Zen Doggie

Not zen doggie, but looks pretty zen. By uıɐɾ ʞ ʇɐɯɐs from New York City, USA  (A dog on the Old Road)  via Wikimedia Commons

Not our zen doggie, but looks pretty zen.
By uıɐɾ ʞ ʇɐɯɐs from New York City, USA
“A Dog Near the Old Road Restaurant in Mescalero, NM” via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

As the Western Skies essays continue this summer, I found this lazy summer piece, reminding us to try to stay chill and appreciate the little connections.

—Sandra Knauf

 

Zen Doggie

My eleven-year-old daughter and I, out on a walk, were startled by a yell, “Hey, your dog’s in the road!”

We turned to see a man in black spandex slowing down on his bicycle. He nodded at a mutt headed our way.

“He’s not ours,” I said.

The rider shrugged and pedaled off. The dog lumbered up. A big mutt with a sweet face, floppy wheat-hued ears, and fur clipped close to his body for the August heat. I guessed from his looks maybe some St. Bernard and German Shepherd. “Hi, there, boy,” I said. I gently grabbed his collar, noticed the dry patches of skin on his back. Ewww.

“What’s his name, Mom?”

“Don’t know, Lily.” The tags jingled in the quiet Sunday afternoon. “There’s only a license and rabies tag.”

I didn’t want to end our walk when we were only two blocks into it, and I wasn’t keen on corralling a non-threatening but perhaps mange-ridden dog with our own. Surely, his owner would be cruising the street soon, calling for him. I’d been there, so had most of our neighbors—an unlatched gate or open door was an invitation for your dog to split. I released him and he padded purposefully in front of us. A slight limp and scrawny hindquarters said he was an old guy. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t do anything stupid.

He stuck with us. A block down he wandered into a yard with two women, one holding a baby. The young mother smiled until I said, “He’s not ours.” Then she clutched her baby to her chest. I’d alarmed her. Sorry, I thought.

We walked and the dog led, pausing every now and then to hike his leg, lagging behind, leading again. The blocks passed and Lily and I didn’t talk much—the dog commanded our attention. In a gravel parkway he stopped and squatted. Loose stools. “Oh, gross!” we exclaimed (now I really didn’t want to take him home). We continued. He paused to sniff a calico cat under a Jeep. A pretty blonde teenager smiled from the porch. “Oh, he’s cute,” she said.

“Not ours.”

Everyone noticed him, no one felt compelled to take him under their care.

Soon it was time to head back home. He’d been with us nine blocks, we had a mile walk back. We stopped at the corner, the dog kept going. “He’ll probably keep going,” I whispered.

“Bye,” Lily called.

“Why did you do that?” I scolded. We turned around, crossed the street, putting distance between us and tag-along. But he spotted us, ambled up again.

Lily grinned. “Looks like he is ours.”

“If he follows us home, I’ll find his owner.”

We passed the girl on the porch again.

She laughed. “He’s still following you?” We crossed the street again, in a last attempt to shake him. It didn’t work. I knew he had to be thirsty. First thing I’d do when we got home was give him a bowl of water.

Two blocks from our house, he crossed the street and disappeared.

“That’s where he joined us. He’s going home.”

I was glad to be rid of him, but happy for his company. What was the nature of Zen Doggie? A mysterious geriatric escapee, or a serene, mystical visitor? The answer was clear. Just a fellow traveler, joining us on a Sunday afternoon.

* * *

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Killers in the Garden

Image from WIkimedia Commons, 1916.  (There were more modern ones, but this was the least gruesome.)

Image from Wikimedia Commons, 1916.
(There were lots of modern images, but this was the least gruesome.)

 

Another “oldie”—an essay that’s never been published. I felt it was appropriate as we have a new kitten in the ’hood. He’s growing big and he’s fast; sometimes we see him springing from tree to shrub to outdoor chair on our neighbor’s patio, when he’s allowed out.

—Sandra Knauf

Killers in the Garden

My adolescent daughters saw him first, slinking around our front garden. They squealed as if they had just spotted Chris Hemsworth or Channing Tatum.

“Oh, look!”

“He’s so cute!”

“Wonderful,” I said, eyeing the object of their affection. “Just what we don’t need. A new neighborhood cat.”

“Awww, he’s a nice kitty,” they cooed.

A few days later, I discovered Artemis (they had named him) in the wicker chair by our front door, napping comfortably, like he owned the place. He opened one eye, not at all startled to see me. Handsome (and he knew it), young, a big grey tiger with lovely green eyes.

