along we kept watching for identifying signs, but they kept changing too quickly, not to mention hardly standing still enough to allow for a good observation.  The only one I could keep track of since day one was Poppy.  I named her this because she had enough white around her eyes and on her chest to remind me of a penguin.  Her eyes seem to also have a blue tint to them.  It turns out that using the coloration around the eyes seems to be the most handy for telling them apart.  So the chickies now have names!  There is Poppy of course.  And Darky because she has all black around her eyes.  There is Guapa.  Guapa means cutie in Spanish, and she has yellow colored feathers around her eyes.  The fourth chick is named Rita.  She has a beautiful striping of yellow and black under her eyes.  Her name is a contraction of Favorita.

My girls will be ready to move into their coop in two more weeks.  I’ve got several hours worth of work left to finish their home, but it will be ready.  I hope they like it and it holds up because I’m not keen on figuring out another option right now.  Mostly, though I hope it is predator proof.  I spent a lot of time weighing housing options with regards to predators because we have every type of predator possible, with the number one concern being our own dogs.  I know I’ve a lot to learn about chicken husbandry, but I am enjoying what my chicks have taught me thus far, and I want them to stick around for awhile.  Their safety is my responsibility.

 

 

 

The Honeymoon’s Over

I don’t really consider August 20th my first day in my new job because I have been working on my property all summer.  In fact, Halcyon was starting to look quite spiffed up until the Derecho on June 29 paid us a visit.  On the morning of June 30th, it was hard to see the forest for the trees; all the weeding and mulching and clearing that had we’d done could not stand out against all our tree damage.  Plans were sidelined while tree limbs were cut, hauled away to yet another brush pile, or split and stacked.  In my mind though, August 20 became a symbolic first day date because it is the day I would have gone back to teaching, and I would have been doing all that summer yard work anyway.

It was a wonderful first day, starting with getting a really good night’s sleep.  I usually eat, sleep, and dream school and its related plans, content, and students for at least the first month.  I woke up at 7 am instead of 5:30, and I made breakfast for my son.  In the past, I’d be gone before he awoke.

The day continued to unravel in pleasant chores or tasks related to my new life.  I visited my chicks and cleaned their waste that seems to increase in size each day.  I made and canned 16 pints of split pea soup because I had cooked a ham on Sunday.  Or rather, I cooked a ham on Sunday because I wanted to can split pea soup.  I picked my son up from cross-country practice, and we had a real conversation about his first day because my mind was not writing a lesson plan or fretting about school.  I made a roast for dinner.  I did not have a meltdown when my son presented me with the mountain of first day of school forms.  These forms usually made me cry because I’d have spent the day sorting and filing 18 copies of these same papers.  By evening of the first day of school the exhaustion easily brought tears.  Admittedly the forms would only qualify as a hill this year, but I know I could have handled a mountain with the same relaxed mood.

All the teachers I know probably had a crazy day, but they know that their honeymoon period starts soon, when they are in the swing of things and everyone’s first day jitters settle down.  Their period of good feeling can last the whole year with a few expected bumps along the way.  What about my honeymoon period?  It’s over!

I don’t mean I am second-guessing my decision.  What happened was only a small part of my day, but it had me wondering about my naïve notion of biocentric living at Halcyon.  What I mean is that I have some unpleasant neighbors.  The one I met today was down right mean.  I was not bothering anything but the autumn olive tree whose berries I was gathering, when something flew full force into my chin.  That would be a minor nuisance except for the attached stinger that felt like it pierced my chin bone.  I jumped back a few feet fearing I had upset a nest and looked for a swarm to soon follow me.  Nothing.  A hit and run I guess.  Did my neighbor wonder what happened?  Do stinging insects always fly ready to sting or can they attack that fast?

I decided I was done picking berries.  This was not the first stinging event at Halcyon this year and so I had a recent memory that jewelweed (Imatiens capensis) can be used to ease the pain.  Near the creek I picked some leaves – the undersides really do look like silver underwater – and chewed them briefly to mash them before rubbing them on my chin.  I felt sort of outdoorsy and survival-like, playing Katniss Everdeen in my yard.  Mean neighbors, no problem.  By the time I got to the house, the pain did seem better.  I had a lump the size of a marble on the underside of my chin, definitely not attractive, but not horrible either.

Then it happened.  My brain was telling me, Honeymoon’s over.  It’s a wild world out there and why do you want to go around meddling in it?  This is not like me; I’ve been stung many times in my life.  I’ve slept out without a tent, suffered poison ivy, backpacked in grizzly bear country, and once rescued a snake tangled in plastic netting.  I’m not wimpy when it comes to the outdoors.  I realized the panic messages were coming from my throat.  My throat felt funny, then it felt smaller, and I grabbed some Benadryl trying not to panic.  Why do they package each tablet separately in such a hard to open manner?  I forced myself to stay calm and the best way to do that was to continue my to do list for the day.  So I went out to mow the garden, but I brought my cell phone in case I had to call 911.  A half-hour later I felt much better, though two hours after that I still felt like something was stuck in my throat when I swallowed.

Much later still all is well, Benadryl is amazing, and my mean neighbor will not deter me.  I know every day cannot be as Leave it to Beaverish as my first day.  I know there will be days I curse the mower or get too many mosquito bites, or feel hopelessly overwhelmed at the tenacious ability of plants to accumulate biomass, especially the ones I pull.  Overall, the second day of my new job still beats the day, early in my first year of teaching, when all the buses pulled away filled with students, somehow forgetting all the students in my class.

Jewelweed growing near Mouse Run