Fertilizer Happens

March 10, 2011

It’s been a bitter winter. Record snow and ice, roofs collapsing day after day, kids home while crews shovel mountain-loads of snow off the school roof. After a beating like that, I have a hard time lifting my head and getting on with it.  I am not a winter person.  I do my best to enjoy it, adding snow shoeing to my repertoire of sports, but this winter I only made it out once and I lost my car keys in the snow. After that I wound up like a meadow vole, ten pounds of snow overhead, living alone in my own sub-nivean world.  Now I’m struggling out of my lair, looking for a reason to stay above ground.

I saw a mosquito yesterday, though temperatures were barely in the 40’s.  He must have woken from diapause, that state of suspended animation that insects enter in the fall as days shorten.  In diapause you are just about nearly dead, and I think that free-flying mosquito and I are in nearly the same situation right now.

Soon we should start seeing an occasional Mourning Cloak butterfly floating along. These guys are the Magellans of the butterfly world, first out to explore. They over-winter as adults too, and venture forth when the days are still relatively cool. Look for them, about the size of a four-year-old’s fist, rich brown with a creamy edge all around. When I think of them, I think of possibly getting out of my armchair.  I’d hate to miss them.

As the snow melts, it’s a shock to see what’s been going on outside. When the layers recede, we see a winter’s tale of survival by those who cannot enter diapause.  Mammals don’t have this option.  So what do we see that reveals their winter lives and rituals? Footprints are preserved in ice, sometimes new ones appear in the moist snow overnight. We know there were rabbits here earlier this winter. Did they make it? Food was scarce, plants were covered. Deer had the same problem and even coyotes started to feel the pinch. In fact, there were loads of animal sightings in crazy places this winter as predators were forced to make bold to find food, any food at all. Owls revealed themselves in frantic efforts to locate mice, moles and voles, all hidden tidily under three feet of snow.  No chance to hear a telltale rustle and soundlessly pounce out of the sky.  Rehabbers reported a record number of emaciated owls brought in for nursing.  A friend tells me bears are out now, and another has seen a bobcat, so things are easing.  And that’s especially good news for animals enduring winter without a snug den.

As dog owners can tell you, there are a few other things exposed by snow melt. No,not dog toys!  There is frozen scat everywhere. Personally, I am thrilled. The educational value of poop is not to be underestimated. Nothing gets a kid’s attention like poop. And let’s be honest, grownups tend not to forget that part of the nature walk, either, though possibly due to delicate sensibility rather than potty fascination. Coprology, the science of scatology, is a biggie.  You can tell which animal did what.  Size, shape and composition are nature’s mug shot.  And it provides essential information about the diet of animals in a given area, their health and which diseases if any, are present. Tapeworm, anyone? Included in the package (pun intended) is information about where the animal has been and whether populations are rising or falling.

I better get out there before it all melts.

See you out on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

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Home For the Holidays

December 21, 2010

What does it really mean to come home?  Traffic projections tell us that this holiday season more people than ever will head home, possibly breaking a record for pre-Christmas travel.  People across Europe lately find themselves stranded in airports from freak snowstorms, sleeping on the floor for days just trying to get where they wanted to go.  Yet there are a gaggle of “funny” movies about going home for the holidays, especially Christmas, that depict the annual pilgrimage as nothing short of a personal horror.  Sneering, taunting, insensitivity all play roles in such films and you have to wonder why anyone would ever go home to families like these.  The answer of course is that they likely wouldn’t and the whole thing is just a device of “entertainment”. Sure, we laugh, but sometimes it’s an uncomfortable snicker.  We recognize in them the subtle torture that only your  loved ones can mete out.

Animals go home because they have to.  It’s instinct and survival. Increasingly scientists are discovering that at some point living things across the spectrum from insect to mammal migrate from where they moved, returning to their original birthplace. Sometimes they go to breed, sometimes to die. It’s just built in. There is a lot unknown about animal interactions and in my sophomoric mind I wonder whether the outliers get made fun of when they turn back up with something new and different about them.  In people, sometimes just maturing becomes rich fodder for family members to pick at, never mind a funny haircut or strange girlfriend. Good times!

Mostly animals hunker down in winter, either hibernating or limiting their appearances to warmer winter days.  The ones with really nice winter coats get around well, but even they need somewhere snug to see out a storm.  Around here it’s pretty easy to see where our animal friends are hanging out. Because Hill-Stead’s grounds are still to my mind underused given the treasure they are, it’s a piece of cake to take a short walk and see deer tracks, coyote, our “famous” mink and loads of other creatures’ travels through snow and across the pond. You may even see one of the critters themselves.

