Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 1

As the air warms and my dog waxes bold and curious in his wanderings on our property, he leads me to discover things I might never have imagined.

Two days ago, I went outside to check on him, tethered as usual to the deck, but I could see him nowhere, nor any trace of his tether.

As we so often do these days to prevent or get him out of trouble, I slipped on my clogs and grabbed the baggy of kibble in case I needed to coax him home. In the 10 months we’ve had him, Ethan has never run away, never broken his tether or even tried to.

Once, he managed to unlatch his collar, leaving it secured on the tether while he zoomed over to greet the neighbor’s dog. Another time, he became loose through the garage and sauntered back around to the same dog. Not to the road.

Now, though he enjoys sunbathing, Ethan seeks the cool shade as well, and has taken to digging, which I imagine feels luxuriously cool on his hot paw pads. (We’re getting his and my feet a kiddie pool for the summer.) So far, only minor patches, hardly even holes, have resulted—a couple of times in the grass and this latest in the flower bed bordering the deck.

Luckily, the effect was to loosen only a weed rather than a perennial just next to the divot. Cooling off his feet, having a fun dig, and, it would seem, creating just enough space to slip under the deck steps into the gap beside the wood lattice work.

When I found no tether and no Ethan, I called for him, thinking at first that he had rounded the corner of the house down the side yard. But the tether was still attached at the base of the deck, the rest of it tucked under toward the dog.

I crouched down to investigate and query the fur child, who promptly looked up with his dopey ears perked, though his body faced away from me. It appeared as if a little smudge of dirt, or something less benign, added to the outline of his nose. I could just see it in a shaft of light penetrating the cracks through the deck boards.

There are several spare boards lined up under the deck, and he had crossed many of them to reach this far. The tether was most of the way under and the dog most of the way to the other side, traveling the length of the shelter.

Our deck has an irregular shape, with five sides, not counting the house sides where a bay window juts out on one end and the kitchen sink area protrudes slightly less on the other.

In the bordering flower bed parallel to the back of the house, a limelight hydrangea bush decorates the right side, and a lacecap hydrangea marks the left, where the length of the deck meets a corner on each end.

A few feet farther right, down the length of the house than the limelight, I crouched by the deck steps the dog uses to do his business and get into mischief. Ethan stood almost all the way to the lacecap on the other end.

I had to reel him in by the tether, a vinyl-coated wire cable, which luckily gave way as it slid back across and around the ends of the unused boards.

Once he reached the exit, Ethan had to dip his torso down into that divot he had dug in order to squeeze out with an inch or two to spare. He’s a skinny dog, but this was still fairly impressive.

I’ve known various critters to live beneath our deck and around the yard, including chipmunks and rabbits. I’ve seen a gray vole in the front yard beds, plus a tunnel of soil something had dug in an irregular, meandering curved line through the brown.

We’ve enjoyed natural lawn aeration that we deduced either skunks or raccoons had accomplished, digging for grubs in that same area beside the bed nearest the steps.

In the open field near the neighborhood playground and jungle gym, we’ve encountered deer droppings and scattered feathers from birds striking the power lines above.

And once, while walking my former dog Elyse toward that same clearing that stretches across the street, as we approached the area, a car slowed beside us and two ladies told me there was a coyote up ahead, to be careful with the dog. That sent us in the opposite direction back home.

With these experiences, near-misses, and all the forensic evidence, we’re well aware that it’s best if the dog does not go under the deck for any reason. Plenty of claws, teeth, parasites, and diseases make suburbia a wild kingdom.

Then, of course, the nails on those deck boards pose injury risk, along with the uneven ground causing the boards to lie unevenly. It must become strictly off limits.

I figured it was certainly possible, if not probable, that Ethan had grabbed hold of some tender morsel of scat or remains or babies that maybe he shouldn’t have.

It was too dark, at mid-day, as I peered underneath, to see anything definitive without risking myself by going in or by walking around to the lacecap. There my access to the dog would be less but my view closer and clearer.

I did not want to waste time investigating. The dog had to come out now.