Already we had a routine.

“Meow,” he said.

“Scoot!” said I.

He darted off across the yard, parkway, street.

I began my Saturday morning watering and a few minutes later, Artemis came from around the side of my house, whisking off in the direction of the street as frantic cheeping sounds came from his mouth. “You little bas. . .”

But already he was gone. More outdoor chores. Two birds screeched, flying around the ash tree out front. Artemis was close to their nest, about fifteen feet up.

This time my daughters came outside.

“Oh no!” they squealed. “He’ll fall and kill himself!”

“We should all be so lucky.”

My snarky remark did not come from disliking cats, but over the last decade I’d changed. I’d become a . . . gardener. Gardeners develop a deep fondness for the feathered folk. As we work outside, we commune with them. We watch them build nests, hop around flowers and puddles, pull worms from the ground, snatch moths from the air, make glorious birdy love on fence and roof line and tree branch and on the potted plants and everywhere else. We provide water, shelter, and sometimes food. We admire and feel protective of their offspring. In return, they share their appreciation (I feel this often) and their songs. They watch us too, working and playing in the garden, experiencing our little life dramas and joys. They are tender companions of a different sort. Our gardens, for them, are sanctuaries.

At the same time, I admire predators. I love their grace and daring, their beautiful sleek fur, large eyes, and intelligence. We’ve shared our lives with a few well-loved cats over the years.

But here’s the troubling part. A study of Felis catus (the domestic cat) and their hunting habits was conducted in Great Britain a few years ago. The time period of the study was between April 1 and August 31 (breeding season) and the number of cats was 696. Based on their studies, they concluded that a British population of 9 million cats brought home an estimated 92 million prey animals. Over half were mice or rats but 27 million were birds. Again 9 million cats, one breeding season, 27 million dead birds.

Another study in southeast Michigan estimated deaths were higher, about one bird per week, per cat. This would be 198 million birds in Great Britain in that same five month period, or more than 7 times their estimate.

The British study noted that when cats were kept in at night the numbers were significantly lower, as were the numbers when owners attached bells to cats’ collars. Of course, the number of dead playthings or trophies kitty brought home was negatively related to kitty’s condition and age.

I guess this makes sense (bell them, lock them up) but I am one of those people who hate to see cats shut up inside. To exclude them a thousand exquisite joys of nature, which includes the healthfulness of fresh air and sunshine and the freedom to live to their full potential of cat-ness (which, yes, includes hunting) is, at least not to me, acceptable.

So, what’s the solution? As they say in all relationships, it’s complicated. However, that shouldn’t prevent us from making good decisions or trying to come up with better solutions for harmonious living. We all know it’s possible.

 

"Betania e Jimmy" from Wikimedia Commons. Posted by

Betania e Jimmy” from Wikimedia Commons.
Posted by Mila and Max.

 

 

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Bug Heaven—A Visit to May Museum

 

Here's the famous Hercules beetle, showing that you are very close to Bug Heaven.  (Image from  Legends of America website.)

Here’s the famous Hercules beetle, showing that you are very close to Bug Heaven. (Image from Legends of America website.)

 

I guess it’s “nostalgic summer” here on the blog. Again I’m going back in time to share something sweet. I read this on the air some years back at our local NPR affiliate station, KRCC. The museum’s still here and now I want to go back.

—Sandra Knauf

Bug Heaven

I was thrilled to learn this summer that my seven-year-old nephew, Sean, is into bugs. You see, I have two daughters who did not inherit my “creepy crawlie things ‘r’ fun” gene. While we’ve shared a few adventures, my girls generally wince at earwigs, shudder at spiders, and, well, they just don’t get me.

Sean recently brought over his latest acquisition, a pet slug. “I found it under a rock yesterday.”

I was relieved the mollusk was small, alarmed to see it resided in a tin, on a bed of grass. “Let’s get it some lettuce. And mist it,” I said. “They like it cool and wet.”

The slug still looked overly sluggish after our efforts and I made an unfortunate remark, “Sean, I’m afraid he might be visiting slug heaven really soon.”

Sean didn’t take my comment well.

To make amends, I proposed an adventure, “Want to go to a bug museum?”

Within the hour we turned off Hwy. 115 at a 10-foot-tall Hercules beetle. We headed down the dirt road to the May Museum of Natural History, a place I’d been longing to visit for years. Now, finally, I’d found someone to join me!