But these darkest days of winter and indeed other dismal times, have a way of making us focus inward. Illness, loss, upheaval, have a way of isolating us whether or not we are even aware of it. To the best of my knowledge animals don’t have the luxury of introspection.  They have to get on with it, just manage or pay the highest price.  In contrast to us, they don’t go home for holidays or because they are worried and careworn.  They can’t take umbrage at the modern world, hop on a train and go home to warm welcome and hot soup.  It’s down the rabbit hole for them and hope for the best.

Wherever you go, or if you go anywhere at all, everyone here at Hill-Stead hopes you find yourself someplace cozy and restful.

Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Snake Creeps Up

September 1, 2010

Grace. Grace of motion, grace of spirit, poise.  Some have natural grace and you can easily see it, even by the corner of your eye, in an animal, insect or bird.  I’d venture animals have not only grace of movement, but also grace of spirit.  If you have that, you cannot hide it no matter what you do. Sometimes it spills out and shows itself in nimbleness of body and movement. This is certainly one of the ideas behind many martial arts.  T’ai Chi, it is said, was inspired by the sight of a crane and snake fighting with soft, curling motions. The T’ai Chi forms are even named for patterns of movement in nature:  Cloud Hands, Snake Creeps Up, Golden Pheasant, White Crane Cools Wings.

Grace combines tension, balance, order, in much the same way a work of art does.  So it was a perfect marriage of genre to have a group of T’ai Chi practitioners on our front lawn last Sunday as the farmer’s market teemed with shoppers and folks readied themselves for the Diabetes Walk.  Some wore T’ai chi uniforms-white flowing tunics and pants that reflected the white colonial revival house behind them. Others wore street clothes, the way you so often see people practicing martial arts in the parks of China.  I recognized many of the forms from my study of T’ai Chi years ago.  I used to love doing Cloud Hands.  It’s only one tiny piece of a whole form, but I could do it for hours it relaxes me so. But on Sunday I focused on Snake Creeps Up. It is remarkable how this martial art so accurately portrays the real, organic movements.  Snake Creeps Up grabbed me because we have an incredible snake down by the Pump House Bridge.  We all just love that fellow, a huge Northern Water Snake that luxuriates on the far side of the bridge as you head toward the farmhouse.  He’s an amiable sort. He’ll let you look at him from pretty close up if you are quiet and relaxed. Somehow he recognizes tension, and slinks off into the weeds. In no time he’ll be back, sunning himself and displaying his four inch diameter.  I don’t actually know how long he is, since he tucks his rear into the brush and even when he turns around I’ve never seen the whole of him at once.  But he’s just about always there, like a sentinel, recognizing those who belong, and warily regarding newcomers.

You sometimes see people react badly to snakes, screaming, running away, grabbing their babies.  It’s instinct, I think, and most of the time you can’t get them to simmer down and they scare the wits out of the poor snake. So many myths have developed.  Milk Snakes were named for their supposed ability to suck the milk from cows.  They were killed en masse by farmers “protecting” their cattle, when in reality, the snakes hung around barns to eat mice and such.  In a sad irony, the snakes were actually performing a service. Puff Adders are said to add poison to their breath, puffing it toward you in toxic, murderous clouds.  But our Northern Water Snake is a gentle giant. Reports of snake size are usually on the fantastically generous side.  But I’d say our guy is pretty well full grown, based on his coloring (he is very dark and his pattern is hidden.  Youngsters show the pattern clearly) and a full-grown Northern Water Snake tops out at around fifty-five inches.  So he might seem like a giant to some, but I hope they never see a grown up Black Rat Snake.  They can get to be about eight feet.

I’m kind of psyched right now, since I think the big guy might be about to become a father.  He has to have a lady friend at his age, and Northern Water Snakes give birth in August and September.  This kind of reptile has live babies, not eggs.  I’m not saying our snake is going to be handing out cigars, since snakes (especially fathers) have desultory parental feelings at best.  But it is nice to think of him passing on his good nature to a new generation.

My tip-top favorite snake legend is that of the “hoop snake” who when threatened takes his hind end into his mouth, turns himself into a circle and rolls away like a wagon wheel to safety.  I love the whole idea, and wish I could do it too, rolling away when times get tough. Since I can’t, and neither can any snake known of, I’ll just meander down to the bridge and relax with our big, old, comforting snake, and forget the cares of the world.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Tree of Heaven

August 2, 2010

I see it every time I drive down Mountain Road to Hill-Stead.  It’s the Tree of Heaven, officially known as Ailanthus altissima. Originating in China, it is mentioned in ancient dictionaries and medical texts and was used there to cure everything from mental illness to baldness. Today it’s still used in traditional Chinese medicine, principally as an astringent. Like lots of invasive plants and animals, Ailanthus grows fast and soon dominates the landscape. In an extremely un-heavenly move, it sends chemicals into the ground to discourage growth around it so it can suck up all the surrounding resources and stretch unimpeded toward the sun. You can find Ailanthus anywhere the land has been disturbed and  some say it has a real stink to it, like the female Ginko tree.

