Girls like flowers

After 14 springs in Washington state, I guess I don’t have to go to the tulip fields every April. Fortunately, Mia and I saw some color in the beds along Mount Vernon’s newish Skagit River Walk.

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Cocoons: My murderous obsession

If you walked onto your back porch at dusk and were swarmed with butterflies, you’d probably smile and say, “How magical.” If a ladybug crawled across your steering wheel, you might take its picture and post a blog about it.

Swap out the butterflies and ladybugs for moths and beetles, though, and your response would be more like:

“Aaah! Aaah! Get it off me! Get it off me!”

Right?

When I was a little girl, I found a fuzzy little caterpillar. I held it in my hand and thought it was so cute. Because I’d been brainwashed in school to think that fuzzy little caterpillars grow up to be beautiful butterflies, I kept the caterpillar inside a jar with holes poked into the lid. I watched my pet caterpillar wrap itself in a cocoon and eagerly awaited its metamorphosis into beautiful butterfly.

So, yeah, I felt a little duped when a crappy little moth emerged.

We have a tent caterpillar situation in western Washington. I find the caterpillars themselves harmless enough, even when they congregate en masse on my chain link fence, or if one crawls across my foot while I’m reading on my patio. I’m not attached enough to my shrubs to care when they perforate all the leaves.

But last year, on a warm summer night, I left the back door open for the dogs to come in and out. The kitchen light was on, and after the sun set, I discovered dozens of moths slamming themselves against the light fixture like the undead.

Horror show.

This year, the tent caterpillar population has been an infestation of biblical proportions. I am not even exaggerating. I shudder to imagine the swarms of moths that will beat themselves against my sliding glass door this summer. How am I supposed to leave the door open for the dogs? We don’t even have a screen door because the dogs barreled through it.

The Internet prescribes various methods of deterring and poisoning caterpillars, but my soul is too sensitive to blast them with chemicals. A popular suggestion was to cut off the branches housing the tents where the caterpillar snuggle at night. We attempted that, but some of the tents are in trees too high to reach. And I can’t exactly cut off the post of my chain link fence.

Cocoons popped up on the dog run. I tried spraying these with vinegar — and then hornet spray — to kill them while they slept. To my horror, I could see the pupae writhing inside the cocoons. My sense of self deteriorated. I’m a murderer!

I decided the most humane thing would be to drown them. Wearing gloves, I started plucking the oblong dusty white cocoons from the chain link, and the side of my house, and the gutters, and the bases of our outdoor punching bags, and then dropping them into a bucket of soapy water.

Last week, I looked up to see a cluster — what do you call it in a sci-fi movie when they discover where the aliens are growing babies in jars, and there’s just thousands of them? That’s what it felt like — tucked into the leaves of my California myrtle. I grabbed garden shears and started hacking and yanking off branches and leaves, thinking, “I’m going to need a bigger bucket.”

I got really good at spotting cocoons in the leaves. I could tell by the way a leaf folded over that a caterpillar had tucked itself in there nice and tight. Every day after work, I dumped yesterday’s bucket and filled it up anew with cocoons and leaves, and if I saw a caterpillar working its way up a leaf, I flicked it in the bucket too. The other day, I swiped the whole collection of caterpillars sunning themselves on the post of our fence.

My murderous rampages became obsessive. I found the killing to be … satisfying.

No way to get them all — I can’t reach the cocoons on the eaves of the house — but when the moths come, I’ll know that there are fewer because of me.

Last night when we came home, my entire worldview shifted when I saw a lovely green moth by the front door.

“Is that what I’ve been killing?” I asked. “I wouldn’t mind seeing swarms of those. I thought I was killing those ugly brown moths.”

And that’s when I realized that I am racist.

green moth

Though it turns out, the emerald moths are NOT what I’ve been killing. They are from the family Geometridae, and their larvae are inch worms.

What’s to eat?

I became a vegetarian in 2000, and now I feel bad about eating bananas.

I’m reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I suggested it to my book club after we read a dystopian downer called The Windup Girl, which had something to do with food being an endangered species controlled by Calorie Companies. I didn’t care for it. At. All. But it did make me want to read some nonfiction about the state of food in the world.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle I like. Some of the reviews I read complained that it’s not fair to expect regular people to grow their own food. Kingsolver and family have a lot more resources than regular people. And does she have to be so smug?

I don’t think she’s smug at all, I think she recognizes that the year of eating locally isn’t possible for most people. That’s why she wrote about it, to share the experience with those of us who don’t have the money or wherewithal to move to the Appalachians and pluck our own poultry. While the book contains recipes, it’s not a cookbook, it’s a fantasy memoir. Here’s what life would be like if you could afford to live off the land for an entire year. (I know, weird, right? Living of the land appears to be more costly than eating at McDonald’s every day.)

A neighborhood branch of a grocery chain is having a closing sale. I went there yesterday with ideas of buying all the local produce they had. (Wait, what’s in season right now?) I walked out with Ecuadorian bananas and $274 of other stuff. It was a ridiculous spree that also included organic cotton socks and a snow shovel. I don’t know what happened. Rob was with me, but I was the one putting most of the stuff in the cart.

I mention the bananas, because even though I am inspired by Kingsolver’s book, I still walked into the grocery store, looked at the produce section and thought, “I have no idea what to get.” When did I lose the ability to feed myself? Bananas are something I know how to eat. I slice them and eat them with peanut butter on toast.

