Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Albino Housefly!

First thing I saw this morning when I got up was an albino housefly at eye-level on my sliding glass door. The whole body was creamy golden and the eyes were red. The tips of its feet looked a little darker. There were no lines on the wings, just transparent. I hurried to get my camera, but the bright morning light outside backlit it so much that it just appeared dark in the viewfinder. I managed to corral it into my hand and carefully closed my fingers around it to carry it to the freezer. My intention was to cool it down so I could take a really good picture of it. I eased the fly into the freezer, whereby it promptly flew under the plastic covering for the light. I closed the door and impatiently waited for no more than a minute, congratulating myself for such cleverness and thinking where I would put the creature for its photo-shoot. On the dark green wall? Maybe one of the cookbooks with a black cover. Albinos look best with a black background. Wouldn't my facebook friends be surprised? What luck! I hastily opened the freezer door and attempted to pry off the plastic light cover. Surely it pops off, I thought, or else how would anyone change the bulb? Presently, my photography subject zipped out of its hiding spot and into the vent that blows the cold air into the freezer. Gone! And the only way to get it out would be to unscrew the vent plate! Sigh.

The silver lining is that this is maybe a good omen for my interview today. I am interviewing for a volunteer position at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to work in the Herpetology, Ichthyology, and Invertebrate Zoology Department, or H.I.Z.Z. Erik tells me that the job mostly involves cleaning snake cages. I don't mind. I heard that they need someone to specialize in invertebrates, especially arthropods. It is true that I have spent most of my free time obsessing over skinks, reptiles, and tetrapods, but I feel I am ready and able to study arthropods and think that it would be a wondrous path to take. So perhaps the fly is a blessing from the arthropod gods.

Except that I couldn't photograph it, but it seems that I am unable to photographically capture ANYTHING of import of late. All of our photos from Montana I accidentally deleted. And there have been quite a few tender and poignant moments with Micah and Noah lately that I have forced myself, to no avail, to burn into my memory for lack of a recording device. All this is to remind me to live in the moment and be present.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tree gift

I made a bracelet for one of our trees today. It didn't start off for the tree. It started off for me. I have a book called something like "Braiding and Knotting" by Constance Belash, I think. That name was rattling through my brain for days before I figured out where it came from. There are lots of neat projects in the book for how to make a raffia hat, and sandals "from tropical fibers", and a braided leather belt, and macrame type stuff. I think I might be able to make a hammock from the directions. One of the projects is called "knotted bead bracelet". It's a bracelet with a loop on one end and a big bead-like knot on the other end. The instructions call for "coated gimp." Which is elaborated as "tape coated with pyroxylin." Bearing in mind that this book was written in the 70s, I knew I had a little research cut out for me. (Yea!)

Coated gimp... I couldn't find much in the way of that, but I did find gimp and I did find pyroxylin. Gimp is also called lanyard is also called boondoggle is also called scoubidou. It is that hideous neon-colored "plastic lace" that kids at summer camp use to make hideous keychains. I knew that my fine hippy Dover press book was not referring to such garbage. But they were referring to some sort of pre-runner because pyroxylin is a kind of celluloid coating, used in theatrical make-up as a kind of second skin, simulating wrinkles, scars, or baldness. The fabric tape coated in such material was more leather-like than just straight fabric and cheaper than real leather. Today's gimp is plasticized PVC tubes. Not too "green". I think they manufacture it just for kids crafts! Yikes! Biodegradability factor... zero. Trash factor... high.

So I decided to substitute twine. Just to play around with the braiding and knots. I found the twine in my dad's shed. And following the directions I fashioned a rather crude, scratchy, wabi-sabi kind of bracelet. No way was I going to be harnessed with such a creation. So I took it outside and fastened it around an ironwood tree, down in the hollow. It's just a magic little tree circle spot in our yard that begs to be festooned. I have also placed some stone carvings down there for the spirits. And last week a fall wreath came in the mail for the previous owners that they said we could keep, so I hung that down there on a tree next to a packrat's cholla-laced entryway. The bracelet fit perfectly around a branch that was already decorated with a string of shells, so I interwove the two. Gift for the tree!

