Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Magic of the Fireflies

We called them lightening bugs when I was a child.  That name evokes visions of streaks of light, thunder and stormy weather.  It also brings back a lot of good, simple memories.

I remember running around our backyard chasing lightening bugs when I was growing up in Florida.  My brother, sister and I would see who could catch the most.  We put them in jars and watched them glow and shook them to see the light streaks in the dark, like sparklers on the Fourth of July.  I always let mine loose quickly, afraid they would expire in their cramped quarters.

Sometime between childhood and this baby boomer age I have grown into, I started calling them fireflies.  I don't know why or if maybe it is a regional thing, but now they have come to mean the start of summer and the illumination of the garden and the tall pine trees that surround it.  It is a magical time in late May and into June, over before July 4.

Tonight was the first night I saw them, brightening the pine trees with their signal lights, calling silently  to their potential mates.  Summer  has begun and nights on the deck will be full of magic for weeks to come.

I'll want to linger over dinner on the deck, waiting until the dark sets in, signaled by the first bat sighting in the open spaces between the treetops.  Soon after the darkness falls, the tiny sparklers begin their show, gyrating among the trees, venturing out into the open spaces to light up the garden, the pond and the still-green grass.  The bats begin their hunting and the fireflies dodge them, intent on their own solicitations of the night.

There is something magical about the dancing lights that makes me think of a Tinkerbell convention or tiny little spaceships observing the activities of the earthings.  Occasionally when several are in close proximity, their light is bright enough to illuminate a spot in the trees or, when they come close, brighten the spot where I am.  I imagine a walk through the woods in the night, fireflies  lighting my path to a clearing where all the animals are having a hoe-down and dancing and communicating between species, illuminated by the magic of the fireflies.

I remember a special night when Mother was visiting some years ago and we sat on the lower deck, feet propped up on a bench, and watching the fireflies.  It was so peaceful and we enjoyed just sitting, lost in our own thoughts and taking in the beauty before us.

Eventually there will be thousands of them in my garden and the tiny little rockets with their afterglow will carouse through the night.  Intent on their personal missions, the fireflies are ignorant of the spectacle they make for those other than their own kind and we have the option of sitting back for a spell, using them as our excuse for slowing down and enjoying the simple things.

Tomorrow night cannot come too soon.   I plan to watch the show.  Tonight I might just wake up and go to the window for a spell.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lucky Frog Liberation

When my brother was visiting last week we took a trip to The Great Wall, an international grocery store filled with interesting food items.  They also have amazing fruits and vegetables at great prices.

At the back of the store in the meat section they have live fish, live eels, live turtles and live frogs.  It breaks my heart to go back there and usually I avoid that part of the store; although sometimes I am just curious enough to view the assorted body parts, such as chicken feet, that are sold in styrofoam packages.  On this particular day, my brother, niece and son invited me to look over the live bullfrogs and choose which two I would like to liberate - to buy by the pound and take home to my pond.

The tiny container where the enormous bullfrogs were kept did not allow space for them to move about, much less swim.  It was sad to peer in, knowing only two would be saved.  Some did not look very healthy or even alive, but the two I chose were quite awake and seemingly not damaged in any way.  My brother dealt with the butcher who put both of them into a small paper bag.

I held the bag in my hand and as my warmth began to reach the frogs, the bag began to jiggle.  By the time we got to the checkout, they were bouncing about in the bag, trying to come out of the folded-down top.  We put them on the conveyer belt and the bag moved up and down and the top started to open a bit, a frog appendage attempting to reach the open air.  The checkout clerk made a gasping noise and put her hands to her face.  She did not know what to charge us and had to find out the frog price per pound.  I tried to explain that we were not going to eat them but instead to liberate them.  She didn't care.  She wanted those frogs off of her space, all two pounds of them - BIG FROGS!

Because frogs are wet and they pee everywhere, we decided to put the paper bag inside of a plastic one. It still gyrated as it sat on my brother's lap on the way home.   Soon they would be free, ready to face the wilds of the backyard and the challenges of life in the pond.
My eldest wisely was concerned about possible contamination of the existing pond inhabitants and we decided to put them in a large aquarium, filled with about 8" of water, a log and a couple of floating plants.  They had room to swim about or climb out to dry on the log.  Most importantly, we put an antibacterial solution in the water so that they would be disinfected by the time we released them into the pond.
It was very cold for the next three days of their quarantine period.  Once I went out out to check on them and they did not move.  I poked them and they did not respond and I though they had died.  Sadly, I turned one over and it flipped its leg and tried to right itself.  I was so relieved.  They were simply in hibernation mode, unprepared as they were for the change in temperature from the meat department.
Finally the day came to turn them loose.  My son picked the first one up and put him on a rock that jutted out into the pond.  He just sat there.  We tried to coax him into jumping; poking him did not help.  My son gave him a shove and into the water he went, probably swimming multiple strokes for the first time since he was a very tiny frog back at the frog farm.  It must have been exhilarating for him.  We noticed the second one had a damaged eye, probably poked during his time in the meat department.  We went through the same routine with him, ending by pushing him into the pond.
Since then we have never seen one-eye again.  He was the one who rarely surfaced during the isolation period so maybe he stays below the surface of the pond all of the time.  Or maybe a predator came at him on his bad side and took advantage of him.  But Lucky, the first to jump, is just about the happiest frog I have ever seen.  He has enough fear that he won't let you get close to him, but he has the guts to surface and float happily among the plants, head above the water, front feet resting on a plant or floating.  When startled he darts below the surface and swims quickly to the opposite side, making it there in only a couple of strokes.
It must have all been so overwhelming for him at first, having never been outdoors and free to do what he wanted.  His legs seemed stiff and difficult to move, probably due to lack of use.  He seems to have regained his olympic swimming strength now.  He is a looker.  We think he is an American Bullfrog.   I hate to say it but as much as I think he is special, the pictures in the frog book look an awful lot alike.  But one thing is for sure, this is one lucky frog.  I just hope that he has sense enough to stay away from the hawks and owls and enjoys lots of mosquitoes and water bugs this summer.  It is a good life and I feel fantastic knowing that I was part of a successful liberation, for only $3.99 a pound!

Peony Envy

US National Arboretum, Peony Collection
Recently I visited the US National Arboretum, one of my favorite spots.  In addition to walking through the azalea gardens,  empty of admirers because most had peaked and had only wilted flowers, we saw the boxwood gardens and adjacent perennial gardens featuring peonies. 
US National Arboretum, Peony Collection
While I loved seeing the beautiful peonies, it made me envious and a little annoyed because they were excessively beautiful.  There were so many of different varieties and colors.  I was star-struck and coveted the collection.
US National Arboretum, Peony Collection
I didn’t grow up with peonies and until the last couple of years, I never paid much attention to them.  Perhaps that is because I have had so much more time to open my eyes and enjoy the spring or maybe it's an aging thing.   
Puny Peony in Falls Church
There is a peony bush tucked in the back of a partially-shaded flower bed in my garden.  It never blooms and doesn't grow much.  In 13 years it hasn't changed size but it always comes back.   I think it is a puny peony.   Like some people, and animals, it just isn’t up to the challenge of blooming and instead puts out its greens and does no more.  It lives; it does not thrive.
My peony
A few years ago I purchased three peony tubers in the spring and planted them in a sunny spot in the garden.  They barely had any leaves that first year (I have since found out it is best to plant peonies in the fall).  The second year I had completely forgotten about them and was surprised to see them emerge from the cold earth late in the spring; again, no blooms.
My Peony
This year I had quite a surprise.  One of the three peony bushes put out two blooms.  They were not big gorgeous blooms like what you see at the National Arboretum or in my neighbors’ yards, but the color is beautiful and they lasted about a week.  I don’t know about the two smaller bushes; maybe next year will be the year for their to peak (or peek?).
Friend's Peonies
Meanwhile my dear neighbor and friend has brought me cuttings from her voluptuous peonies and on my morning walks with the dog I see the peonies of others in the neighborhood, all beautiful, full and enormous.  Mine pale in comparison.  It must be the lack of full sun in my yard.  Or maybe they need to be fed.
US National Arboretum, Peony Collection
There is a lot to be said for shade in the summer months, but it makes it hard to grow some things – like jealousy-inducing peonies.  So I continue to be envious right now that everyone else's peonies outshine mine and remain gorgeous as my two little blooms lose their leaves. 

Sometimes you just have to work with and appreciate the resources you have.  My shade-loving hostas are gorgeous and enormous, and soon will have their fragrant beautiful flowers; my azaleas were full and brilliant this year; the bleeding hearts are to be coveted; the rhododendron are stunning; and soon my hydrangeas in dark pink, brilliant blue and deep purple will be blooming and ready to cut and share.  
US National Arboretum, Peony Collection
It seems there are lessons everywhere these days.  Peonies are good teachers.  Envy is not a particularly attractive trait and really I don't consider my problem with peony envy a serious personality flaw.  Rather it is an opportunity to reflect, examine my actions (maybe I should try feeding them and move the puny one to a sunny spot), rejoice for the beauty I am so fortunate to be able to enjoy, and wait patiently for the wonders unfolding in other parts of my garden as summer progresses.  No matter how gorgeous and prolific my perennials and bushes are, I promise I will never mention that mine are bigger than yours!

Visit the peony collection at the United States National Arboretum