So then out he came, panting and pleased with himself for escaping the day’s heat, and I promptly shoved a large plant pot, filled with old, heavy soil from both winter and spring, into the corner to limit his access should he happen to try again, even while I watched. One never knows.

Then, I used a towel to scrape off the damp dirt caked to the underside of Ethan’s toenails. This took a little time; his nails had already needed trimming.

The next day, yesterday, I supervised more closely.

We clearly have training to do to keep Ethan out of the flower beds in the first place, out from under the deck, and away from chewing on my hydrangea branches, among other no-no’s.

Luckily, although he is a tough chewer and is becoming a digger, he rarely eats anything he enjoys chewing on that’s not designated edible for dogs. This sidesteps major hassles, dangers, and vet bills.

This time outside with Ethan, I was eating cereal topped with fresh-cut strawberries, a late breakfast by most standards at 11 a.m. At first seated in a deck chair, I decided to move after I noticed three yellow jackets starting to congregate in my vicinity.

What happened next led to a remarkable discovery. . . .

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Come back for Part 2 when all will be revealed, plus a little more.

Original Poem: Of all the signs of spring

Drafted yesterday, revised today, inspired by the 5th of 5 poetry writing prompts received from Tweetspeak Poetry this month. Not limited to National Poetry Month, you can sign up any time to receive the 5-prompt poetry mini-series.

Feel free to look away if you’re incurably cheerful or even remotely suicidal. Or just don some shades. That should suffice. Recommended if you’re somewhere in between–the poem, that is; shades optional. Poem on.


How is it that of all

the signs of spring

—bulbs budding and

blooming, birds once

off returning, catalogs

for summer clothes and

swimsuits, lawn-greening

trucks and greening lawns

bloated by the cause of mud,

rabbits, baby rabbit-ventures,

showers, thunder, thunder-

snow, swift snow-melt, even

high winds, high clouds, long-

wanted warmth, and light’s

longer days—the least

welcome harbinger

should be, over all,

the shining sun?

 

Why does the bright light

—its crisp, brassy heat and

golden hue causing such stir-

rings, a deeper, lovelier blue

of sky; why does the sun’s

shine

portend that inner dullness,

inescapable oppression of the

heart, the soul’s own shadowing

over, a deadness of ashes turned

blacker for the beams cast on their

heap, and so fully the more I look,

the more I sit and stare out the

window that is a door I could

open but for my blanched

sight and just this one

globe’s eyeless

glare?

 

© C. L. Tangenberg / Philosofishal


From other sources, sunnier verse about the sun:

Backyard Brief: Influence

Influence

a poem by Carrie Tangenberg

for C & M

Tumbleweed 
    hydrangea blooms 
         toss at strips of 
                 sheets of snow 
          on the terrace 
     tan under 
         crisp white crust 
Some escape
    twirl    ceaseless    swirl 
 off spring 
      from the 
         parent bush

Blended brown  
       latte foam 
         that’s cooled 
      too long        stiffened
 to firmer       spray        bound
    as paper petals or 
          bubbles stick 
       as one 
against the 
       gusting brisk

Wintered over
         snapped off
     stems at       shrub       edges
  Then sheared
near the base 
      gain new names 
         in the hands of 
  neighbor children
         like “power beam”
          and “shield of power”

They invent the
    rules of their game
          as they play it
    but never figure
            club or mace or 
       sword, even when I 
 suggest it
    They need not 
            make blunt their 
    force,     strike or     trauma, 
                      come out 
         from fragile 
 magic sprig

Between Dust and Star

Today Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in the theaters, but I’ll be waiting to see it until the heat dies down and the Christmas season ends. It’s important to me, but not so much that I would insist on joining the literal crowd. Life is, as it turns out, already quite crowded enough.

I was scanning satellite radio today, which I do not normally do, while running errands, driving through our snowy streets with my dog in the backseat, when I happened upon a mind-blowing discussion. The BBC radio program Crowd Science on Sirius XM, in my first time listening, was airing an episode about the science of household dust.