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d studied museum and art gallery work in college, even interned at a local history museum, twice, and I knew museums could vary from roadside trailer to Guggenheim. What we found was a charming 1940’s adobe building. Past the gift shop was a large exhibit room filled with display cases holding approximately 8,000 invertebrates, about 1/10th of what is considered to be one of the world’s most outstanding collections. Nothing high tech, no slick design, no interactive games for the kiddies, just glass cases, much like you’d imagine in a Victorian library or a curiosity shop, filled with treasures collected mostly from the tropics. The odd combination of science and antiquities quickened my pulse and made me fantasize about my perfect home library/natural history room. (The fantasy includes a replica of a human skeleton, glass cases with insect specimens, a mineral case, red leather furniture, and twelve-foot walls filled with books, floor to ceiling.)

I didn’t even attempt to stay with Sean. He fluttered randomly about the room, much like one of the tropical insects, saying things like, “Wow, this tarantula eats birds!” “There’s a HUGE fruit bat!” Though excited, I moved in an orderly line, much like an aunt (pun intended) trying to absorb the contents of each case. We saw: Columbian beetles so large that, in flight, they can break street lights and knock down men; giant locusts with rainbow-hued wings; huge Brazilian butterflies in metallic greens and blues; a stick insect 17 inches long; and leaf insects of Borneo and Madagascar that are replicas of the leaves of the trees they rest on. I found myself not in a museum so much as an unusual temple devoted to evolution and beauty! The art before my eyes mocked anything man could ever hope to create—transparent butterflies lovelier than stained glass; gold and silver beetles that would make a Tiffany silversmith weep.

 

The wonderfulness of May Museum (image from Pikes Peak County attractions website, http://www.pikes-peak.com/attractions/may-natural-history-museum/)

The wonderfulness of May Museum (image from Pikes Peak County attractions website).

 

I wanted to hug each and every case.

In the gift shop I asked about the fall closing date, October 1st, and said, “I’ve really got to come back one more time before then.”

“Can I come too?” asked Sean.

I smiled. Boys could be so fun! “Of course.”

Back at the house, we found that the slug had succumbed, another reminder of how man’s efforts at species domination can fail so easily. We gave the slug a burial in the flower garden, saddened, but also solaced by our very own glimpse of Bug Heaven.

* * *

 

 

 

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Summer Lovers

Image from 123rf.

Image from 123rf.

 

For this week’s post, I thought I’d share a confession.

It happened years ago, but the sweet memory lingers . . .

* * *

The affairs began within a week of each other this summer. After twenty-some years of marriage, my husband and I were surprised to find ourselves ensnared by others—he with his wrong-side-of-the-tracks trollop, me with my beautiful Mexican lover.

I could not help falling in love with Tulio. His eyes, my God, wonderful espresso eyes that gazed, no, bored, into mine with such romance, such intensity, such devotion. He had it all—a personality that drew women wherever he went, and yet an ability, when we were alone, to make me feel as if I were the only one. I knew I wasn’t, that he belonged to someone else, but I didn’t care. Our time together was ecstatic. Caresses, kisses, nuzzling . . . his mouth on the buttons of my blouse, first pulling playfully, then urgently. Once, his tongue darted into my ear and . . . electrifying.

My husband’s lover was different. Oh yes, she was beautiful. She possessed a taut, lithe young body, and she poured her attention on him like molasses on a buckwheat pancake. Yet, she was common. I knew her type and it was legion—gorgeous young, ordinary old. She’d call, bitchy and demanding, and he’d jump. He thought her demands were “cute.” He showered her with gifts, while I looked on, jealous, but mired in my own guilt. My husband wasn’t Elowen’s only love either, but, like me, he knew and didn’t care. He reveled in the attention, worshipped her youth.

We knew about one another’s infidelity, and we flaunted our summer loves.

One afternoon my husband caught me and Tulio nuzzling on the bed. I looked up and smirked, as if to say, “He’s so much nicer than you, you cannot imagine.”

“He’s cute,” said my spouse, “but not what I’d call a real dog. A Chihuahua . . . good grief.”

“Only three-quarters. Don’t forget the miniature pincher.” I planted a kiss on Tulio’s tiny head and he turned his melty eyes toward me. “Mmmm, puppies are a girl’s best friend. Your feline, on the other hand, she’s a mutt.”

“Elowen? Aww, she’s a sweetie.” At the sound of his voice, slinky grey tiger Elowen leapt upon the bed and brushed up against my husband, gently scent-marking him with her velvet cheek.

Tart, I thought.