Our Tree of Heaven is located near the spot where a wooly mammoth was pulled from a bog by Hill-Stead farm workers in 1902.  For a time it was the “must see” for scientists from all over, as it was then the first completely intact skeleton ever found.  One of the biggest archeological finds of its time, it even helped popularize the word “mammoth”. The Tree of Heaven couldn’t have been there in 1902 since at that time the whole area was part of the Pope farm. But when Theodate died her will dictated that Hill-Stead should become a museum.  There just wasn’t enough money from her estate (the bulk of which went to the Avon Old Farms School, which she founded and for which she designed the buildings) to create a museum.  So they sold 100 acres of land, which included the Wooly Mammoth bog and the place where the Tree of Heaven sits now. But I still think of it as “our” land. I have no doubt that if Theodate had known the value open spaces would come to have, she would have written her will differently.  Now the area is dotted with homes (some brand new as the area continues to grow) and a tennis club. Having been bulldozed by developers I think the property qualifies as “disturbed”, so no one should be surprised that this behemoth of a tree has grown there in such a short time.  Many invasive plants and wildflowers are found in such places.  An Ailanthus can reach 49 ft within 25 years or so.

I think the tree is pretty.  It has large compound leaves at least a foot long, with between 10 and 41 leaflets each.  At this time of year it flowers,and the cultivar we happen to have becomes flame-colored . You can see it from  from a long way off.  Tree of Heaven has determination, reproducing not only by seed, but also by throwing up “suckers” all around it through the earth.  It can withstand dirt, dust, pollution of every kind and still it pulls itself up toward the sun. Tree of Heaven was the inspiration for the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, and it is easy to see why.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” tells the story of Francie Nolan, who lives in poverty in Brooklyn, New York.  Like so many immigrants at the turn of the last century, the family struggles to attain a piece of the American dream.  Francie’s mother feels the key to this is a good education and she is determined her children will have one.  A Tree of Heaven grows in a vacant lot near their apartment and symbolizes the determination of the family to rise above their circumstances.  It is a wonderful book-a real touchstone for millions of people. It was adapted to a movie and a stage play, no doubt because the story is a familiar one to Americans whose backgrounds include many a Francie Nolan.

What a contrast to Theodate Pope, daughter of one of the richest families in America! She came from Cleveland to Farmington to attend one of the most elite schools in the country,- a far cry from Francie Nolan, who yearned for any education at all, to save her from a lifetime of scrubbing floors.  And yet in her own way, Theodate was swimming against the courant, too. Unlike her peers, she wanted a farm and a career, an unseemly, unusual aspiration for a young girl with means.  Her mother couldn’t understand it and they were at odds.  Theodate and Francie were not dissimilar in their yearning for that which was just nearly out of reach to them.   Their goals were close enough to tantalize, yet odd enough to be hard to realize within their specific social castes.

What would life be without the thirst for something more?  I bet most people driving down Mountain Road in Farmington don’t notice our tree even when it blooms.  But I am just as certain that they each have a personal Tree of Heaven within them.

Hill-Stead Farmer’s Market

July 17, 2010

To market, to market to buy a fat pig, home again, home again jiggedy jig!

I used to think of myself as a farmer’s market connoisseur, since I’ve been a devotee of them long before the “eat local” craze happened. I trolled around markets in Vermont, driving my edible booty home to Connecticut in my back seat. Once on the cutting edge of fashion, now I don’t even have to leave Farmington for my weekly organic kibble. I can just stroll over to Hill-Stead Museum with my reusable sack over my arm. The trend for farmer’s markets is growing fast. There are urban farms, urban markets, country farms and country markets. They are thick on the ground in trendy suburbs. We need many more. It seems evident that an important key to restoring all manner of food integrity is local farming. In a sense, we are harvesting our food tradition to sow a food future. And it’s not just some la-di-dah keeping up with the Jones kind of food trend, either. You could argue that the value of recycling our food culture is fundamental to our long-term well-being, both at the stove and elsewhere, and is reflective of something organic in ourselves.