What struck me, among other things, is the living diversity resident in our everyday dust bunnies. Millions of microbes, fungi, insect and arthropod parts, dead skin, hair, and mostly fabric fibers. VOCs, too, to be sure. One perspective urged policy changes in the safety of household products to reduce the numbers of toxins sold to consumers, while another noted that we can safely live with a fair amount of dust and that some of the ways it is created (bacteria pooping out gold, for instance) may actually be beneficial.

Interesting as well was the expert perspective on how and how often to dust one’s home. Not too frequently but just enough so that the dust doesn’t permanently attach to the surface of furniture and other materials, which it will do for a few different reasons, by a few different chemical processes. One has to do with bacteria, another with humidity changes, and I forget the third. Dust on surfaces of dressers and tables can become permanent film that only a professional restoration service will be able to lift.

One’s dust can reveal under a microscope quite a lot of specifics about who one is and where one lives. Bald residents without pets will have far less hair in their dust bunnies, as a volunteer resident of Australia helped the program to reveal. And certain plants and fungi only live in certain areas, laying their detritus in the trims of our doorways to the outside. Dust is usually gray, even if you have colorful hair and a vibrant wardrobe, due to the blending of many colors that can be seen individually only when examined up close.

My own thoughts from the program?

Although we have the traditional saying from the Bible “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” little did we then know how much more than inanimate dirt our dust contained. Even after we die, the microbes we have shed comprise our ashes, especially when mixed again after, say, crematory sterilization, with the living ecosystems in outdoor soils, material surfaces, and liquid solutions. In death, there is always life, not just the promise of new life. It is not a linear, isolated cycle but a multifaceted, continuous whirlwind.

This quite changes the view of our bodily rest.

If spiritually we find peace, rest assured, our bodies and their shed layers never really do. We might as well say the remains of our deceased have been laid not to rest but to writhe and wriggle, freeze and thaw, moisten and re-crystallize, expand and contract, and generally remain restless and teeming with all kinds of life, as long as some trace of themselves stays detectable by microscope in their bodies’ places of final rest.

It lends new meaning, but perhaps less importance, to the notion that our molecules go literally everywhere whether we are alive or dead, and that our skin sheds enough to help create a whole new being left behind from our person repeatedly during our lives.

The bottom line is that there is no true separation on a physical level, none that we can see and distinguish with our hands and eyes unaided by science, between our biological lives and the lives of millions and millions of others of too many different living species to count.

The implications are up for grabs. Be grossed out. Claim it as an incentive for wildlife conservation (“we are one, literally”) and the fight against climate change, which may be inevitable regardless of human effort (the fight and the change). Justify strange personal hygiene habits. Do what you will with the information.

I find it fascinating whatever the outcome. The fullness of life is restored in my eyes. We’re not alone, in so many ways, and now in so many more. With knowledge come further questions and mysteries to explore. What does it mean for DNA testing or insect phobias or the obsessively compulsively clean? Are identity errors somehow possible because of these minglings and cross-contaminations, if you will? How can allergens in food products take our blame, or at least all the blame, for auto-immune conditions when the number of possible allergens in our environments is so unimaginably large? Far more in the air and environment than in our food, and even more so when we ingest them with our food. #washyourhands

Can we be too clean? What then? If we all live in such bodily zoos, should we re-define what it is to be dirty? How do all the tiny lives of our dust affect our thinking, behaviors, and fates? How does our awareness of them change our sense of ourselves? Of who we are as individuals or groups?

Above all, how does this influence our answer to the question of what it means to be human? If cleanliness is next to Godliness, do we not now see that it was always a pipe dream to strive for divinity? For purity? For resemblance to the necessarily unnaturally immaculate deity? For this vision of God does not allow for God to know dirt first hand.

When the lines of our very beings blur so completely like this, what implications could the inherent blending have for other lines in our lives? Other boundaries? Limitations? Segregations? At what point do physical differences then stop influencing minds and societies? At what point should they? We have more in common, as they say, than we have of differences. This turns out to be truer than we had ever before imagined.

However, I am no more or less motivated now to dust my home. Housekeeping was never a calling for me, but at least now I feel a little better equipped to cut down on my household dust and keep it in check.