Corucia Psychology

Been ruminating on zoology, zoos, natural history... We spent the last two days on our vacation going to every used book store in San Diego. Every store we went to I gravitated to the Natural History section. One book I didn't buy, but it looked very interesting, called Man and the Natural World: A History of Modern Sensibility.

I am going through an intense learning period right now. So I am rehashing all my ideas. And part of that is thinking about my slaves, my lizards. I am a slave-keeper. An overt slave keeper. Why? Because I tell myself that they would die in anyone's care sooner or later, so why not mine and I try to make it later. These animals were not brought here by me. But they exist here and if not in my home than in someone else's. So why not mine? Some of them may have been intentionally hunted, like the Schneider's skinks, I think. The Corucia were born in captivity, but their parents were probably byproducts of the logging (and possibly mining) industries. The Egernia were also born in captivity, but their parents were possibly collected by herpers and smuggled into captivity??? I believe I was told by the seller that his friend smuggled some back from Australia. Wow! And now they live in my house. In conditions that are so different from the outdoors.

Their only predator now is microbes and possibly a broken heart. It seems as though some animals can just get depressed in captivity and die as though of a broken heart. It think it was in that book, Man and the Natural World, the author, Keith Thomas, writes about how in zoos of the early 20th century, gorillas would often die within a week or two of being caught from extreme depression. There were accounts of gorillas just sitting in a corner of their enclosure, occasionally nibbling on a blade of straw, but refusing all food and drink and shielding their eyes from the stares of the people or just looking wistfully up at the sky and one morning being found face down dead. He notes a contrasting account from fifty years prior of a white hunter in Africa shooting his first gorilla. The hunter writes the description of the gorilla as if it were a devil. The might of the ferocity is impressed upon the reader and just before the gorilla mauls the hunter, he victoriously shoots the beast in the chest, whereupon it groans and grunts as it collapses, twitching for a minute even as the hunter is already upon it examining the face.

The author writes of the two accounts to illustrate how society's attitudes toward gorillas had changed so drastically in fifty years, but perhaps it also illustrated the devastating effects of captivity upon wild animals' brains, and thus the animals themselves. It seems as though the gorilla in captivity died of a broken heart. An immense loss, an immense grief. Captivity.... does that. Would a wild gorilla ever exhibit such behavior? Shutting down and not eating? It almost seems as if the ones that eventually "thrived" in captivity suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. Perhaps, they believed, since their captors fed them and interacted with them that they actually cared about them. Perhaps since they didn't kill them, they actually liked them. Gorillas have been killed by humans for hundreds of years, probably. So they were probably expecting to die. But when they were kept alive, did they feel grateful to their captors?

Cats and dogs generally choose to be captive. So when they get abused it is sad because they continue to stick around. Most reptiles do not choose to be captive. Very few will stay if given the opportunity to leave. I think snakes will leave because their brain is always on search mode. Lizards are on search mode too, but flight mode is a powerful motivator in lizards. I think once a lizard loses flight mode then it has chosen to live with you. As long as they have flight mode I think more about their separation from the homeland. Many lizards die in captivity without ever having moved beyond flight mode. Their brains are so simple and yet the emotional base of the brain is so basic, tied in with the olfactory part of the brain. I think the more relaxed we are the more relaxed they are. It's like a test, with a flighty lizard, how calm can you be. I think the lizards assume that all humans are hasty and will always make the first move. I like to stand next to the Corucia (the cage is at eye level) and just watch them until they flick a tongue. I find that the best way to do this is to act calm and curious myself. If I just think the word "curious" with a blank mind it is often enough to induce tongue-flicking. I picture the cascade of neural chemicals in their brain that is required for a tongue-flick and that usually produces a response. Often during these conversations I find myself imagining the Solomon Island rain forests, like a picture slide show in my mind. I find myself asking the universe, "Why? Why these animals? Why these creatures? Why Corucia zebrata? Thank you! Why a lizard keeper? Why a slave keeper? Were some slave keepers nice? Could a slave keeper die a happy man?" And I wonder if the Corucia will ever forgive humans for what they have done to their home and their families. Or is forgiveness just a human illusion? If it is a form of emotion, then it seems that there would be a root of that in the reptilian brain. Will the reptiles work with me to build a monument to skinks?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Banded Gecko Bonanza

We have been having a herpetological hoe-down here at the house! Tonight was banded gecko night. Unfortunately, my camera is taking a break right now, so I couldn't capture any visual magic to share with the world!

