This Certain Change

Have you noticed? The apples have begun to blush while the fireflies are still courting. The lettuce have bolted but the asters are heavy in bud. The bees are crazy busy yet, the Monarch butterflies are regrouping to migrate. Even as we still warm our toes in the sun, the light in the afternoon hangs lower. That’s right, summer is slowly slipping away and autumn is tiptoeing in cautiously. Another week and the kids in my town are back in school – is there a surer sign that the seasons are changing places?

So for this week, enjoy the last days of August. Set aside time to simply be. Let the dew on the grass bathe the soles of your feet. Rest your eyes and listen to the song of the cardinals. Watch the lengthening shadows from the embrace of the hammock. Savor every last drop of summer.

This Certain Change

August is leaving

Summer lingers

Yet, I sense that

Fall has crept in

Settled down

in the usual places

Only, I don’t notice

Summer is still getting

her way.

I take a deep breath

inhaling a top note of autumn

Earth still stubbornly

giving up little

She’s holding on tightly

to summers warmth

So her heart

can keep beating

when winter roars.

– Shobha

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Harmonizing With Summer

What sounds come to mind when you think of summer? The thrum of bees on sorties in the midday sun. The vibrato of hummingbird wings as they hover over the stand of Bergamot in bloom. The periodic crescendo of cicadas punctuating the sultry, hot hours. The early morning choir of avian throats stirring the world awake. The staccato beat of the woodpecker keeping time on the dying sugar maple. The sunset chorus of frogs by the pond. The frenetic percussion of a summer thundershower ending the heat wave. The high pitched laughter of sun-kissed children cooling off in the neighborhood pool. These are the sounds of my idyllic summer.

Sadly, it has become almost impossible to truly enjoy these seasonal melodies. Like the rustling of candies being unwrapped or the ringing of the unsilenced phone ruining the experience of going to the philharmonic or movie, our solace in our gardens is being spoiled by mowers and leaf blowers in use at any given hour of day. They drown out the natural sounds or worse, scare away the musicians all together.

The Law of Mo-Blo rules our lives all through the warm months. If you’re sitting down to an al fresco meal or settling in for a read and/or nap in the hammock, rest assured a neighbor will begin priming the mower or leaf blower. It never fails. The noise from these machines has permanently become the background sound of the season. The hallmark of summer in suburbia.

But, it needn’t be a status quo. We can do something about it. We must make the effort for the sake of our health, our hearing, the environment and our sanity.

The verdict is in. Particulate matter is produced at dangerous levels by leaf blowers, hedge trimmers and brush cutters. Pregnant women and young children must be kept away from their harm. Recent studies at the University of Pittsburgh have implicated these particulates in increasing the risk of childhood autism by as much as 50%.
The high decibel noise generated by yard equipment can damage our hearing. The people operating the machines are exposed to this noise even more so. The U.S. Surgeon General warns that “Excessive noise exposure during pregnancy can influence embryonic development”.
That the machines consume a great deal of gas and the resulting pollution of the air hardly needs reiteration.

Additionally, leaf blowing erodes soil, destroys the habitats of wildlife, stirs up pesticides, dust and fungal/bacterial spores (watch out asthmatics), reduces the water retention capacity of soil and in high temperature, causes ground level ozone formation.

I don’t need to elaborate on the repercussions of being distracted or unsettled in our work and other creative pursuits by the impact of loud sounds. And I certainly don’t need to discuss the ruined ambiance at outdoor events. I expect very little argument against the need to curtail the use of the harmful machines.

So lets get pro-active. For starters, every town should have ordinances limiting the hours of lawn equipments use. Personally, I’d like a ban on any such noise after 6:00 pm on weekdays and absolutely no weekend use altogether. This might be seen as inconvenient at first but, trust me we can get used to it. The tranquillity that will ensue will be worth the adjustment. Across the country, there are some towns that have such laws but they are too few and far between. A concerted program is in order. Every citizen ought to lobby for it.

Until such legislation is instated, neighbors could form their own pacts to be considerate and thoughtful. Come to a consensus for the betterment of all.

At a personal level, follow the three Rs – Reduce, Recycle, Reuse. Reduce the lawn area by creating more/larger flower beds, planting more trees, letting a meadow grow. Mow with the blade at a height of about four inches. Let lawn clippings stay on the lawn as they will quickly settle down to nourish the soil and keep it from drying too fast.
Rake leaves off lawns and dispose them in the compost. You can skip a trip to the gym on those days! Let leaves remain in beds as they make for a good mulch – the soil will be enriched and kept moist and weed free. Plants will require less watering too.

If you must, use electric instead of the gas powered machines. This is the lesser of the two evils. Seriously consider getting a manual powered reel lawn mower. The new models are light to use and very efficient. And so quiet! Some sweat equity and fresh air will do us all good.
If you employ a lawn service, discuss with them the need for environmentally sound measures. There are now companies that offer ‘green’ management of yards. They might charge more but are worth the expense. What you think you’re saving in money by hiring the much too common mow-blow- and go crews actually comes at great cost to all of our well being. And this includes our pets, our environment and the entire planet.

We must each play our part responsibly so we can forever dance in harmony to the pure sounds of summer.

My front lawn is quite tiny. The grass is kept at a height of 4 inches. While it looks pristine, it is not all purely grass. Many other greens such as clover are mingled in.

My front lawn is quite tiny. The grass is kept at a height of 4 inches.
While it looks pristine, it is not all purely grass. Many other greens such as clover are mingled in.