Our two daughters came into the bedroom, catching us in the act. “Hey,” said ten-year-old Lily, “why don’t you get your own pets if you like ours so much?”

“Here, kitty, kitty,” her thirteen-year-old sister Zora beckoned.

Elowen ignored her owner; she had spotted Tulio. She raced to him. Delighted to see his playmate, Tulio bolted from my arms, tail wild with excitement. The two began their routine, one we’d seen dozens of times already. They began to roll and tumble. They took turns pinning one another down, biting with gentle vigor. Two four-month-olds, more interested in one another than any of us.

As we watched them absorbed in their play fight, I thought about the one that my husband and I had indulged in this summer. Our little mock rivalry had been fun, serving to awaken the youngsters still very much alive in both of us.

There’s nothing quite like middle-aged puppy love.

—Sandra Knauf

 

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Our Green Wasteland—The Great American Lawn

"Reel Life"  Image of reel mowers from CanStockPhoto

“Embrace Reel Life”
Image of vintage mowers from CanStockPhoto

 

(Originally published in The Denver Post, February 22, 2009)

This is an essay I wrote some years back when I had the privilege to be one of the “Colorado Voices” columnists at The Denver Post. I think it’s also one of the most important essays I’ve ever written, especially in light of the honeybee collapses that we now know is caused by the use of insecticides and other toxins.

—Sandra Knauf

* * *

My sister and I ended many summer afternoons in the 1970s green from the knees of our jeans down, sweaty, and reeking of gas and exhaust. As servants of the Great American Lawn, we regularly mowed ours, the elderly Miss Howard’s next door, our grandma’s, and once in a while, our great Aunt Flora’s.

It was work that was necessary and our lawn in particular was well used—the six kids in our family played games of tag, pitch and catch, badminton, and we used the space, as teenagers, for sunbathing. Dad saw physical labor as the best character-builder, so he “volunteered” us to maintain it. We received $5 a lawn, to share.

I didn’t mind the work but Missouri summers were hot and humid, and occasionally at Miss Howard’s I ran over a toad (a horrifying thing).

I learned more about turf at age 20, verifying sales for a lawn-care company in Colorado Springs. I telephoned clients, confirming that they had joined our fertilizer/weed killer program, with insecticide and/or fungicide treatments as needed. With our help, their lawns would be the envy of the neighborhood!

During our one-day training, we learned to instruct clients with pets to remove dog and cat bowls before spraying, as there had been pet deaths from tainted water. We also cautioned them to keep pets and people off the grass until the applications dried. It sickened me to realize that the men who drove the trucks and sprayed these toxins daily would inhale them, get them on their clothing, their skin, and bring these toxins home. I wondered why people would pay good money for lawns you wouldn’t want a baby crawling on.

A decade later, as a college grad, mom, and hobby gardener, I had my own lawn—or, rather, weed/native grass lot. Seduced by the American ideal, we installed sod in our backyard. For a while, it looked gorgeous; but without pampering, chemicals or a sprinkler system, it deteriorated fast. In Colorado, lawns require constant life support.

A few years later when I became a master gardener, I determined to get rid of our lawn. Bit by bit, with a tiny budget and lots of elbow grease, I created a garden instead—with fruit trees, herbs, flowers, native plants, sandstone paths, even a goldfish pond. I kept patches of grass/weeds for our dogs (and the occasional badminton game for the kids) and maintained it with a reel mower, enjoying a good workout in the process. Our established garden requires much less maintenance than a lawn. Except for the vegetable garden, I water once a week, deeply, and I do not water the grass/weeds at all.

I realize that turf is a multibillion-dollar U.S. industry (in Colorado it’s our #1 cash crop!) and many are wedded to the old ways. Lawns, those pretty green carpets, do have an aesthetic charm and they are good for sports. But they don’t support butterflies, honeybees, birds, other wildlife, or much of anything else. Caring for one is the antithesis of green. Five percent of all our nation’s air pollution comes from gas-powered lawn mowers. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, one gas-powered mower, used for one hour, emits as much pollution as eight new cars, driven at 55 mph for the same time.

According to the EPA, Americans burn 800 million gallons of fuel each year trimming their lawns. Of this, 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, are spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment. This is more than the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Fertilizer pollution is a huge problem, and lawns require significant water, yet another burden on our limited resources.

In addition, nearly 80 million pounds of pesticide active ingredients are used on U. S. lawns annually. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that “homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops.”

It’s past time to see traditional lawns for what they have become: antiquated, wasteful, and harmful. I propose that we return to our roots—cottage gardens. Gardens assist nature on a meaningful scale and they are excellent outdoor classrooms/playgrounds for children and adults. My children had more fun in our backyard than I ever did in the 1970s as they had chickens, and flowers, and a pond—and lots of places to let their imagination run wild. Our home landscapes can also provide us with locally-grown food. You cannot grow luscious plums, pull up sweet carrots, snip chives for your potatoes (and grow potatoes, too), pick wildflower bouquets, or provide bird sanctuary or forage for honeybees with a grass lawn.

As the industrialized world races toward green living, homeowners everywhere can make a difference. It’s easy; take up your shovel and start getting rid of your lawn.

References: People Powered Machines, http://www.peoplepoweredmachines.com/faq-environment.htm; Environment and Human Health, Inc., http://www.ehhi.org/reports/lcpesticides/summary.shtml;

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Rainbow’s Bride – Love Among the Betta splendens

Betta splendens, image from 123RF

Betta splendens (image from 123RF)

 

This is something a little different. It’s not about gardening; it is, however, about the mysteries and wonders of nature.

A true story I wrote some years back about love among the fishes . . .

—Sandra Knauf

 

Rainbow’s Bride

“She’s going to kill him. You need to separate them,” Mom said.

“I don’t know. Maybe I should check around, ask first.”

On her phone, Mom couldn’t see what I did—that the possibility of mortal danger, had passed, at least for now. “What I’ve heard,” she said, in her slightly southern accent, “is that they’ll kill each other.”

“But I don’t want to take care of two bowls.”

She ignored my comment. “When I had that tank in Missouri, that’s what the man at the pet store told us. And he was right. We didn’t even have another Betta for him to fight with, but that didn’t stop him, he started biting off the fins of the other fish!”

I imagined Mom loading the dishwasher (or doing something else, she was always multi-tasking), her blue eyes animated, her expression certain. We looked alike, but that’s where it ended. She was hotness and surety; I, coolness and doubt. “This is different, Mom. I have a male and female. It’s just the two of them.”

“If she’s chewing off his fins,” Mom declared, “she’s going to kill him.”

* * *

“Him” was Rainbow, our second Betta splendens, or Siamese fighting fish. Selected and named by our seven-year-old daughter, Lily, he was last summer’s spontaneous fish buy at a local big box. I approved the purchase for two reasons; one, she’d asked for a fish, instead of a toy, and I was a big fan of real life experiences (hence our five backyard chickens, two dogs, and rescued canary), and two, our previous fighting fish did not live up to his name, at least when it came to survival. I figured Rainbow, handsome as he was with his metallic blue and red coloration, would not be a long-term house guest.

He proved surprisingly hardy. Lily’s chore was to feed him, and I cleaned his gallon-sized, bubble-shaped glass bowl. Every few days Rainbow and I went through the same routine; I’d chase him briefly until I captured him in his original plastic cup. He’d react claustrophobically, fins waving maniacally, darting around like he was looking for the secret passageway out. While he waited in semi-panic, I’d swoosh out his habitat’s fetid water, scrub the bowl, refill it (gauging the water’s temperature by feel), add the magic de-chlorination stuff, and slide him back in.

He always seemed pleasantly surprised at the change in pollution level, delighted with the new air bubbles. It must be boring, I’d think, in that bowl every day, though I’d read that Bettas actually thrived in tight spaces. A book I’d shared with our two young daughters said that they were gathered from the street gutters of Thailand for export. Still, his life seemed lonely, uneventful, sorely lacking.

I tried to make his solitary life more interesting. At summer’s end, I floated a water hyacinth from our small backyard pond in the bowl. Rainbow swam among the tangle of roots until the plant decayed and I had to throw it out. Then I added a bare-root elephant ear plant, but it, too, fouled the water. Since I work at home, sometimes I’d take a minute to tease him with the tip of my finger on the glass, making him follow it in defense of his territory. Approaching the pink, faceless invader, he’d spread his fins wide and flare his gill covers. Through the magnified glass his head became huge, in a theatrical fish-Kabuki way, and quite menacing. I thought about getting him a mirror so he’d have someone to challenge daily, but changed my mind. Being on the defense is not the same as companionship.

We’d had him for almost a year when my husband, Andy, brought home a trio of bamboo cuttings he happened to find in the markdown area of the grocery store. I added them to the bowl, thanking Andy for the Far East plants, a clever addition.