“Well-being” isn’t what prompts us to visit a farmer’s market. Rather, it is almost as though there is a part of our cultural DNA that has been wanting for decades, to get us back to the activity of “market day”. What would Thomas Hardy be without them? Many a plot is turned in the market square of literature. Think of Jane Austen, George Eliot, The Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell. There are today markets held all over Europe throughout the year, whereas most of ours, for now at least, seem to be summertime phenomena. Why do so many of us get so excited about about a few stands of vegetables and flowers popping up in the same location up every seven days? Why have some cultures never left off doing it?

A farmer’s market provides a “front porch” for a culture that has sadly grown away from such things. We see neighbors, offer tips to strangers about how to use an unfamiliar vegetable, embrace a fondly remembered farmer. Mr. Bingley bows deeply there to Miss Bennet. As so often also happens at the Hill-Stead poetry festival, one hears happy whoops of recognition punctuating the atmosphere as we see old friends. We begin to make new relationships, too. The crowd is heterogeneous, and thus community is made, not just among a few select neighbors, but in a town and region.

A farmer’s market turns us toward one another, emphasizing our fundamental interdependence on the level of comestible and emotional sustenance. There are other organic connections we cannot name. Joining together over food is perhaps the oldest form of community, save for procreation itself. Earthiness is, as it turns out, a great leveler.

Join us this Sunday and every Sunday until October 24, 11am-2pm, rain or shine. Beyond the vegetables, you’ll find quite a lot that is special. Enjoy companionship, hear music, get community information at our tent, pet a farm animal, drink a coffee or simply enjoy the atmosphere. After you’re done with that, take a walk on one of the historic trails. For a small fee, go inside the house and see rare art and glimpse a lost lifestyle.

For more information on our website: http://hillstead.org/activities/farmersmarket.html

And look for me, I’ll be there. Or, I’ll see you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Sunken Garden Poetry Festival

June 24, 2010

I had a nice time last night at Hill-Stead Museum’s Sunken Garden Poetry Festival.  How could you not? It was a perfect summer evening.  Latin flavored jazz filled the air while picnics were shared, wine poured, blankets fluffed out over the lush grass.  The Sunken Garden itself was in all its June glory, the Summer House providing the backdrop for the music and for the reading of poems.  Now and then a little cry of happy recognition flared up as friends found one another in the gloaming.

Our Beatrix Farrand-designed sunken garden played host to two fine poets, Gabrielle Calvocoressi and Bessie Reyna.  What a treat it was.  And as the sunset turned into night, birds flew to roost and night time things began to take over.  I was happy to see several chimney swifts, as I did last year.  And the wager still stands that they have nests in church steeples here in Farmington.  Other than raising young, the swifts live the entirety of their lives on the wing, and it may be that they dip their wings at us bi-weekly while we admire our nationally-known poets.  One lone bat skittered across the sky, looking uncoordinated, but being actually anything but.

The full list of the attendees were as follows:

Red-Tailed Hawk
European Starling
American Robin
Catbird
American Goldfinch
Chipping Sparrow
Chimney Swift
Song Sparrow
American Crow
Downy Woodpecker
Tufted Titmouse
Eastern Bluebird
Wood Thrush
Brown-Headed Cowbird
Tree Swallow
Blue Jay
Eastern Phoebe
White-Breasted Nuthatch
Coopers Hawk
Hermit Thrush
Red-Eyed Vireo
Cardinal
Grackle
Great Blue Heron

Shetland Sheep
1 Dragonfly
1 bat
Field Crickets
Fireflies
Tree Toads

Other than the hundreds of people, there were 24 species of bird, 3 species of insect, 1 amphibian, 1 bat, a small flock of literary critic Shetland Sheep, a slightly more than three-quarter moon and Saturn glowing in the early summer sky. And poetry. There was lots of that. Define it how you like.

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Take Back Your Mink

May 28, 2010

After my mother died, I saw her everywhere.  I followed people whose hair reminded me of hers before shaking off the idea that it might somehow be her. This kind of reaction is completely normal, and in a way comforting after a loss, but I never expected to feel similarly about a few muskrats.

Earlier this year I thought I saw a weasel of some kind around the pond, and one day I got a good view. It was a mink. They are very handsome animals, and I don’t think most people think of them as weasels although they are a member of the same family. They think of them as coats. Weasels, of course, have a bad reputation and it isn’t nice to call someone a weasel, or be called one yourself. The insult is intended to mean “sneaky and low-down”. Weasels are also considered (by farmers especially) to be cruel and needless killers. Because they often “scalp” their prey and simply leave it, people think that the weasel kills for sport. Not so-he kills and returns later to eat the prize. He’s not fussy about a little putrification, and he also “caches” his food.  A farmer who wakes to a hen house full of scalped chickens regards the weasel as the worst kind of varmint, and the natural history of it is of little importance to him.  But a weasel has to kill when the opportunity presents itself, and also have a little something to fall back on. You never know when a meal is going to come along and a mink has a high metabolism. Think of them as the Holly Golightly of the animal world. And I think I remember that Holly Golightly had a really nice mink coat.