I’m a fairly lousy gardener, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle makes me want to grow tomatoes and potatoes. How cool would it be to grow my own carrots? I picture myself pulling the leggy orange roots out of the dirt by their weedy green hair. Of course, then I’d have to worry about deer eating my groceries. And keep my diggity dogs away from the beds.

The least I can do is buy from the farmers’ market or co-op.

I’m not a strict vegetarian anymore. I started eating seafood again in 2007 when I regularly came face to face with the harvesting process. I feel good about that. I still feel bad watching fish gasp their last breath, but I’m comfortable decapitating a shrimp or putting a live crab in a steaming pot of water. Hey, if you’re going to eat it, you better respect where it came from.

That’s basically the message of Kingsolver’s book, and here’s the craziest part. I found myself looking forward to the chapter about harvesting poultry. It still makes me sad to think of the deer and cows who die to feed my dogs. I went to a sheep farm a few years ago, and couldn’t relate to the woman who raises those fuzzy little critters to eat. I wanted to read in detail about how Kingsolver dispatches the toms and roosters she and her daughter so lovingly reared. It helps, she says, that testosterone-fueled birds aren’t so fun to be around.

Also, what? The chicken on your table is actually a rooster! Your Thanksgiving turkey is a tom!

My flagging cedar

We have a long driveway. One of my favorite features about my house (literally, one of my favorite things, I’ve said it out loud more than a few times) is that the branches of two cedar trees on either side of the driveway converge to create a canopy over the driveway. This creates shade, cooling the house, and obscures the view of our house from the street, creating privacy.

Also, it’s pretty.

Since it is one of my most favorite things, you would think I’d have a picture of it in its glory, but I do not. Here it is during last winter’s snowstorm, seen from the street.

Here it is today, seen from the front porch.

The other day, I noticed that some of the branches had turned brown all the way up to the top of this 50-foot-or-taller tree. Seemingly overnight. Surely I would have noticed if this were gradual, I look at those branches every day.

With a little internet research, I came to the conclusion that this was called “flagging” and is either:
  • The normal result of an extremely hot dry spell, combined with a few nicks to the trunk caused by construction vehicles over the past 10 months. The brown branches will blow out in the fall and winter, and the tree will “resume its healthy appearance.” (from http://pep.wsu.edu/hortsense/), or
  • A sign the tree is dying because construction vehicles have repeatedly driven over the roots and banged into the trunk. The tree may survive, but will “never look good again, with lots of dead branches and gaps in the crown.” (from UBC Botanical Garden forums)

To look at the trunk, yes, it would appear that this tree has suffered some abuse. I’m not too happy with the construction folks who dinged up my tree.

Someone on the UBC forum corrected me to say this is Thuja plicata, not a cedar, but we here in the Pacific Northwest call that a western redcedar, even though it’s technically a cypress. Deal with it.

Someone else said, “Driving over the roots of a tree (and running into its trunk) are a way to kill it.” Yeah, well, that makes me look like a big idiot, doesn’t it?

This tree has probably been here for a hundred years. A driveway was built on top of its roots. Could our little backyard construction project be killing it?

Them apples

An appropriate topic for this Washington-based blog, no?

I’m eating apples again, now that my TMJ has stabilized. It started with a visit to the Olympia farmer’s market in August, when some dude sliced off a bit of a Ginger Gold and handed it to me. Delicious! I bought two.

Buying apples can be frustrating sometimes, because you never know when you’re going to get a bum, mealy one. So you need to determine what strain of apples you prefer and stick to those, methinks.

Another kind that tastes as good as its name implies is Honeycrisp. A few weeks ago, a local grower was giving away samples with honey roasted peanut butter at the grocery store. I bought a couple, even though the local apples were $2.29/lb and the imported New Zealand apples (Gala or Fuji, I think) were $1.29.

This news story gives an inkling as to why that might be. Honeycrisps are harder to grow here than in the Midwest. As I read the article, I actually got hungry for one of the Honeycrisps I bought earlier and left in my car. And even though there was the possibility of leftover donuts in the conference room, I went out to my car to get the apple.

However, as I wrote this, my coworker brought the remaining maple bar and a half to the front of the office. I would have eaten just the half (since I’d already had an apple), but you know how pastries can get stale when cut in half and exposed to air? So I had the whole one.

Spit Bugs

I’ve noticed a foamy white substance on the stems of my roses and also the blackberries in the backyard. I asked my mother, a prolific gardener, and Rob’s mother, who has lived in this region her whole life, and yet it was Rob who had instant recognition, “Spit bugs!” he said. “There’s a bug in there. You didn’t know that?”

We assumed that was just what he called them, so I was googling things like “foamy cocoon,” but wouldn’t you know it, Huntington Botanical Gardens identifies them as “Spittlebugs”

Often this time of the year gardeners will see foamy, disgusting-looking masses on the stems and leaves of soft herbaceous plants. The nymphs of the appropriately named Spittlebug cause this. Once winter is over and Spittlebug eggs have hatched, the newly emerged nymphs begin feeding and produce the frothy spittle masses to protect themselves from predators. Even a bug will not eat a Spittlebug so protected! Not usually seen on roses, an infestation of Spittlebugs can be cleaned up with a strong spray of water washing away the foamy spittle masses.

‘Course it says not usually seen on roses, but then, I’ve always been special.