“That bamboo should only be in an inch or so of water,” my mom pointed out on her next visit.

By summer vacation, our daughters had another strategy—we’d search for a real companion for Rainbow, a girl Betta, a mate. On the big day, Zora, eleven, had her turn; she would choose Rainbow’s bride. She selected a small peachy-white fish with short blood-red fins and gill slits. Though not as peacock dramatic as the long-finned males of the species, she had two unusual markings—a small black spot on her back, near her tail, and an opalescent blue patch just under her dorsal fin. The girls named this charming female Cloud. I secretly hoped she’d be as hardy as her bowl mate.

I tidied the bowl for their big date, and we gently delivered her into the clear water. Immediately, Rainbow flared his gills and fins and went after her, all fiery red-cobalt blue fury. Cloud fled to the drab pebble covered bottom and stayed there, still, as if she were hoping to camouflage herself or fly the white flag, while Rainbow hovered above her, brooding, majestic, his draping fins floating beneath him like a silk kimono. Each day we checked to see if she was moving around freely. Rainbow would not let her. The male Betta, a merciless bully, chased her anytime she dared to stir, his gills flared, fins flashing, seemingly furious.

“Oh, he’s horrible!” squealed the girls. “Get her away from him, he’s so much bigger than her.”

“Let’s wait,” I said. Though I didn’t voice it, I thought he probably wasn’t that much bigger, though his fins made him appear thrice her size.

Once Cloud stayed so long at the bottom I thought her dead, but she was only, once again, playing fish-possum, the opalescent patch on her back gleaming. She seemed to have no injuries but my conscience prickled. Had I sent her to an evil fate? I imagined an Asian romance. Cloud, a young geisha, thrown into the fortress of a handsome, yet aging and cranky samurai, forced to wed. How she must despise him, I thought.

Several days later, about a week after Cloud came to the bowl, the weather changed. My daughter Zora was the first to notice Rainbow’s long fins. They looked shredded. Soon I witnessed Cloud in action. She chased him, nipping his long, lovely fins mercilessly with her tiny, down-turned mouth. When she made contact, he’d jolt, as if shot through with electricity. A part of me cheered for her, for Rainbow’s bride-turned-bride of Frankenstein, but for the most part the display horrified me. I sprinkled in more dried bloodworms, their preferred food, wondering if hunger could be the provocation. No, she had a hunger, but not for food. She chased him relentlessly, rarely giving him a rest. Over a few days’ time, his fins became more and more ragged, now like silk kites tattered by a treacherous wind. I wondered if he bled. If he felt pain.

“You should separate them,” the girls cried. Now they were on the other side, witnessing the havoc one small damsel could wreck.

“Maybe I will,” I said.

* * *

While my mother often gave great advice, she wasn’t always right (though she often thought she was.) After our “she’s going to kill him” conversation, I decided to seek an expert opinion.

The girls and I visited a nearby pet store, another chain store, and I cornered a clerk near the aquaria.

“Um, I’m not really sure how they get along, the males and the females,” said the pasty-complexioned teenager. He wielded a fish net, scooping out goldfish for another customer, who had a turtle to feed. Zora and Lily were a little upset to learn the goldfish wouldn’t be the turtle’s friends, but his meals. “The only thing I can tell you is that I know a lady who collects Bettas, has a whole row of them on her fireplace mantle in their little bowls. She says she moves them around if they don’t get along, and lots of times they don’t.”

Okaaaay, I thought, that tells me nothing. The fish-catcher smiled politely, hoping I’d be satisfied. I pressed him for more. There wasn’t any. The book I had at home gave no insight either. While it may sound macabre, I had a secret scheme. I wanted to see how the water opera would play out. Would Cloud go as far to try to kill Rainbow? Would I be able to rescue him in time if she did? Sick or not, I wanted to find out. I held my breath and kept watch.

Over the next days, Rainbow’s fins grew shorter and shorter, until they matched Cloud’s in size. Just as I expected, he wasn’t much larger. Then one afternoon he seemed sluggish. A guilty queasiness washed through me. This is it, I thought, he’s mortally wounded and I’m responsible. I have caused this. All that afternoon I was miserable. I knew, without a doubt, that the ASPCA or PETA would be justified in hauling me off to animal cruelty jail.

Then, the next morning, the barometer changed again. Rainbow seemed fine. My gloom lifted as I watched them swim to the top together, side by side, for their feeding. Practically chummy.

“I think the fish are getting along,” I told Andy, as I peered into the fishbowl after breakfast, “now that his fins are short.”