The meadow in May. It gets mowed perhaps two times in the whole year - towards the very end of summer. With a push-reel mower.

The meadow in May. It gets mowed perhaps two times in the whole year – towards the very end of summer. With a push-reel mower.

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Whole leaf mulch at the Singapore Botanical Gardens

Whole leaf mulch at the Singapore Botanical Gardens

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

How To Get The Popular Vote

I’m going to help you shine at the next soirée you attend. Not with make-up or fashion tips – you’re on your own on those counts. I’m going to share with you the sort of stuff that will make everybody wonder about your high level of curiosity and intellect. Or, they might just think you’re kinda awesomely weird. Either way, your presence will be noted and remembered. So, lets get started.
I’m always on the look out for simple yet brilliant problem solving information. Out of the box thinking excites me. You’ll see what I mean:
First up is the use of moles in archaeological digs. That’s right, the much reviled creature is being put to proper work! A museum in northern Denmark is using the velvety creatures to gather information at a site where it is thought the remains of a fort from the Middle Ages are hidden below. The contents of the mole hills left behind by the animals are analyzed so the underground locations of the buildings can be determined. Bits of pottery and such are brought up in the mix of soil. The more the content of these, the closer they are to the buildings. How about that?!!
“Moleology”can be as effective as more technical research methods. The big bonus is that it doesn’t destroy anything at the historical mounds in order to get a lot of important information.
Understandably, the Danish culture agency initially thought the application by Viborg Museum was a joke. But after realizing the idea was legitimate they approved it. Ha.
We now come to my second nugget of brilliance. Dandelions, another object of disdain in many lawn loving circles, might be the future producers of rubber. To ensure the steady supply of natural rubber for tires, manufacturers are hoping to harness flower power in a big way.
Although rubber can be manufactured in a lab, tires require a large portion of natural rubber as it is more superior in flexibility and hardiness. Natural rubber is made from the milky latex of the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis. However, this comes at a high ecological cost. Not the least is that the rubber trees in Asia are vulnerable to the same fungal diseases that decimated those in Brazil.
So there has been a need to come up with alternatives. Enter the humble dandelion. Scientists are working to improve the Central Asian strain of this weed that can supply latex sap on a large enough scale. Imagine! One day, there could be dandelion rubber farms!
My own fondness for these cheerful plants is vindicated.
Finally, there is good news from Europe in the fight against the bee-killing Asian hornets. Asian hornets ( not the European hornets) are a menace to bee hives and are spreading across Europe. They now face a natural enemy that lures them to destruction – a carnivorous North American plant, French experts say. Our own pitcher plant from Massachusetts is trapping the alien hornets but not the native wasps. Pheromone specific! Hot damn.
Each Sarracenia plant has up to 15 pitchers, and can attract as many as 50 hornets. But a typical hornet’s nest houses 4,000 insects – so the plants by themselves cannot deal with the problem. Clearly, much more research is required. A super-pitcher plant in the future? In any case, once again, Americans might have to save Europe. It is deja-vu all over again.
You see? You now have some priceless ice-breakers for your next party. Have fun.

Dandelions in my meadow. How splendid they look with the ajuga, daffodils and forget-me-nots.

Dandelions in my meadow. How splendid they look with the ajuga, daffodils and forget-me-nots.

Asters are a huge honey-bee magnets.

Asters are huge honey-bee magnets.

Pollination in progress

Pollination in progress

Bumble bees at work in the meadow

Bumble bees at work in the meadow

Ladybug on pest patrol.

Ladybug on pest patrol.

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Color Me True

Remember the colors you liked as a young child? Bright, joyous colors that shouted out their exuberance! We dressed with abandon, matching purple socks with a magenta skirt that sported yellow polka dots. It made us feel so happy. I recall a favorite dress that screamed chartreuse and pink. And you know what? I still love that combination. Particularly in the garden. Think Euphorbia polychroma and Triumph tulips like Barcelona – acid yellow/green with fuchsia! Stunning right?

Yet, as we grow up, we permit all sorts of rules to be imposed on our sensibilities. We give in to norms and tastes that do not necessarily reflect our own. Afraid to be different and call attention to ourselves, we join the herd. Which is a shame. We need more unique voices in our midst. I’m not suggesting anarchy or that we be inconsiderate but rather, I’m calling for us all to be true to ourselves. Lets not hide behind uniformity or be bullied by arbitrary taste-makers. Instead, we can each be a distinct, exceptional piece in the social quilt of life.

If breaking out and expressing yourself in all areas of your life is a daunting thought, then start with your garden. Maybe just a single flower bed. Forget rules about how many of each type of plant, coordinating colors etc., Just go for what your heart desires. As you tend this patch, you yourself will work out the details and specifics that best appeal aesthetically. Soon, you’ll feel confident about spreading your preferences to the rest of your garden. From there, move on to your home’s interior, your clothes, jewelery, choice of reading material…. take my word, you’ll feel good.

In my recent travels, I’ve come across many gardens but the the most memorable ones were invariably those that had their own spin. Clashing colors that put a big smile on your face. Unfettered by any visible scheme, these gardens celebrated the season. They created an atmosphere of unadulterated fun. And isn’t that exactly what summer is for?

I’d love to hear about your color tastes from childhood and if you still love those hues. If yes, how do you incorporate them in your adult life?

Note: For those of you in my neck of the woods, you have the opportunity to visit a wonderful garden this Saturday August 8. Mike Bakwin’s garden is open from 10 am to 4 pm. Mike is a good friend of mine and I can personally attest to the beauty of his garden. You might even see me there! For details click here.

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar