Monday, August 25, 2008

Saga of the sage

tzitzikas tzitzikas tzitzikas tzitzikasssssssssssssssssssss

Or so the Greeks transliterate the song of the cicadas, and if it's good enough for the Greeks, it works for me. The song is distant to the west where the sun is just sinking to the rooftops as I hand pull weeds from a small patch of earth at the base of the front porch. It's a rental, this house on Collins Avenue, so my Rule #1 was:

Do not plant anything in the yard! Use containers instead.
So I'm on my knees, ripping out handfuls of weed stubble left by Saturday's mowing and a few stringy remains of lawn grass, digging a hole in soil a lot better than I had expected to find and setting in a gallon-size Texas sage.
I can't really explain why I have such a liking for Texas sage, but I have planted this drought-tolerant sage of the desert in the last three residences Annie and I have shared. The first two plants, planted some four or five years ago over on Pennsylvania Road, are still there and well over five feet tall. They were gallon-size, too, when I set them in the ground.
Also known as purple sage and silverado sage, it originated in the Chihuahuan Desert's limestone shrublands of Northern Mexico, Southwest Texas and Southern New Mexico. Zane Gray fans, no doubt, are familiar with Riders of the Purple Sage published in 1912. It's the same plant.
Butterflies like visiting the delicate purple blossoms, and Annie does like her butterflies! So just a foot or so west of the sage I put in a second violation of Rule #1, a medium-sized starter plant of lantana. If I were going to create a butterfly garden but was limited to but one plant, that one plant would be lantana.
Two counts of planting in the ground notwithstanding, two or three specimens remain for setting out in pots. There's another, smaller lantana that I'll pot up and see how it goes. Then there are a couple of specimens of Mexican false heather which probably will need to spend the winter inside but will start out on the porch. You see, our neighbor lady to the east has a porch full of plants, and Annie is bound to have one, too!
Which, of course, means I get to collect, assemble and maintain Annie's mostly containerized butterfly & hummingbird garden while she gets to enjoy it and brag about it to her friends at work.
Kinda make a feller wonder just who's the real sidekick here, don't it?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

They say they taste like popcorn.

River City summers wouldn’t be the same without the song of the cicadas. Their lazy, modulating buzz is hypnotic and calming, like an aural downer, on a hot August evening.

Mamaw and Granddad called cicadas locusts, and locusts to them were grasshoppers. Took me years to sort through the confusing maze of common names to figure out what bug was what, and brought me to a greater appreciation of Latin-based scientific nomenclature, even though Latin names seldom sing.

Generally speaking, cicadas are insects belonging to the order Homoptera, suborder Auchennorrhyncha, superfamily Cicadoidea. Worldwide some 2,500 species of cicadas have been identified and many more await formal classification and naming. While “locusts” is commonly applied to these creatures throughout many regions of the United States, cicadas and true locusts are not related. Rather, cicadas occupy the same order as aphids, leafhoppers and spittlebugs.

Our neighbors in the Appalachian region know cicadas as “jar flies” or “dry flies” because of the dry exoskeleton, or shell, left behind when an adult molts. The most common U.S. genus Tibicen are also known as dog day cicadas or annual cicadas as adult Tibicens emerge every summer.
One would be hard pressed to find an order of insects more destructive than Homoptera, mainly due to aphids being classified in this order. Cicadas, however, do not fit the destructive mold as they are truly gentle giants of the insect world. Cicadas neither bite nor sting, nor are they destructive of plants. Of course, some folks find them ugly and obnoxious.

And, yes, some folks do eat them. African children delight in catching them for their grandmas to prepare as a crunchy, popcorn-like snack, and cicadas reportedly are consumed throughout many parts of Asia.

Guess I just haven’t been that hungry yet.

(Photo of Tibicen emerging courtesy of Roy Troutman)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

About that rocking chair...

Literally speaking, the rocking chair has not made it to the front porch yet. You see, as of now Annie and I do not have a rocking chair. We only got the porch a couple of weeks ago. So that rocking chair I wrote of in the beginning, well, that remains more metaphorical than actual.