“Now that she’s castrated him, you mean,” replied my mate, who up to this point had been mute on the whole unfolding drama. I watched him sitting at the head of the table, drinking coffee, reading the paper. He took a sip from his mug and grinned naughtily at me.

“Ha, ha,” I said. “Yes, it probably doesn’t have anything to do with equality.” Our twenty-year marriage had taught me volumes about the male-female power struggle. At times I would feel almost sympathetic toward Andy, in his own fishbowl with a trio of regularly dramatic females (and a mother-in-law). Then, I’d come to my senses.

As I watched the Bettas, optimism filled me. Sure, the honeymoon was a little rocky, but it seemed like they may have settled into married life. I noticed something else. Cloud seemed to bulge a bit around the middle. It’s probably my imagination, I thought, and didn’t mention it.

Several hours later, on the phone with Mom again, discussing the pros and cons of letting elementary-aged children watch PG-13 rated films, I happened to glance at the bowl. Rainbow was draped over Cloud, his body curved as if in rigor mortis.

“Oh, no,” I said, jumping up from my chair in an uncharacteristic panic, “something’s going on with the fish.”

“Is he dead?” Mom’s voice echoed my alarm, with only the slightest tinge of I-told-you-so anticipation.

“I’ll call you back.” I hung up and raced to the bowl. Rainbow’s body was indeed curved, arching over Cloud’s, and, upon closer observation, I saw that she was turned upside down, her body curved as well. Together they made a skewed yin-yang, round eyes embracing the essence of one another. They seemed motionless, except for the tiny quivering of Rainbow’s tail fin. Soon they separated and Cloud, now lying sideways, motionless, curved, as if in a state of paralysis, began to drop whitish tiny eggs from her vent.

As they drifted down, Rainbow, now completely animated, swam below her and caught them in his mouth. One, two, three, four . . . he gathered them, then headed upwards, where he gently blew them out on the top of the water. There they nestled in a line of translucent bubbles that had not been there that morning. Again the fish came together in their yin-yang embrace, again the eggs were dropped, gathered, and gently placed in their bubble nest.

During the mating, I called the girls in to see.

“Mom, this is gross,” Zora said.

“Oh, it’s sorta interesting,” said Lily.

“It’s beautiful.” I sighed, caught in the wonder of it all.

The egg laying went on for a couple of hours, until scores of tiny roe encircled the bowl.

All along we had been witnessing not an underwater prelude to murder but an intense courtship. I knew now that I had sensed something strangely familiar in the love dance, one of seeming aggression, one that brings a male and female together for their ultimate purpose—the creation of new life.

I stood at the bowl and smiled, pleased that I followed my instincts, and honored to be a witness in this marriage among the fishes.

Betta splendens, spawning. From Wikimedia Commons.

Betta splendens, spawning. From Wikimedia Commons.

 

Epilogue: After this event I researched raising Betta splendens and learned that it was tricky to hatch these eggs in captivity, even with the proper environment. We only had the bowl set up and they really needed to be in a aquarium with a cleaning filter and a bubble wand, and a clean environment was a must (bacteria is a danger to the eggs and fry). So, the outcome wasn’t good. I didn’t have the time or the money to attempt to save this surprise clutch of eggs and the nest disappeared on its own after a few days. (Yes, it was sad.)

Rainbow and Cloud’s relationship didn’t last, either. She became aggressive again and for his safety they had to be separated.

It was an intense but brief romance.

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Artists in my Garden

Garage and Canadian Explorer Rose Painting by Laura Reilly

Garage and Canadian Explorer Rose Painting by Laura Reilly

This week something very interesting and unexpected happened in my garden. A group of talented painters came over, set up easels, took out canvasses, sketch pads and paints, and set to work doing something that I never imagined would happen in my garden—they memorialized it in fine art.

I knew I couldn’t turn down this opportunity when Karen Storm wrote me in late April. She said my name had come up during a meeting in her group of plein air artists, “Garden Artists.” You can visit their Facebook Page here. They paint in gardens and a variety of other landscapes throughout our region twice a week. During the meeting someone mentioned the “Greenwoman” who was in the paper last year. Apparently my cottage garden sounded intriguing and they decided to give me a call. Karen said that she knew me from the neighborhood community garden and volunteered to contact me. Another friend in the group knew me too, Pat Nolan, whose haiku (and painting) has appeared in Greenwoman Magazine. (It’s a small art world where I live.)