I was facebooking when Erik appeared outside the office window with a flashlight, waving his hands at me. I waved back in acknowledgement and he shook his head and motioned the "come here" gesture. I knew he had found some cool critter so I dashed out to the front door, slipping my bare feet into flip-flops just before I ran outside.

"A banded gecko!" he calls out to me.

"No way! Show me!"

My mind is filled with all the images of this beautiful lizard that I have only seen in books until now.

"He might have run away already. He ran pretty fast." Erik warned.

We came upon the path and Erik squatted down next to a good-sized agave clump.

"He went in here." He shown his flashlight around the base of the agaves, among the dried-up, curled brown protective layer at the bottom. Perfect hiding place for a banded gecko.

"I think he's gone. Nope, there he is! See him, Honey?"

I caught a brief glimpse of an ivory tail with chocolate crossbands. "I see him!" The gecko walked a little further into the depth of the agave clump.

Erik stood up and looked down the path shining his flashlight under the palo verde tree and cholla.

"Give me the flashlight! I want to see him!" I pleaded.

"Ok, but be careful of the agave spikes!" My husband loves to be the nature teacher. I let him. It's fun feeling like a kid at camp.

I step over some palo verde branches that have been laid out waiting for either a chipper-shredder or a brush-and-bulky pick-up. Minding the arrow-tips of the agave I squat down and shine the light under the blue, powdery spears. My flashlight finds him and my heart skips a beat.

"Hello there! You are so beautiful!" The gecko closes his eyes from the obnoxious light. I try to make sure only the edge of the light illuminates him, not the bright center.

His skin is the most creamy velvety texture of any other desert reptile I have seen. He looks so soft and squishy, too tender for such a harsh environment as the desert. He has the paired swollen gonads at the base of his tail, so I know he is a male, maybe looking for a female. The skin color is a base of buttery cream with purplish chocolate bands boldly crossing his body. His eye is a soft black drop of ink, with an innocence that makes me feel embarrassed to be so vulgarizing to him. This thought makes me immediately stand up to give him his space back. I smile at Erik and hand him the flashlight.

"Let's see what else is out there."

We continue our walk around the property, stopping to listen to Sceloporus, the spiny lizards, scrambling up a tree upon hearing us. We also note the abundance of tarantulas. As the path reaches the main driveway there are solar lights along the edge. Under one of these lights scurries another Coleonyx! The light was very dim, one of those LED glow lights that looks like a little pagoda lantern. Also under the light, perched on a rock just next to it, was a small green praying mantis, who clearly seemed annoyed at us interrupting his dinner hunt. We turned off the light to watch the mantis. A car drove right by on the road and the mantis turned its head in the direction of the car. Erik tapped the butt of the flashlight on the rock it was sitting on and the creature turned in that direction and looked right at Erik's face. Those things are just like little alien robots. I watched him, hoping to see a strike, but he started cleaning his grabbers, patiently waiting for the lumbering giants to keep on their way so he could focus.

We continued on out to the road to check for snakes. Erik shined his light on a plant that looked like a roadside weed in front of the neighbor-across-the-street's house. The house is up a slope and there is a railroad tie berm along the road to make the ground for the yard and house level. The space the plant occupies is about a five foot gravel clearance between the street and the base of the first railroad tie of the berm.

"I'm so jealous of that plant!" Erik said.

"What is it? I want to see it." I replied.

We walked across the street and up to the plant. "Proboscidea," Erik said, "Devil's Claw."

"Oh, you don't have to be jealous of that! That grows easily and we can get that anywhere!"

Erik bends down to look for a ripe seed pod. The plant is a prostrate form with small leaves, only about an inch across. It is about three feet in diameter. There are no other plants within ten feet on all sides.

"Another banded gecko! A baby!" Erik sputters.

