The juniper titmice have a nest in the half-alive juniper in Biko’s round pen, not far from the patio. I set up the tripod by my lunch chair and played with various exposures and lens lengths. They, like most birds, are so acutely aware of any potential threat to their nest, that I had to pretend I wasn’t watching for a long time, with the camera aimed at the hole in the tree. Then I shot a few frames, a few times when there was no one around. After awhile, I waited til one of the parents flew to the tree, shot just a couple at a time, until they were coming and going without paying me too much mind. Above, one is taking food to quiet the tiny plaintive flutter of squeaks inside; below, removing a fecal pellet, I think. What else could it be? Like many (but not all) birds, they like to keep their nest clean.A rare visitor to the garden, this Bullock’s Oriole flew to the hummingbird feeder one morning and looked in the window, so I immediately sliced an orange in half and staked the pieces out in the yard for it. That’s what I’d heard they like, but he ignored the oranges and poked at a flower on the hummer feeder, licking leaking nectar. They prefer riparian habitat to more arid places like my yard, and are medium distance migrants, so I seem to only see them for about a week during late spring as they’re passing through in search of moister breeding grounds.Topaz is an incorrigible lizard hunter. Though it distresses me that she hunts lizards, at least she’s not going after birds… She comes to me with a particular yowl when she’s got one in her mouth, and then she drops it. The lizards freeze when she pounces and carries them, and it takes them a few minutes to liven up and try to run after she sets them down. In that moment I try to catch them, and carry them to a safe brush pile outside the fence. Not that the fence stops the cat, but that they have a chance to hide and live another day. Every now and then she plays with one long enough to kill it, but when I catch her first I can save it. This is one grateful Sceloporus. The irises have begun blooming earlier than usual. There is one true white iris, and one whitish-lavender iris, and both these light colored flowers attract these little yellow and black beetles. I watched for quite awhile trying to determine the nature of this behavior that looked like a vicious attack, but because time after time the smaller beetle emerged unhurt and came back for more, I suspect it was either breeding or just a territorial display. Though the beetles do have a little competition for their irises, like this Agapostemon, or green sweat bee. Below, a honeybee packs her pollen baskets to overflowing on the pink honeysuckle, which is now the bee magnet of the week, and smells almost as sweet as the fading lilacs. The garden roller coaster is in full swing now, and I can hardly keep up with the watering, much less photographing the abundant, diverse, and beautiful life that makes the ride into summer so raucous and delightful. Heirloom arugula is ready for picking for pesto, asparagus is winding down, lettuce is fresh and tender. The peach tree is loaded with small fruits, as are both apples, and I found about a dozen intrepid apricots on that tree that was hit so hard by several deep frosts during its prolific bloom. Late summer will be full of fruit!
The first of these exotic (read invasive) birds arrived in Colorado in the mid-nineties, and twenty years later they now inhabit all 64 counties, with a recent Christmas Bird Count total of almost 20,000 individuals. Purist birders despair, hunters revel, and me, I just think about how fast our world is changing, how many species are going extinct, how arbitrary some of our values are, and how glad I am to have any doves at all in my yard. I don’t feel as tolerant of invasive exotic plant species, however, like cheatgrass, whitetop, tumbleweed… that list goes on and on, and is the bane of any gardener’s existence.
May just may be the sweetest month here. Mountain bluebirds perch on fenceposts, swooping on grasshoppers; house finches nesting in the gutter over the front door fledge in the dead juniper, and magpie babies squawk from their high nest north of the house. From inside yesterday I watched a fragile house wren flap its new wings like a butterfly, and got outside just in time to see the last one leave the nest in the adobe wall. Black-chinned hummingbirds court and feed in the yard. A large black and yellow bumblebee as big as my whole thumb circles the lilacs and leaves, a small fast hawk flaps and glides across the flat bright sky on this unusually cloudy humid day with no chance of rain.
It looks like I’ll have peaches and apples this year, as those trees transition from bloom to fruit. The mingled scents of newly flowering trees waft through the yard and into the house through open doors. I’ve stood with my face in the crabapple tree inhaling deeply, watching bees, who scatter if I exhale without turning my head away. Honeybees don’t like carbon dioxide, and who can blame them.
I can capture all the photographs and video and audio I could store and more, and never capture the scent of these flowering trees, this luscious pink crabapple, this effulgent lilac, or last month the almond tree at night. The fragrance seems to pulse, as though the trees themselves inhale and exhale at their own extended respiratory rate, slower than we notice, mostly. Certain times of days the bees will flock to one or another.