"Old Garage" by Pam Holnback

“Old Garage” by Pam Holnback

I said yes right away. Exciting! I thought. Then I thought, Oh, shit, I’ve got so much work to do!!! And I did. I had just finished our tax season bookkeeping work (my second job) and had done no gardening yet. In fact, none had been done since fall, when we hauled in that topsoil and a truckload of antibiotic/hormone free/grass fed cow manure for my new raised vegetable beds that were built and filled (mostly) but were still not planted.

Our garden space, front and back, two lots, is maintained by a crew of me, and my daughters Lily and Zora, when they’re around. Unfortunately, they haven’t been around a lot since they started college. That’s it. So, I got to work and every week it took many hours just to hope to get it presentable by June. I was fortunate enough one day to get my nephews out for most of one day to pull weeds, (thank you, Cory and Cody), and Zora and her friend on another (thank you, Boomer) but that was the only outside help. Our family did the rest, with me doing the majority. Planting, weeding, mowing (with a push mower as most of our grass has been replaced with water-wise plants), tending to vegetable beds, flower beds, new beds, pots, tiny greenhouse, small pond, the list goes on forever it seems (if you’re a gardener and don’t have hired help, you know what I mean).

Needless to say I immediately got a little stressed, but I also had that satisfied premonition of “NOW I’m going to get some things done around here, because I have to!” Then a few insecurities rose up, because our sweet 1920s bungalow home is modest and very low budget. I’m the type of gal who recycles old bathtubs and clay roof tiles for planters and whose main palette of plants are hardy and promiscuous seeders and spreaders. Russian sage, blue mist spirea, mints, comfrey, wild roses, clary sage, borage, native “weeds” such as mullein and sunflower, and many more that others would find too pedestrian are welcomed here.

In comparison, I knew these artists were probably more used to the gardens of multi-millionaires. I have visited many one-percenter gardens myself. I even worked in some during a summer one year, just to see what it was like. (Beautiful, but not my cup of tea.) These gardens are usually lovely and often have amenities like sprinkler systems and unlimited water use, amenities I can only dream of! But don’t get me wrong, I’m not jealous. I actually like mine better. Because I’m really the gardener. Honestly, when you have a landscape designer, head gardener with weekly work crews, and an enormous budget . . . well, to me, that’s not really being a gardener. Not my kind of gardener anyway. To me, a gardener gets bruised and scratched and walks around in a stupor sometimes, tired because she’s been planting all day, and not knowing where to put the little plant she’s delicately holding in her hand. She intimately knows the birds and insects that call her garden home. They know her, too, because they see her so often. They stay out of each other’s way, unless she needs to rescue a honeybee from the lily pond or a web, or move a spider to a spot where it makes her feel more comfortable. She makes a lot of gardening “mistakes” (kills a lot of plants) and that teaches her more than any class could. There’s never a perfect canvas to start with or a perfect design or enough money in the budget.

And all is a work in progress.

Garden Artist Bridget O'Hara

Garden Artist Bridget O’Hara

My type of gardener does the best she can with what she has, and she loves her garden because it represents and nurtures her life. It’s not a showplace, it’s a part of her personality and soul. Failures and successes, hopes and dreams, passalong plants from friends, memories of every shrub planted and where it came from and how long it’s taken to get from twig to proper size are known. If she has children her garden is especially precious as it holds memories of a joyous playground (sometimes with fairies and exotic chickens).

Although my love is great, I couldn’t help but feel a little insecure about this visit. Luckily, I don’t let my insecurities stop me. My daughter Lily and I worked hard nearly every day, cleaning, hauling, planting, pruning. During the time we had two hailstorms to contend with and recover from and we hauled two truckloads of mulch and pink sandstone gravel to replenish areas that needed it most. And then the day arrived. The ladies came and nothing was perfect. (I could tell you how naughty our two little dogs were, but I won’t, I’m still too embarrassed. Let’s just say they pulled every ill-mannered dog act they could think of.) But then again, on second thought, it actually was perfect. I got to see a few old friends and meet a few new ones. I found out we were all deep and true lovers of the garden.

 

Garden Artist Marianne Flenniken

The paintings tell it all. It was a beautiful experience.

"Waterlily in Sandra's Garden" by Karen Storm

“Waterlily in Sandra’s Garden” by Karen Storm

Thank you for a very memorable June day, Garden Artists! I hope one day you’ll come back when I have it a little more together, or the dahlias are in bloom, or the tomatoes or coming on . . . or, heck, just come back anyway . . .

—Sandra Knauf

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