"What? I think I see them too!" I can see definite movement among the fleshy stems of the plant. A hatchling Mediterranean house gecko, Hemidactylus, runs out of the shrub and climbs the railroad tie.

"Awww... they're just Mediterranean geckos. No wait, I see another one! And it has definite stripes. They ARE banded geckos! They're hatchlings! I think they just hatched right now!"

Erik starts looking around the base of the plant for more babies. "How many do they have?"

"I don't know. Leopard geckos have four or five I think."

We confirm two neonates. About the width of a pencil and half as long as your pinkie. They looked FRAGILE! One already was missing its tail. The first thing Erik thought was, "We need to move them. They're so close to the road. Let's bring them to our yard." He started to put his hand down around the one that still had the tail.

"No! You'll kill it!"

"Don't worry, I didn't touch it."

Erik keeps searching around the base of the plant with the flashlight, looking for more babies. There is some cellophane with some movement around it. "This place is crawling," Erik says.
What at first glance appears to be ants, on second thought looks more like termites to me.

"Look! The one without the tail is going over to the termites!"

As he approached the opening in the earth, spilling forth with grub, his posture perked up. He started looking straight down at the insects, and following their movement with little jerks of his head. He circled halfway around the hole, keeping his eyes on the prey. Then almost imperceptably he delicately picked one up in his mouth and mawed on it, turning it around with his jaws and tongue. The next one was a little more deliberate. We watched for one more minute and then stood up to allow the tailed one to join its sibling in one of their first meals.

We pondered the location of the geckos, so precariously close to the biggest killer of herps, the road. Maybe we could bring them onto the safety of our property... No, they had a perfect meal in front of them and that was more important for them at this point in their lives than our perceived sanctuary. Their mother probably laid the eggs close to that food source with her eons of wisdom. The railroad ties probably offered numerous tunnels and hiding spots under them. Perhaps their mother gave them the best possible chance that she could, in spite of it being so close to the road. The road is a reality of life. Maybe there are less predators near the road. Who knows?

As we walked back to the house, sans any kind of photographic record of the event, I pondered the wisdom of the desert. Why does she reveal her beauty in torrential showers, and not it parceled drips. All the times that I have gone hiking, hoping to see some new critter, and come home deflated. And tonight, each time I saw the banded gecko, I thought, "Wow! I want to stay here all night and watch this one. It can't get any better than this." And twice she proved me wrong, pulling back the veils to reveal ever more tender moments. And all so close in time to one another! Like fireworks, spectacular, short-lived bursts of light.

P.S. Last week in one day we pulled a neonate Holbrookia and a neonate Cnemidophorus from our pool filter, each alive. The next day a neonate Hemidactylus. And there are two Lampropeltis getula hanging around our house. Not to mention at least two Crotalus atrox. And a long-nose snake was picked up off the road at my uncle's house a few miles away and let go on our property. And Erik saw a Crotaphytus on a hike and a magnificent foraging Cnemidophorus burti.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Night-blooming Cereus Flower

This cactus looks like a dried-up stick most of the year, but this time of year it makes the most beautiful fragrant flowers, that only bloom for one night. Tohono Chul park lets people know when their cactus is getting ready to bloom and then every night until it blooms they hold night viewings. Some Tusconans really go bananas over this kind of thing.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Desert Spiny Lizard Males Fighting

My aunt, who lives about a mile from us, sent us this picture of some great lizard action in her yard. These are Sceloporus magister, desert spiny lizards. The males are each trying to appear bigger and stronger than each other and to show off their blue belly patches. The Sceloporus genus is one of the most successful in North America. They have radiated into almost every above-ground niche to be found--trees, rocks, crevices, grass, shrubs. They can co-exist with each other as long as there is just a subtle niche difference. These desert spiny's co-exist with an almost identical species, Clark's spiny lizard, Sceloporus clarkii because the magisters prefer ground rocks and the clarkiis prefer tree trunks.