Annie's got her bonnet set on matching high-backed wooden rockers parked side by side, looking out on the world of Collins Avenue. I'm in no hurry to make that particular dream real for her, though, even if I do break the 60-year tape in a couple of weeks. I acknowledged becoming my Dad at least a dozen or more years back, but I'll be switched if I'm ready to take the rocking-chair turn into becoming my Granddad!

That was the late Wiley Preston Saunders, by the way. He and his wife Cordie Ellen lived just around the bend at 14th and Clark Streets until his death in 1967. Can't help but think about him every time I drive over one of our remaining brick streets. Back in the day, Granddad and his oldest son Rodney--some River City old timers may remember Saunders Body Shop out on the old Waurika Highway--dredged sand out of the Big Wichita with a mule team for the mortar to brick pave those streets.

Some two years ago Annie and I left the road after hauling freight through every state in the lower 48. Oh, it seemed like a good idea at the time; to tool around the country, getting paid to cross "Visit every state in the union" off the Lifetime To Do List. Did not take this city boy long to figure out you don't get to see much nature through the windshield of an OTR freight hauler. I always wanted to snap a picture of the front grill of that old truck and send it to Dr. Horner over at the university; see if he could catalogue my bug collection!

Anyway, we came in off the road and rented a little two-room cottage right smack behind Mamaw and Granddad's old home place. Changes have been made to the place through the years, but I could still see the two of them of a summer evening, sitting on the porch and quietly enjoying their Coke floats. I even heard the same cicadas buzzing in the big pecan tree out front. Their descendants still define summer in this neighborhood to this day.

Annie will get her chairs soon enough, or, "d'rectly" as Cordie would say. I'm more into sorting out what variety of native Texas weeds inhabit the yard and figuring how far I can go away from "lawn" and toward native plains before the Landlady hollers, "ENOUGH!" Then, maybe then, I'll be ready to sit and rock for a spell with a tall, cold Lynchburg Lemonade.

Y'all come see us, now. Hear?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Thank God it's Friday

We had one of those little low pressure systems pass through the area the first of the week. The good news is it moved out the high pressure ridge that was pinning our daytime high temperatures in the low triple digits and brought a spell of sorely-needed rain. Right at eight inches of rain, give or take a tenth, at the nature center in the bend of the Big Wichita River.

Our trees down in the bottom land were mighty glad for the drink, but the rising river did leave a mess the entire quarter-mile length of the main trail. When the river crested sometime late Tuesday afternoon, I'd say our woodland was standing up to four feet deep in flood waters carrying red clay that gives the Red River its name.

Could have been worse. In the spring of 2007 a so-called 100-year flood left nearly 18 feet of clay-choked river water inundating our 13 acres of bottom land. The waters took nearly a full week to recede to a point where we could make it all the way down to the north end of the trail. About an eighth of an inch of treacherously slippery clay mud completely covered the concrete walkway, and we all but lost two outbuildings.

A pair of Mississippi Kites set up housekeeping in our woods this spring. I counted as many as four young ones at various times perched in the tallest snags. Just before the rains moved in on Monday I noticed six kites resting in the snag. Tuesday, after the deluge, I did not see a single kite. Wednesday and Thursday as I hosed mud from the trail the kites were conspicuously absent still. I began to wonder if that low pressure system had nudged the birds into starting their move south. Then today I heard that familiar raptorish scree overhead, as if the bird was saying, "I'm back!" It was an adult, male I believe, although my bird identification skills fall far short of my colleague Penny Miller's. I checked the tall snag that towers thinly above the canopy of soapberry, pecan and red cedar, and sure enough there were two juveniles waiting for breakfast.

The water did not rise high enough to reach the fox's den, and Wednesday morning revealed sign that the raccoons, opossums and armadillos had been out and about, benefiting from the washed in buffet while it lasted. The red-shouldered bugs were again going after the remains of the last soapberry crop, and the pill bugs were just skittering around, distressed by the saturated earth and doing whatever pill bugs do when they're temporarily forced from their homes.

In short, the little low pressure system brought about a day's worth of drama to the nature center. Then it was wash away the mud and back to business as usual for all concerned. After all, it's a riparian wetland. Its continued existence as a unique ecosystem on the Rolling Plains depends on periodic flood events.