The BBC’s dusting experts say to (1) use a natural-bristle brush to lift the dust, holding a vacuum hose inches away to suck up the lifted particles; (2) concentrate on the areas of the house between hips and shoulders, the places most visible to guests, and (3) dust regularly but not frequently so as not to increase health hazards, though meaning well, by excessive diligence.

Use a HEPA filter on your vacuum cleaner. Dust often enough to prevent the humidity cycle from laying down that cement-like, microbe-moistened film layer on the night stand. Clean every room thoroughly once a year, rotating from one room to the next each month so as not to live only for spring cleaning—all spring long. Use the right tools or hire a cleaning service, and don’t go overboard with sterilization.

If you’re worried about the effects of toxins on child development, reproductive health, and cancer prevention, there is evidence you should be aware of them in order to mitigate the risks. Above all, spend more time outside the home if you are usually a home body (like me, unfortunately); chances are your indoor environment is much less healthy than the outdoor. Keep moving.

“All we are is dust in the wind,” or, you know, the doldrums. Pieces of ourselves lay scattered about our homes and workplaces and vehicles and yards and apartment buildings, and those pieces are lifted easily when disturbed—that is, until they crystallize on our furniture.

So if you want to make your household objects your own in a really primal way, no need to mark your territory Fido style. Just neglect your dusting for a bit, and voilà, pieces of you are embedded in the baseboards, the chairs, the counter tops, your appliances, your books and electronics, and even the porcelain throne, to say nothing of the carpet. Just be ready to share that space with millions upon millions of other lives.

And remember, if you must clean, you won’t just be killing strangers and unknown neighbors—fungi, insects, mites, plant sheddings, pet sheddings, bacteria, and parasites. You’ll be erasing bits of yourself as well.

This reminds me of the practices of Ethan Hawke’s character Vincent/Jerome in the 90s sci-fi film Gattaca. Working for a space exploration company toward his own voyage to space, the heart-defective Vincent borrows the identity of the genetically perfect but paraplegic Jerome through blood, urine, hair, nail, and other bodily samples that he uses for access and carefully spreads around his workplace while Hoovering up his own “de-generate” cells.

Knowing what Crowd Science has imparted, it strikes me how not only impractical but impossible erasing his true biological identity would really be if anyone in authority had bothered to screen more regularly and rigorously. And outer space would have remained only a dream for our underdog hero, though as he says at the end, we will all still have come from the stars.

Heavenly, long-dead stars or living, putrescent particles, it is all in where—and how—you look.

The Glens Trail, Gorge Metro Park

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On May 13, 2017, between my mother’s birthday and Mother’s Day, the husband and I ventured out on a trail in our area to hike and explore for the first time—and what a discovery!

We could almost claim the Glens Trail of Gorge Metro Park for ourselves on that beautiful spring Saturday. Although the parking lot was packed, few locals seem to realize how the Glens’ beauty matches or exceeds that of the Gorge Trail.

IMG_1765_glens-trail-sign

How could we be ignorant of this treasure so nearby?

The park resides in the city limits of Cuyahoga Falls, our former hometown of seven years and the place where both my parents grew up. Aunts, uncles, and their siblings, my folks, came to know the area well during the 50s and 60s.

Back then, I daresay, the natural beauty of the Gorge was taken for granted. To our predecessors, it was just another close place of recreation in which to pass idle childhood moments. They had no idea how unique this playground was.

Its danger, however, became all too familiar to one family member, who shall remain anonymous. Playing hooky from school one day with a friend, this relative fell nearly 100 feet down into the Gorge. We think it was somewhere along this section of the Cuyahoga River bank, if not on what is now the Glens Trail itself.

The friend thought our family member was dead, but luck, providence, or fate would have it that the landing was mercifully soft, though not far from a treacherous boulder. No major head trauma, no broken bones. A bona fide miracle. Next time, there would be no skipping school at the Gorge—only in much safer places.

Nothing so dramatic but the view accompanied our virgin visit to the trail. Although the going wasn’t easy, we know from experience it was easier than if we had taken the Gorge Trail, which is much more vertical, narrower, and rougher. The Glens Trail is almost 2 miles long, out and back; the return is on the same path.