I have been patiently nursing my way through Hobart M. Smith's 1946 Handbook of Lizards: Lizards of the United States and Canada. I only read about one lizard description per nursing session and I compare what I read to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians and Peterson's Western Reptiles and Amphibians. Reading the descriptions of field herping in Southeastern Arizona in the 1930s is fascinating; I imagine how many more herps were encountered in such endeavors than could be found today. The thought is both sad and exhilirating. How exciting it must have been to be a herper when the land was rich with critters. I must temper the sadness with hope that people are changing how they think about those beings who continue to share this Earth with us--the survivors.

One interesting thing I recently read in Smith's book about Sceloporus is that the females have a pale white belly without blue patches, except for exceptionally old, large females who may show a pale outline hinting of blue. My friend Jen told me that the more kids you have, the darker and coarser your hair gets. And after menopause, many women grow faint (or obvious) mustaches and beards. So we share this in common with the female spiny lizards, the tendancy to masculanize as we age. Which leads me to think that while we all start off physically as females in the womb, we all end up man-like in the tomb. If we are all borne of womyn, we must also be borne of men; there is no getting around this fact!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Happy Birthday Micah!

Micah turned one last Saturday! I made a cardamom grapefruit cake that only Micah and I appreciated! The next day was Pop-pop's birthday! Fun weekend! Lots of feasting! Micah looks like Erik, don't you think?

Doughnut Lesson

I learned that even the some of the best doughnuts in Tucson can still give you a stomach ache!

Barbie Drama

When we were packing to move to the new house I unearthed some Barbies from my collection of childhood things. We brought them all out and Noah had so much fun dressing them up and even created a little room for them. I took pictures and it looks as if they have a story to tell...

"I really like your new apartment!"

"Thanks, I can't believe I found this place!"

"Did I tell you about my new boyfriend?"

"No! Where'd you meet him?"

"At a club downtown! He's really sensitive and totally cares about me! I love him!"

Critter Country

The critters are out in full swing at our new property on West Calle Concordia. As I write this I am looking out the window at the myriad of critters that have come to eat our bird block. We basically have created a McDonald's at our house. There are five mourning doves, five English sparrows, and a pair of Gambel's quail. The block is also visited by white-wing doves, Northern cardinals, pyrroloxia, thrashers, Gila woodpeckers, round-tailed ground squirrels, and rabbits. It's a cheap way to get a wildlife show. We also put out a water dish, which the rabbits enjoy.

On the reptile front we have seen Clark's spiny lizards, western whiptails, ornate tree lizards, Meditteranean geckos, a Gila monster, a Sonoran gopher snake, and a desert kingsnake. Insects are way more diverse here than at our old house. Kissing bugs are Erik's new nightmare. There is a peculiar bug that looks like a cross between a praying mantis, a fly, and a wasp--I must get a picture of that one. Last night there was a gloriously huge wolf spider on our ceiling. It looked like a baby tarantula--hairy and thick. Here are some highlights.

Beautiful kingsnake found the other night. Looks healthy. Erik let it go on the front patio.

We think this is a Urosaurus. Must be only a couple days old at most. Found in the pool! :(

Big guy. Gorgeous. Erik put it outside.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Make your own moon sand!

We are moving to the Ironwood Forest. We bought the house with my parents and will spend eternity together there! That's fairly comforting to me, maybe because I am Cancer rising. Today a woman is coming to look at our current house to see if she wants to rent it. That is freaking me out to no end. I have been cleaning out the closets and files trying to clear out all the stuff that has sat untouched since we moved in.

One of the things was a file of preschool activities from the 1980s that I picked up as a give-away in someone's yard in Ocean Beach. I was on the track to be a special education teacher back then so I was compiling stuff all the time for my future classroom. I finally went through all the papers and discarded about 95 percent of the stuff. I happened to find this recipe for homemade moon sand.

Noah received moon sand as a present for his birthday this year from Kim and Mia. He loved playing with it, but I only let him do it outside, so some would always fall and get dirty. I would buy him more except that it seems ridiculously expensive for what it is. Here's the recipe:

1 cup sand
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 tsp cream of tartar
3/4 cup hot water

Mix the sand, cornstarch, and cream of tartar in an old saucepan. Add hot water. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture is very thick and can't be stirred. When slightly cooled, make your castle. Allow several days to dry or re-pack into an airtight container. Makes approximately 2 cups.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pickle Cactus Flower

Someone told me this was a pickle cactus, but when I looked that up online a totally different kind of plant showed up. I think this came from Erik's Grandma June's house. Cactus flowers shore is purdy!