My bumblebee anxiety has dissolved even further this past week, with scores of them on Nepeta, Ajuga, and the mind-bending lilac, another tree that’s never been more full of flower and fragrance. I sit with it an hour a day all told this time of year if I can, breathing its cleansing, intoxicating scent. So moved by its power over me, I sought lilac essential oil online with mixed and disappointing results. Many sources say essential oil can’t be derived from lilac for various reasons, and there are many brands of lilac ‘fragrance’ oil for sale, but I did find a few sites with directions for infusing lilac flowers in oil or water.
So I’ve ordered a bottle of grapeseed oil, and trust the deep purple lilacs on the north side of the lilac patch will be in perfect bloom by the time it arrives. Meanwhile, I’ll make lilac scones again this weekend. Last year Chef Gabrielle and I candied lilac flowers, and that was a lot of work for a lovely but minuscule result. The lilac scones provided much more gratification for significantly less work. The lilac, by the way, is also a non-native species, though not aggressive enough to be considered a weed…
In other spring food news, I’m set for the next few weeks for my greens intake. I made a dandelion smoothie for breakfast the other day, with apple, flaxseed, nuts, yogurt, blueberries, and ginger root. Yum! There’s a nearly infinite supply of dandelions to share with the bees, and Biko the tortoise who relishes both flowers and leaves.
The first butterfly I see in spring is the mourning cloak, Nymphalis antiopa. The species ranges throughout the northern hemisphere, and is called mourning cloak in many other languages, though in Britain it’s called Camberwell beauty, white petticoat, or grand surprise. It gets a jump on other species because it doesn’t migrate long distances, instead overwintering in suitable habitat tucked into tree cavities or under loose bark, emerging in early spring to begin its reproductive cycle. After mating, females lay their eggs around twigs of host trees upon which their caterpillars feed, including various species of willow, cottonwood and birch, and in American elm, hackberries, wild rose, and poplars among others.
The slightly worn wings of the mourning cloak above attest to his long life, having metamorphosed mid-summer last year and overwintered nearby (maybe in my birch tree, or wild rose). This week he is out searching for females, and after breeding he will live only another month or two. Sources say mourning cloak adults prefer to feed on tree sap and decaying fruit and rarely flower nectar, though I always see them in the flowering fruit trees. Not in the compost pile!
In my quest for bumblebees, I’ve been grudgingly rewarded this week. I caught one a few times in the mystery tree, saw one last night on the Nepeta in the south border, and this morning one in the peach tree. Frequency of sightings is increasing, though I still think there should be many more by now than I’m seeing.
Meanwhile in Bees: I finally caught one bumblebee on the almond tree before its flowers also froze, and another in the mystery tree who has just come into full bloom. The best guess is this is a wild plum, but nobody knows for certain. I dug up a sucker from the roots of the almond tree some years ago and planted it, and this magnificent being came to pass. When it flowers it is a crazy bee magnet, and draws more fast little native bees than any other plant in the garden. When you think you’ve got spots before your eyes watching this video, those are bees.
Those were last week’s bees. Below are this weeks picks so far. But I’m not going to try to ID them because frankly I am fried. First world problems all, but the past five days have been pretty challenging. On the phone with Apple support today I almost had a panic attack. It all started Friday morning, when the plumber came to replace a faucet that he had installed last week but it was defective, so I spent a week turning off the hot water between using the sink. He got the new faucet in but it required non-standard fittings which he didn’t have, so I spent the weekend washing dishes in the bathroom sink and eating take-out pizza.
That afternoon I discovered all the contacts on my laptop had disappeared, which turned out would have been a simple fix if I’d known how, but instead I tried to restart the computer. After that, 24 hours with Apple support and the conclusion was a fatal software corruption: the computer has to be wiped clean to even think about making it work again. ACK! I kept my cool. I’ve got backups for most of the photos and all but the last three months of everything else. Oh well, meditation seems to be helping as I really didn’t wig out, though I may if it turns out nothing can be salvaged. And really, Apple support could not have been more pleasant nor tried any harder to help, all nine people I’ve spoken with since Friday.
Overnight Friday a log smoldered in the woodstove, filling the house with smoke, but I’d been to such a good party the night before that I slept right through it until morning and the house reeked like a stale campfire all day while I kept the fire roaring and doors and windows open. Everything was still ok, and this morning the plumber came and fixed the faucet, and then… the Mail app on my desktop quit functioning. Another four hours on the phone with tech support, and it’s still not back. This is the universe telling me to stay away from machines for awhile and spend even more time out in the yard!
