Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Garden in Winter

Winter Snowfall

Well, Twinkie, I'll bet you're finally sorry you brought fleas into the house, because you're an indoor cat now.

And this is the scene he was musing on.

The hillside, that I spent so much time getting ready to plant with coral bells and hostas. You can hardly believe in this tame view how full of weeds it was!

My garden seat, currently too cold and snowy to sit on.

The fairy garden, where the fairies are currently sleeping...or perhaps on vacation in Florida, which is where I would be if I didn't have to work for a living.

Not everything survives. This trellis was falling over, onto the neighbor's fence. I pulled it down completely, and had to trim a lot of the vine off in order to do that. My poor silver lace vine never recovered.

The trimming of the Silver Lace Vine in the previous picture endured is nothing compared to the trimming the Wisteria underwent the following spring, when my brother helped me replace this metal gazebo with a wooden one. It all had to be cut off so the metal could be moved out.
The roots are well established, the plant is extremely invasive, and it did not suffer much.
Looks like my hair in the morning.

Intruder alert! Intruder alert!

Currently the only color is from the things I've painted, and other things I've hung.

Oh, how I miss my beautiful front garden! It looks so horrible, I can't think of anything to do to spruce it up. It's just depressing and yucky.

Though there are a few nice views, if you look close and don't take in the big picture. These are Echinacea pods.

Here is a deceased container arrangement.

The only thing remotely like a flower is the bowling ball my boyfriend found in the woods, and brought me knowing I'd go crazy over it. I painted it my favorite colors. I'd rather have junk from the woods than a boquet any day. I'm a cheap date.
In the winter, there is only one thing to look forward to...Valentine's Day, and Godiva Chocolates!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Evil Zoo

People often call prisons a "zoo." Well, I once visited a zoo that was a prison. I was on a road trip driving through Pennsylvania, back in 1994. Here is a picture of me on that long-ago day.

The Highway was Route 666. The name of that road was a clue to what was in store. The experience was so creepy I have never been able to recount it until now.

As I was driving along, it got misty and foggy, and then suddenly I saw a sign: “The Trazalca Zoo, 10 miles. See the Hellbenders.” I was on a schedule, but it was tempting.

Another two miles later: “The Trazalca Zoo, 8 miles. See the Kimono Dragon!”

Another two miles passed, and again: “The Trazalca Zoo, 6 miles. Eat Devil Dogs!”

Four miles from the zoo, another ad called, "The Trazalca Zoo, 4 miles. See the Gila Monsters!"

So many signs! What was this, ”South of the Border”?

Finally, this sign: “The Trazalca Zoo, 2 miles. See the Otters!”

My resistance was broken! In truth, as soon as I saw the sign "Zoo" it was broken, but I stretched it out for the sake of fiction.

The parking lot was eerily empty (as, say, the parking lot of the Utica Zoo). I entered without paying a wooden nickel. As soon as I passed through the entrance, the animal sounds coalesced into a mass of various shrieks and howls, as if it were suddenly feeding time for everyone, all at once! I jumped, but continued to the first exhibit.

The first sign said, "Elk: Serial Killer." Huh?
Suddenly I realized, these animals are all criminals! I KNOW these looks, these expressions! I could read their maleficent natures and thoughts right off their faces!

The Elk stared off as if ruminating on his late career. As he stretched his unfocused gaze into the middle distance, I could sense him recalling the one they never found, the one he buried under the new swing set of County Park #213 when he worked there as a groundsman. But who, I wondered, had bitten off his legs at the knees? The irate family member of one of his victims? Or did he anger someone in his cell block? But then, I thought, perhaps his wistful gaze was not a memory at all but the plotting of a revenge that would never be his. This zoo held many mysteries.

"Scabbers the Bird". Psoriasis? Skin Cancer? Stevens-Johnson Syndrome? Cleverly concealing his wicked thoughts in a vacant stare, I could nevertheless tell he was looking at me and deciding how many pieces he would cut me into if only he had a machete. Obviously his inner and outer natures are indivisibly one.

"Why didn't anyone ever tell me that coke would make my nose fall off?"
As he contemplated me, I could tell he was dreaming of the cinders he would make of me if only he had a flame thrower.

Llama: "Meth Mouth": This llama suffers from Meth Mouth*, a common affliction of prisoners entering the system who have perpetrated their crime to perpetuate their addiction to crystal meth. This drug wreaks havoc on a person’s teeth. This poor strung-out addict’s emotional state was matched only by his low imagination; the most his pathetic dreams could come up with were a desire for a sling-shot and a bag of marbles.

*If you are very brave, do a “google image” search on “meth mouth.”

Babies: The only thing worse than a yapping dog is a screeching baby. The sign indicated to “Please Remove Crying Babies” the next cell.

Alligator: There he is ...just WAITING for a crying baby to silence...

Otter: This seemingly innocent otter could bite your finger off, right through a leather glove. Quake in your boots, human! And that's the prison NURSE!!