Breakfast of Ancestors

Rolled oats, golden raisins (aren't those called sultanas in the mother country?), vanilla enriched rice milk, unbleached sugar, cinnamon (probably cassia), filtered water, and love. My Scottish ancestors would be proud... oats make a boy strong!

What is your preferred sweetener? Lately I'm really leaning toward agave nectar, mostly because agave is a native plant and my husband has taught me so much about being aware of what plants evolved to live in the area where we live. Agaves have a huge starchy center to them which is what is used to make tequila. Yum! The Tohono O'odham harvested the tubers and roasted them. Gardening of agave is usually limited to the ornamental varieties because of how much land would be required to grow a sustainable crop of agave. There are only half as many species of agaves as there are skinks. Yes, it can always come back to skinks!

Erik is drinking rice milk these days because his liver enzymes continue to be elevated! He goes and gets blood tests periodically just to see how high they are. The enzymes are SGOT and SGPT and they can be an indicator of liver damage. He read that dairy and wheat can exaserbate the weakened liver. He might be sensitive to gluten because of his Hungarian ancestry. Whenever he drinks beer he gets the Asian Flush, which 50% of the Asian population has! It means that when he drinks beer he gets hot red blotches like a map on his face. I think Erik was born in the wrong time period. His days should be spent like this:

Except what did the Magyars do when their backs went out? They probably had stronger backs back then. No junk food and lots of exercise. I wonder what the Magyars ate for breakfast? Maybe some horse milk and dried meat? And some plundered sweets, sultanas possibly!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bong Mom's CookBook: Chingri Macher Malaikari

Bong Mom's CookBook: Chingri Macher Malaikari

One of my favorite little games to keep kitchen duties interesting is to pick a random ingredient in the cupboard and then to make a meal using it. So far I have made chocolate cherry mace cookies for mace and mini muffins for mini muffin papers (technically not really an ingredient, but equally taking up shelf space). The next ingredient is whole cloves. I found that cloves are native to India, so naturally I want to make an Indian dish. It also just so happens that I am deeply embedded in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. Her tale of the Bengali Gangulis is so sumptuously written that I feel like I am embarassed to know so much about the inner dreams and fears of Bengali immigrants. Since I am feeling so connected to Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, I am delighted to attempt to make Chingri Macher Malaikari before I finish the book. And to eat it while reading and feel that I, too, understand their cravings.

When I read Diane Mott Davidson's first novel, Catering to Nobody, I felt especially connected with Goldy Bear by cooking the recipes that were used in the plot. In ninth grade when we read Homer's Odyssey my friend and I made our project, Cooking the Food of Ancient Greeks, and spent the day making dolmas and lemon chicken soup. Cooking makes me feel connected with cultures and history in a way that is so satisfying for my soul.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cactus Rose

Now I know why they call it the cactus rose. And the image of a dusty rose seems so beautiful now too. I never really got the whole "rose thang." My Nana liked porcelain roses. My old boss liked roses because he had traveled to Afghanistan and had seen the old Arabian style rose gardens. To me they always seemed too stuffy, too royal, too decadent. I like earthy flowers, like lavender and wild roses.

The tissue thin petals of the cactus rose soften my heart when I see them. The rest of the year when I see cactus, I tend to think of how brutal they are with their spines. But this time of year they are so tender and vulnerable. I could easily rip off every flower and not get punished by their spines. Even when they fruit, I still have to battle the spines to get to the sweet pulp. But right now they just have these delicate blooms that no one can cut off and put into a vase.

Body of Art

My body is a ca-age...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Nothing Left To Do But Walk

As I was leaving the house with my camera to go to the park I dashed outside to grab Noah's shoes. I saw this little guy strutting around on the patio with his head cocked to one side. I wondered what happened to him that he found himself walking on the ground in the middle of the day. I thought he had immense spirit to be so disabled that he could no longer fly, his head was tilted, his tongue lolling out, but still walking as if that was how he was supposed to get around.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Cabbage Aphids (Brevicoryne brassicae)

It started so innocently. One day I noticed a few aphids on the tip of a flowering stalk on one of my collard plants. I cut that tip off, but noticed another tip with aphids on them. I thought to myself, "Here's an opportunity to observe nature in action. Predator versus prey. Can the plant protect itself? Will parasitic wasps and ladybugs and lacewings move in and lay waste to this enemy?"

The parasitic wasps and ladybugs did move in and make a valiant effort, but not before the population of aphids exploded on my patch of collards. Aphids are literally born pregnant, but that is not the end of the chain. The fetus inside is also pregnant! So each aphid bumbling and slurping up the precious phloem in the plant is pregnant with her own granddaughter!

Aphids that prey on Brassica oleracea (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards, cabbage, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and kin) can convert the plant's own defense chemical, glucosinolate, into a kind of mustard oil that can deter some predators, such as larval two-spotted ladybugs.

Aphids in the garden patch in spring are a sign of a cool spring, because some of the predators, like lacewing larvae, will not hatch out until the temperatures are consistently warmer. As the weather warms up going into summer, the aphids die back anyway because the symbiotic bacteria that help them digest their sappy meals cannot tolerate higher temperatures.

Yesterday I pulled out any remaining straggly collard plants. I had already harvested seeds about a month ago from the plants that bolted before the aphid attack. Since we started focusing on buying a house with my parents a few months ago, I ceased to plant new garden beds. I still have my Indian onions growing and some cucumber young plants that got planted before we really decided to make the move. The onions will get moved and I will ask our rentors if they want to keep the cucumbers. The collard bed is a sunken bed, just like the others--I realized that it is one of the best ways to garden in the desert. The earth in the collard bed is dark and soft, so beautiful; I am sad to leave it. Erik wants me to top off the depression, which means covering it with the sandy gravely compacted dirt that I had so laboriously removed when pregnant with Micah. Once covered up, that lovely loamy earth underneath will be like prime real estate for all the weeds that roam this area-- Bermuda grass, wild mustard, cheeseweed, spiderling.

And yet, there are always more seeds, more opportunities, waiting to be planted and nurtured, tended to and cared for. Why lament the end of a garden plot? Because then it really meant something. It had a purpose; it fed us and taught us and showed us stuff about life and the universe. And then it got attacked. And then I finished its life. Yes, I, killed my garden. The aphids and I; I and the aphids.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Herpetology and Herpes

I have herpes. Herpes zoster, that is--the one in the top middle. I guess most of us have it. But mine is active again. My immune system got too stressed. (From what? I don't know! Moving into a new house with my parents and mothering two small boys? Nah, couldn't be!) The herpes reactivated.
In my quest to heal I researched herpes viruses and found out that the root word for herpes, herpein, is Greek for creeping. Herpetology, therefore, must be the science of creeping creatures!
Anyway, to add insult to injury I have been infected with a stomach virus, possibly roto or noro. The nausea comes over me in violent waves, not unlike labor. It almost feels as if the virus is affecting my brain's nausea response versus the lining of my stomach (or maybe it is both). Nonetheless, there is an emotional effect from this stomach virus. The herpes virus mostly just affects my skin, but I can also feel stabbing pain shooting along that spinal nerve. Aaaaahhh!!!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Happy Birthday, my love!

Happy 40th Birthday to my best friend! I love you!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Spring arrives

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Spring has arrived in Tucson. Sure, it still gets bone-chillingly cold at night. But the days are very gentle, inviting us to stay outside just a little longer. Most of Erik's native garden still looks brown and dormant, with a few exceptions. The bees are very thankful for my collard greens blooming. Thank God for Brassica! A bright spot and tasty food in an otherwise sea of less useful plants!

Another sign of Spring is that it is planting time. Plant your summer garden now. Plant your tomatoes and your peppers. My garden has evolved in just the short year and a half that it has existed. I believe I have completed one full year of gardening. Yea me! The garden was wonderful while I was pregnant. Pick-axing the bermuda thatch and shoveling the hard-packed desert ground provided just the right amount of physical exertion when I needed it.

At first I planted the seeds in rows with troughs between them, the way I assume is the "standard" way of gardening. Standard don't work too good in the desert! So I dug out square shaped depressions and filled those with a mixture of compost, manure, dirt, and straw. Then I just randomly planted the seeds or seedlings. That's how I successfully grew the beautiful patch of collards that I use to feed my Corucia!

I also grew a patch of radishes, but found the radishes were too plentiful in supply (that's a good thing!) and they ended up getting very bloated and hollow. Fortunately, that variety, French Breakfast (I love that name, because of the image it conjures) doesn't get too spicy or bitter when it gets old. I sliced some of them up into thin strips and poured a little oil, vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper on them and it was darn good!

Once the patch had been de-radished it made the perfect spot for the Indian onions given to my husband by his co-worker. These little bulbs are pretty much full size, but with a little luck they will form dense mats of tiny, tasty onions.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Argentine ants

Ants have invaded my reptile cage, the tropical humid one, to be more specific. Ants are in Berman's cage. Berman is a Solomon Islands Prehensile-tailed Skink, also known as a monkey tail skink, Corucia zebrata. He shares his cage with a Solomon Islands ground skink, Eugongylus albofasciolatus. Their tropical climate ecosystem that they call home is like an oasis in the Sahara desert for the Argentine ants. You know which ant I'm talking about. The one that gets in your kitchen trash, especially if there is something wet and sweet in it. The ones that invaded the trash cans in your junior high school. Pretty much the only ant you've ever seen unless you go camping and notice the bugs. Why are they so ubiquitous? Who are they?

Argentine ants (Linepithema humile, formerly Iridomyrmex humilis) do indeed come from Argentina. They have invaded fairly the whole world, probably with the help of people. Wherever they go they tend to displace native ants, which can affect plants that depend on native ants for pollination and lizards that specialize in native ants, such as the coastal horned lizard. But surprisingly, the ants don't pillage and plunder the native ant colonies as they sweep across the praries. All they need... is love.

Argentine ants are so successful because neighboring colonies do not fight with each other, like most ants do. Individuals roam freely among unrelated colonies and help each other with their work. They take each others' food without need for repayment. In this way they form supercolonies that can rapidly spread. Queens intermingle as well, often foraging with their workers. Argentine ants tend to upset the balance of native ants who form more tightly knit colonies that are constantly at war with the other tightly knit colonies. The Argentine ants can outcompete the native ants in searching for food and colony location. And if a battle should break out, unrelated colonies will defend each other. Their sheer numbers coupled with already heavily disrupted ecosystems, such as those along the California coast, create a recipe for disaster, with respect to native ant populations.

When I visited Biosphere II about 15 years ago, the experimental space station built near Tucson, the "scientists" had been out for at least a few years. As a budding biologist, I was fascinated with the idea of living in there, like living in one of my reptile cages! I thought the rain forest was beautiful and the grasslands looked lovely. I imagined how the scientists woke up every day and tended to their chickens and pigs and then took data on the plants and fish. As we toured around the outside of the Biosphere (no one was allowed in) and peeked into the windows, we couldn't help but notice the double row of busyness marching all along the entire base of the space capsule. Someone asked the guide about it and she said that was a recent problem and they hadn't worked out all the kinks yet. Apparently not, as it was one of the few animals to breech the security gate.

What can we learn from the Argentine ant? Give peace a chance and we can conquer the world? Perhaps, and yet... if all the peaceful people succeeded in ridding the world of war, would it be a better world? Maybe we need some warring people to keep us awake. A little bit of yang in the yin! Therefore, enjoy your battles because they may be your last! You might be overrun with boring peaceful people who want to share food and support each other!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A quote from Longfellow

"That's what I always say; if you wish a thing to be well done,
You must do it yourself, you must not leave it to others!"
-from The Courtship of Miles Standish

I read this story to Noah a few times over the past month during evening story time. The book we read out of is called The Book of Knowledge and it was printed around 1915. This quote kept popping into my head today, thinking of President Obama's "A day to act" quote.