And still I’m not nearly as freaked out as I might have been if I hadn’t started taking an anti-depressant last Tuesday. I had so much to write: about the garden, and meditation, and the forest coming back to spring life, and about why I’m finally taking a drug for my state of mind, before all this computer nonsense started, and now my brain is just numb. Time to try again another day, and go out in the garden with a gin gimlet, and watch the sunset light up the peach tree.
We don’t have a lot of fine dining options around here, not like you find in a city. There are some good neighborhood restaurants, but they don’t change their menus for years at a time, and you can’t count on wanting the special. We fill this lack of gustatory variety by eating excellent and often exotic meals at each others’ houses, and we are a bunch of gourmet cooks.
Once in a blue moon, or more rarely really, because we have a couple of blue moons a year, an opportunity comes along for an extraordinary treat. Last weekend about 40 people attended a benefit for the Paonia Experiential Leadership Academy, and enjoyed a six-course meal created by Swiss-trained chef Lucas Wentzel. It was a 5 star meal. A lot of us from Crawford went because Lucas is the son of our dear friends Ruth and Jeff, and his sister Emily runs the school with her husband Phil. So it was the best of both family dining and haute cuisine!
Amuse-bouche translates more or less literally from the French as “Fun for your mouth!” and is an intensely flavored bite-sized appetizer selected by the chef and offered free to each guest. Lucas chose to delight our taste buds with Rosé Valentina (from the menu): “Béchamel & Black Forest Ham in homemade pasta served over a creamy tomato sauce, drizzled with a succulent sage butter. A popular dish from the Italian part of Switzerland, Chef Lucas learned from Chef Valentina herself. Available as a vegetarian option with spinach in place of the ham.”
This dish, I’ll tell you straight off, was my favorite of the night, and they were all delicious. Lucas went all-out with edible flowers for the meal, topping this teaser with a sprig of basil flowers, and adding several other blossoms to the remaining dishes.
The second course featured a creamy roasted carrot soup seasoned with ginger. Now I know the secret to the most full-flavored carrot soup is to roast the carrots first.
This was followed by a ravioli filled with with sun dried tomato, toasted pine nuts and goat cheese in a pesto cream sauce. I am not a goat cheese fan. I try now and again to taste it, because my damn friends all love it, and it keeps showing up. But invariably, a musty goat smell comes out my armpits within ten minutes of eating it and I can’t stand to be around myself. So I typically avoid it. However, that night, I’d have had to miss a course, so I did try it, and it was so mild I barely noticed eating it, and there were, luckily for my neighbors, no after effects.
A kiwi-lime sorbet came before the main course, two tiny delicious scoops of tart sweetness with a slight bitter crunch from the kiwi seeds, which was a perfect palate cleanser.
The main course featured seared salmon with a creamy Béarnaise sauce (or stuffed roasted red pepper for vegetarians), parmesan encrusted asparagus, and a simple jasmine rice topped with another edible orchid blossom which tasted startlingly like watermelon.
For dessert, an exquisite chocolate mousse with a hint of orange, drizzled with a chocolate merlot sauce from local winery Azura Cellars, came atop a plate of sweet white sauce with a pansy flower and strawberry garnish. None of us could eat another bite, and we drove home through a steady rain feeling deliriously satiated.
Considering the quality of the food, the value of supporting this wonderful educational endeavor, and the company, the meal was a great deal. The pastas were homemade, pesto, eggs, goat cheese, and other ingredients came from local farms, and even the chocolate for the mousse came from a Colorado family starting an organic cacao farm in Costa Rica. Students from PELA helped chef Lucas prepare the meal, and their siblings, friends and parents served, bussed, and cleaned up. All this community action occurred at Edesia Community Kitchen in Paonia, a certified commercial kitchen available for events, preparation of value added agricultural products, and weekend wood-fired pizza. PELA’s chef-Lucas dinner is just one more reason I’m so grateful for where I live.
It’s been a busy week. The past couple of days in particular, maybe because I ran out of decaf and drank full strength. The biggest news of the week was the storm that blew through here on Saturday night. It felt and sounded like a cloud unleashed itself fifteen feet over my metal roof, which jolted me from a sound sleep, and sent the black cat flying. Raven and Stellar just raised their heads. Wow! It only lasted a couple minutes, but it was the loudest rain I’ve ever heard (including a Florida thunderstorm over a quonset hut).Though the storm dumped a good amount of snow in the mountains, that won’t by itself protect us from extreme drought by midsummer, but it will help replenish the reservoirs. Still, a day after the storm, even the mud is dry.The other big news is, at last a bumblebee on the almond tree! I’ve been most anxious, because usually there are bumblebees all over the almond tree, and I’ve not seen one until today. When I saw a bumblebee, so still not that reassuring, but better than nothing. Though by the time I got back outside with the camera, she was gone.