Red-Tailed panda: Don't be fooled by the cute face. Red-tailed pandas have long been known to be the consorts of the Devil, and of Republicans. Republicans! What is scarier? I jumped.
And then, to cover my embarrassment (and follow the number one prison employee rule: NEVER LET THEM KNOW YOU ARE AFRAID), I tried to continue walking casually, and I stuck my hands in my pockets. In one, I found a couple of M&Ms that looked good, but in my nervousness they slipped through my fingers into the muddy grass. Luckily, the bright colors made them easy to spot, and I found them. "Mmmm, chocolate," I thought, "just what I need to calm my nerves. A little muddy, but hey, what am I, a brave otter or a little milquetoast raccoon?” So I popped them into my mouth without rinsing. M&Ms don’t grow on trees, you know.

Next I saw a tiger with a look that spoke of his longing for a taser gun, a look that eagerly wondered how loud he could get me to scream if he only could have the chance.

The next cell had a ring-tailed lemur who had the gall to actually whisper to me his fantasy of the havoc and mayhem he could create if only an AK 47 were at his disposal.

All the animals at the zoo were mocking me. The wolf kept looking at me, licking his chops, licking, just the same way that murderer in Cell Block B does when I bring him his nightly dose of thorazine.

ELEPHANT: Same to you, buddy.
Well, this elephant showed me his back, and I decided it was time to show mine too. It was time to go. I got in my car and drove off. Though I lived in PA for 13 years and have crisscrossed the state many times, I could never find that zoo again.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

War with the Newts by Karel Čapek (1890-1938)

You have probably never heard of Karel Čapek (1). But you have heard the word "robot", which HE invented and introduced to the world on January 26, 1921, in a play called R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). And if that impresses you, wait until you read War with the Newts.

This is not really a book about newts, though the book demonstrates that the author is familiar with newt biology. Rather, this is a wise, extremely witty novel about the barbarous nature of humankind that uses newts as a plot device.
But it's a fun book, a funny book, and a top-notch read.

The plot is basically this: a Dutch sea captain, Capt. Van Toch, discovers a unique pelagic race of giant newts found only on one island near Sumatra.
This is silly, as we know; newts are not salt-water animals. They don't even tolerate brackish water. But if you can- à la Coleridge- willingly suspend your disbelief, then you are in for a few great laughs and maybe more great insights. He dubs these newts, with a total length of 4'6", Andrias scheuchzeri.
The natives call them “tapa” or “sea-devils” that creepily blink with their bottom eyelids (sic) (2).
The newts want to eat the oysters they can easily get but can't open, and Capt. Van Toch wants pearl oysters but can't dive to get them himself. Also, the major predator of these newts is sharks, so they work out a trade of pearl oysters for harpoons to kill the sharks and knives to open the oysters.
The Captain brings the newts with him on his south sea travels, and thus they begin to spread.
The newts are proficient in building dams, which gives them areas to lay their eggs. They can also repeat human words, and he teaches them how to talk. The Captain finds a financial backer and the newts begin to be sold around the world. No longer mere collectors of pearls and coral, they are hired to do all manner of underwater building: dams, excavations, dykes, etc. Maintaining coastlines, they also build up new lands (back then, this was science fiction; now, it's Dubai).
Despite being a profitable venture, Captain van Toch is clearly attached to, and cares about, "his" newts. But after his death the "Salamander Syndicate" begins to exploit them as cheap labor in order to cut expenses. Well, billions of newts are spread to all the coasts and countries, and eventually man and newt come into conflict (hence the name of the story).
A master of "black humor", Čapek makes fun of everything his plot encounters.
He starts by mocking the way sailors curse on the first page, and before he's finished on page 241, he's satirized anti-Semitism, average intelligence, big egos, black marketeering, businessmen, capitalism, Christianity, collectors, communism, drunks, sailors, drunken sailors, economics, trends and theories in education, exploitation, fads, fashion, footnotes (at one point the book actually footnotes itself! Sheer comic genius!), greed, hypocrisy, government hypocrisy, intellectuals, journalism, linguistics, maleness, femaleness, romantic love, morality, hypocritical morality, nationalism, Nazism, people who try to further their own agendas disguised as caring for others, people who act as patrons for others so they can take advantage of them, people who look for reasons to be offended, and one which salamander aficionados all share: people who don't know lizards from salamanders. He ridicules pollution, racism, religion, religious fads, scape-goating, self-aggrandizement, sophistry, speechifying, taxes, temper tantrums, war, the wealthy, women's clubs, and finally: science, scientific language, scientific research, treatises, conferences, discovery and debate, especially of the long-winded type (when the scientists are fighting about what scientific name to give the newts in the story, it reminded me of recent developments in the chronicle of the Alpine newt - Ichthyosaura alpestris, formerly Triturus alpestris and Mesotriton alpestris).