Looking at the park map before arriving, I had expected a lower elevation, riverbed sort of trail. I think we were both pleasantly surprised by the scenic geology and dense greenery.

The Glens Trail runs parallel to the Cuyahoga River, but the trees made river views rare. With daylight waning, most water we could see was either frothed with white foam, trickling from a pipe atop the opposite bank, or more brown than blue from steady current through a shallow river, with its silty sedimentary bed and some urban contamination.

IMG_1640_foam-swirlIMG_1717_log-on-river-shoreIMG_1617_water-sky-trees-blue-yellow

Investigating the sediment content online led me to learn more about the geologic history of the area. The main features combine shale, sandstone, and conglomerate rock layers.

Most of northeast Ohio is built on Bedford Shale (most easily eroded) overlain by Berea Sandstone (evident at Glens Trail).

The Sharon Conglomerate came later and is the most erosion resistant of the three layers. The best examples of this occur in parks and trails with the word Ledges in their names.

But I also found this note: The most accessible location to view Mississippian and Pennsylvanian rocks, including the Sharon Conglomerate, is in Gorge Park, part of the Metro Parks, Serving Summit County system.” Source: “Bedrock Beneath” at Green City Blue Lake, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History

With glaciation, erosion, damming, pollution, restoration, and now talk of removing certain dams, the Cuyahoga Valley has undergone many changes over the millennia.

The map: Cuyahoga River

The height and sheer faces of the cliffs are breathtaking, an unexpected feature of the trek that made us slow down and look around more than we might have otherwise.

An orphaned slab made way for a partial cave roof that appears to have been used, perhaps centuries ago, for shelter. A soot stain on the “ceiling” suggests repeated fires.

IMG_1597_orphaned-slab-profileIMG_1598_orphaned-slab-angledIMG_1600_above-slab-soot-from-fire

Birds were plentiful for an afternoon, due to the secluded, protected nature of the trail. We spotted catbird, sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, robins, cardinals, and Canada goose, among others, along with a kind of swallow I’m still not sure of.

I think I’ve narrowed it down to either a bank swallow or a tree swallow. By name, a cliff or cave swallow would make more sense, as it was perched on rock outside a nest in the cliff crevice, but colorings and territory ruled those out. Bank swallows usually nest in colonies in sandy hillside holes, whereas tree swallows nest singly in trees or cavities.

It may have been a juvenile or female tree swallow orIMG_1684_swallow a bank swallow taking its home where it could. As you can probably see, the picture is blurry, so the starker lines between the tree swallow’s blue-green head cap, back, and wings versus white throat, belly, and under tail may have been smudged more softly together. Really, I was lucky to capture its image at all.

“Angry” bird: Robin flings debris in search of food or nesting material.

There were a few narrow parts where ducking was in order and some uneven ground to manage, including hills, but the views, especially of the rocks on our left going out, were well worth the effort. The drop-off is steep, but it’s steeper on the other side of the river.

From the parking lot up the hill at 1160 Front Street, Cuyahoga Falls, visitors have central access to three major trails at Gorge Metro Park, Summit County, Ohio: Glens, Gorge, and Highbridge.

Next time, we’ll try out the Highbridge Trail. Another moderate path, but almost twice as long as the Glens, it should be manageable with sufficient time. Directly opposite the Gorge Trail along the river, Highbridge goes roughly west. Glens goes roughly east.

Although the Gorge is the rock star of the park, the Glens Trail, wandering away alone, also deserves a second look.


Happy trails to you this summer, wherever you find yourself.

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Backyard Brief: Little White King

The other day, my husband spotted another striking, first-time visitor to our house, a male white-crowned sparrow. One day in rain, the next in sunshine, he stuck to the grass to forage for fallen seed.

According to my slightly outdated North American birds guide, we’re in His Majesty’s winter range. Perhaps he has been dethroned and is migrating northward to a new seat of power. I wonder if he is related to the White King in my Alice novel. Look closely: This fancy little monarch even wears white eyeliner on his lower lids.

He must be French, or maybe Quebecois.