Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Poshing up the garden

Every well dressed garden needs a chandelier, don't you think?

I found this one -- the real deal -- at a yard sale, going for a whopping $10! It was very dusty and the new homeowner couldn't be bothered to clean it.

Our little house is not the right place for such a splendid piece, but I wasn't thinking about using it inside, anyway.

I've removed most of the electrical wiring and for a post-Christmas gathering, hung it from a branch of the big mahogany. I used fake flickering LED candles, and I think it looked fabulous. It looks just as goodby daylight, too.

A Christmas beetle

With its iridescent red and green back, it seems appropriate to write a blog entry at this time of the year about Phanaeus igneus, our local dung beetle. The first time I came across one I was enchanted, turning it upside down and wondering at its brilliant colors. I hope I washed my hands well, but I don't remember.

I only realized how it made its living when I noticed a pile of dog dung gently rocking, seemingly of its own accord. It was both fascinating and, since I didn't know what to expect, distinctly alarming. Gingerly poking the pile with a stick yielded the reason: a dung beetle had tunneled underneath and was dragging the contents down the hole. A few days later all that was left was dirt from the hole, and the area looked like an old ants nest.

Dung beetles fall into three categories: "Tunnelers," like P. igneus; "rollers," which roll balls of dung; and "dwellers" that simply live inside a dung pile. Dung is either used as food or as a place to lay eggs. The scarab revered by the Ancient Egyptians was a roller, a piece of information I'm sure you needed to know.

So next time you're down on your luck, you know to be grateful you're not a dung beetle. Even so, we'd all be climbing over piles of poop if it weren't for these beetles, so I guess we should all be grateful to them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


We've had two consecutive years of a bumper avocado crop. Unfortunately, they're not my favorite fruit, but these are a good variety and they'll spread like butter across a sandwich. I've been giving them away to anyone who wants some, but they're still way too many and the squirrels are having a fine old feast.

Last year, I gave some to Sparky. He wolfed them down and got diarrhea in the house, so he's not having any more. Some people I used to know moved, with their skinny black lab, to a house with several avocado trees. The next time I saw the dog, he was easily double the size. I think the owners finally resorted to putting a muzzle on him during avo season.

But why do trees make so much fruit when it only takes one successful germination to replace the parent? I found an answer in a 1990 movie called Mindwalk, starring Sam Waterston, John Heard and Liv Ullmann. It's kind of a forerunner to What the #*!$ Do We Know, with just as flimsy a "plot."

Waterston plays a failed presidential candidate who meets up with his poet pal, Heard, at Mont St Michel, off the Brittany coast. The film is all about the conversation they start with Ullmann's character, a Norwegian quantum physicist. It's she who puts forward the hypothesis that the tree -- my avocado -- is part of a much greater system and as such, the abundance of fruit nourishes the system, which in turn protects a new seedling, later to become the replacement tree.

James Lovelock wrapped this up in his Gaia Hypothesis, which has always appealed to me.

The Ramble

Fairchild held its annual Ramble, the weekend before last. I went twice since this year it started on Friday, running through Sunday. The first thing that caught my eye was the Rolls Royce I parked next to.

One improvement over the years is the inclusion of "green" groups, such as Urban Paradise and Urban Oasis, so everyone can learn more about sustainable living. 

Even if you're not into growing things or the environment, there's always great art and food and activities for the kids, not to mention the antiques in the main auditorium.

I spent way too much of my unemployment benefits on a couple of "must-have" unusual plants, including Flame of Jamaica (Euphorbia punicea), a shrub that will put out striking scarlet bracts.

Vultures (with feathers)

A couple of turkey vultures were arguing over a possum carcass in the road a few houses along. There was a lot of commotion and clashing of wings before they sorted it out, and then a car drove one off, leaving the feast to the other. I walked over to what was left of the possum (be glad you didn't smell it), which caused me to wonder whether vultures, like raptors, have exceptional eyesight, or whether they have exceptional smell -- or both. Questions, questions.

If you live in suburban South Florida (and assuming you even notice them), you probably like seeing vultures wheeling around the sky. Vultures, turkey vultures specifically, are harbingers of the fall; they arrive from somewhere in the Midwest or Northeast in the first week of October, bringing with them the blessed promise of cooler weather. Except in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, I don't think it's ever cooled down before the "buzzards" show up.

The occasion used to be celebrated annually on the steps of the courthouse in downtown Miami, which is where dozens choose to roost at night. As tall buildings went up around the courthouse, the vultures roosted there, too. The Herald wrote a story about very expensive lawyers in very expensive penthouse offices not appreciating vultures resting outside and spoiling their otherwise very expensive view. Oh, the irony!

If you do look up, watch these masters of flight as they ride thermals and glide across the sky with the rarest flap of a wing. On the ground, though, it's another matter. These huge birds, ungainly as they are ugly, are positively comical as they lumber along the ground preparing for takeoff. Sadly, this is when the vultures themselves become road kill.