Meanwhile, the tree continues to buzz with all manner of bees and other insects.
It’s charming to me that sometimes the honeybees open a bud, rather than land on an open flower. I’m sure there’s something special inside. She starts with her tongue, then pushes her face deep into the bud.
And elsewhere in the garden…
A bleak beginning to bee season had me worried most of this month. After a few honeybees dipped into the first spring crocuses in February, and a few more came for Iris reticulata earlier this month, there were no bees in my yard for weeks. Meaning, more accurately, that I didn’t see any, and I was looking. I checked the irises, the pasqueflower, and the silver buffaloberry daily; I glanced at the first few almond blossoms as they’ve opened this week, and nary a bee, native or otherwise.
But at last the silver buffaloberry is in such bloom that even I can smell it, and I stood under it this morning feeling my first real sense of joy all month. The tree is full of bees: all the honeybees have nearly identical oval packs of pollen on their back legs, incidentally the exact same size as the unpopped buffaloberry buds, and they won’t sit still on a flower. If they’re not just skimming they’re crawling, even ambling across the clusters of tiny yellow blooms, gathering while they may their ample pollen. Plus there are clouds of sweat bees, a few mining bees, and a large black fly or two.
Andrena, or mining bees, are known as a spring bee, and are valuable spring crop pollinators, including fruit blossoms, apples and almonds in particular. However at Mirador this week, there are way more Andrena on the buffaloberry, above, than on the almond tree, which is happily buzzing with honeybees.
I never thought I got all that depressed here in the winter. I think of it as my hibernation, but I’m usually pretty content. This year, late winter, after we’d had barely any winter at all, I found myself getting testy, snappish, and feeling downright dead inside. There were a lot of reasons I could suppose, but the return of the bees has so lifted my spirits that I know part of it was anxiety about their whereabouts. As the garden is coming rapidly back to life, so too is my soul resurrecting.
Sandhill cranes have been flying over most of March, sometimes in the hundreds, definitively trumpeting spring. The flicker in my eaves drills most mornings on the cornice, alarming out insects for her breakfast. Songbirds returned gradually over the past month and now serenade each sunrise.
The redtail hawks are finally sitting on their nest by the road, but nobody returned to the canyon cottonwood this spring. Concerned last summer when the nest appeared abandoned, I watched through the seasons, the weathers, the winds, as my hypothesis proved true: Over time the far side of the nest sloughed off, and by last fall there remained only a small cluster of twigs around the southwest anchor. I surmised it was a young pair of birds who simply hadn’t constructed the nest securely enough, and that a big storm blew out the back of it, dropping the eggs down the canyon side before or just after they hatched.
The leeks I left in the ground over winter are four inches tall and bright green. The leeks I left in the refrigerator all winter are just an inch behind! The last leek harvest was mostly small doubles, and I cut their tops off and stuck them in a bag in the fridge, intending to use them. But they slipped to the back and by the time I found them they were a little shriveled, and I put off using them. I looked at them a few more times through winter, and couldn’t bring myself to either cook with or compost them. Late February I pulled them out to dump in the compost, and found green sprouts emerging, so I split them up and planted them. And they’re coming along fine!
Meanwhile, I’ve still got a beautiful fifty-acre field for sale. I had hoped I could sell it this week to a lovely retired couple, dreaming of doing the very thing with it that I had intended to do when I bought it, before my health and strength fell short of what is needed to nurture that land into a thriving subsistence homestead. When I think about that field’s short history in my life, and its significance to me, and the fact that it is my 401K, I just can’t part with it for 20% under asking price. The domestic water tap alone is worth between $15,000 and $20,000, and water is of course the essence of life everywhere, but especially here in the high desert. At some point, the fact that it’s in conservation easement and borders a 105-acre protected wildlife sanctuary, will be an asset rather than an encumbrance. The perfect buyer will come along, I’m sure of it.
In the meantime, the Dutchman next door intends to fatten up the field with fresh fencing and cows to fertilize and plow the ground. Not selling it this week isn’t the worst thing. And the sense of rejuvenation I have this Easter season, with the advent of the bees, allows me to breathe easy despite my disappointment. Anyone out there “looking to move farther up the watershed” as one new farmer here from California said, call Bob at westerncoloradorealty.com and check out this gorgeous, peaceful piece of paradise.