The book was first published in 1936, "when it was still possible to laugh at Adolph Hitler", according to the intro. For example, the Germans decide that their newts are superior, lighter in color, walk more erect, and christen them "the Baltic newt" or the “German Super Newt” which is "indisputably superior to all the other Salamanders. With contempt they described the degenerate Mediterranean Newts, stunted both physically and morally, the savage tropical Newts, and altogether the low, barbarian, and bestial Salamanders of the other nations" (p. 193). The Germans rewrite the history and origin of the newts, attributing Germany as their original home and all other newts of the world as being genetically degenerate from their original, pure stock.

Čapek’s portrayal of the coldness and cruelty of some scientific experiments presaged the German treatment of people in concentration camps so thoroughly that it is beyond funny, but rather disturbing to read (the original was written in 1936 and the cruelty of concentration camps didn't begin until WW2). But I'm also reminded of something I read in James Petranka's classic Salamanders of the United States and Canada (p. 492): "Greater sirens maintain relatively large fat reserves in their tails and are able to withstand prolonged periods without food...One siren maintained without food at about 22º died 26 months later after losing 45% of its initial body weight. A second died after 5.2 years after losing 86% of its initial weight." That sounds like it could have come right out of an Auschwitz medical log. Ugh. Some things never change.
One of his jabs at fads is that the newts speak a simplified version of whatever language they are taught, sort of like LOL-speak, but then it becomes a fashion for everyone to speak like that. LOL speak for newts!

Last time I read this book, I thought that people without somewhat of a familiarity with European history wouldn't get a lot of the humor, and maybe not enjoy it as much as I did. But I've learned so much about salamanders since then, that now I'm enjoying it more because there were things I didn't find so funny about the science parody before, that I get now. So now I think that if you have a good salamander science background, you'll find a lot to amuse you even if your history background is not so great.
I read one Amazon review where someone criticized the copious use of footnotes. That reader did not understand that these footnotes are all a parody of scientific discourse.
Some cultural jokes will be understood by being familiar with The German Migration of Peoples (Völkerwanderung), and a Faustian Bargain. I had to look up this word, also: dolichocephalic (p. 194), which means "long headed".
But even if you don't get all the cultural jokes, there is still plenty to entertain, and you can just resolve to become more acquainted with European history, and then read it again someday. It's well worth rereading and I’m glad I did for this review.

I won't say how the war ends, but wouldn't it be nice to think that somewhere the newts would win out over big business? That nature might have a chance against human(notvery)kind? The book is both a goal AND a fun journey. He makes his points but he had tons of fun along the way. You can tell Čapek really enjoyed writing it, and you will enjoy reading it.
This bare outline doesn't begin to do the depth and humor of the book justice. If you like sarcasm, black humor, social commentary, and newts, settle down with this book and have a good read.

You can read the book free online here or here.

I find the second “” translation more readable. If you’re going to sneakily print it out at work, remember, it’s about 240+ pages.

But if you prefer a 3D copy with a real cover that you can sniff and lick, it is available on Amazon (with a variety of covers) starting at $2.27. RUR is available as a Dover Thrift edition for $2 and on Amazon starting at $3.72. It's another worthy read and one I did in about an hour, it's only 58 pages.

(1) Pronounced “Chop-ek”, according to the intro.
(2) Čapek has a thorough grounding in the natural history of newts; his newt science fiction does not leave the well-educated reader snickering over his ignorance. Even his fanciful description of scheuchzeri's mating habits is a parody of actual salamander mating behaviors that I found humorously entertaining.
And he has the good sense to know how cute newts are.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Enlightenment is a warm mammal. Or eight.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Certified Wildlife Habitat

When I first bought my house, the backyard had nothing but a tree stump and an old fence.

I started digging up the edges for a garden. I planted a Golden chain tree, and put in a patio. The beginnings of Paradise.

After a few years, I made quite an elaborate garden.

Above, it is pictured all bare in March...
(drum roll, please...)

Can you recognize anything from the second picture? (click on pictures for larger view)

Here is the patio area!

Patio area from the back

The view down the side of the house

Now we are in the front yard. Originally there was a big Spruce tree that was in danger of falling down. I had it cut down, and started planting.

From nothing to this!

This is the next door neighbor's yard. My garden encroaches like in that horror movie "The Mist..."

Such an innocent view from the front, you'd never suspect the jungle in the back!

A lot of animals live in my yard. It is an official Wildlife Habitat!

Here's our friend Chuck, who lives under the shed and has been with us since he was a little woodchuckle.

There are Garter snakes and Dekay's snakes.

Spiders come and build webs.

Frogs live in my Bathtub Pond.

Birds build nests and raise families in my birdhouses.

Even deer come looking for snacks.

Here is a view from the back upstairs window onto the Gazebo (on the patio) from Summer to Winter.

Birdies come and eat all winter long.

The pets enjoy the yard too!

You can do a lot with a tiny yard in the middle of a village!

This is the
first in a tribute series to my garden.