Minks are solitary, except during breeding, at which time they virtually define the word “promiscuous”, with both males and females mating as much as possible, with as many partners as possible. So the gene pool is nice and healthy, and the DNA for survival very strong.  These animals are smart and canny predators, eating fish torpid from cold during winter and switching to slower, more defenseless animals in warm weather. Which brings me back to the muskrats.  Mink will eat anything, but they really love muskrat.  Also, “abandoned” muskrat lodges make swell mink houses. So I think it is pretty clear what happened to the Hill-Stead muskrat family. Of course, muskrats need water that covers them. Our pond is getting more shallow all the time, so the muskrat days were numbered in any case.

For a while, I saw the muskrats in my imagination, too.  But, as with my mother, I finally had to accept that they were gone. In the hierarchy of small mammals, the mink with its sensitive nose and killer instinct has it all over the poor vegetarian muskrat, who just likes to noodle around the pond eating weeds. And even in the hierarchy of coats, the mink is the trophy outerwear, the muskrat for wannabe’s.  

But nature has a way of equalizing things, and the mink may eventually be taken by a coyote or even an owl. And then I’ll miss the mink.

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

May 12, 2010

There are so many things that need saving it can really be demoralizing. Whales, wolves, panthers, funny little owls, hundreds of songbirds, frogs. The list is endless. All you have to do is say the word “rainforest” and you summon up images of destruction. It’s why I don’t believe in teaching elementary kids about the rainforest at all. Let them enjoy the pleasure of nature and develop a love for it, before you discourage them with tales of extinction and despair. That people think the only interesting nature exists thousands of miles away, really only demonstrates the need for education about local natural history. There is a fascinating backstory everywhere you look, no matter where you look.

The American Kestrel is a bird in need of intervention. It depends on areas of grassland, and so is getting squeezed out of survival by the minute. Instead of farms with fields, we now have either forests or building sites, so things are tough for grassland birds like grasshopper sparrows, woodcock, upland sandpipers, meadowlarks, kestrels and others.

The American Kestrel is a tiny falcon that resembles its larger cousin the Peregrine, only with a swankier color scheme. It has blue, cream, black and rusty shades of feathers, along with stripes beneath the eyes that cut down on the glare during high-speed chases after fleeing prey. All the better to see you with, my dear. The female of the species is color-wise a little more subdued, the better to remain camouflaged as she sits on a nest.

Perched on a fence, nest box or other spot overlooking the meadow, a kestrel darts off to snatch prey out of the air. In that way, it resembles a flycatcher. But it has the ability to hover in the air scanning the area and adjusting its trajectory before diving out of the glare like a Kamikaze pilot. The hovering would make you think of a hummingbird. Because the kestrel is diminutive in comparison to just about every other bird of prey, from far off it isn’t too hard to believe you are looking at a hummer, but only for a moment. Kestrels are about the size of a robin, and the hovering behavior is a great skill. Some people still refer to the kestrel as a “sparrow hawk” (I can’t help thinking of Foghorn Leghorn and his precocious sidekick here), from its ability to take down smaller birds.

Kestrels are faithful, both to a mate, and to a nesting place. Research on one pair showed that they returned to the same nesting spot for six years. It is a remarkable statistic, given that the bird has a mortality rate of nearly 50%. Kestrels themselves are frequently the prey of larger birds, and their own reproduction depends on the availability of cavities within which to make a nest.

They are well adapted to nest boxes, and this is where Hill-Stead and Art Gingert come in. Art is on a mission to save the American Kestrel. With a keen admiration for the little bird, a wide experience as a naturalist and a steady arm with a hammer, drill and ladder, Art is scouring the state for locations that might tempt the kestrel to nest in one of his specially-designed boxes. They are fashioned out of quality wood, and follow a design he has developed based on his long experience.

Art and I put a box up the other day in one of our meadows. One of Hill-Stead’s many claims to fame is the three full-sized elms that have managed to survive the ravages of Dutch Elm disease. One of them, and by far the prettiest in my opinion, sits out in one of our hay meadows. No other tree is near it and the eye is drawn automatically to its graceful form. A Kestrel would probably see it as easily as we do. At least, that is what we hope. Art carefully hung the box, even using a level to make sure the look of it was pleasing. Now all we have to do is attract the birds. It’s a gamble to be sure. There aren’t even that many Kestrels left, comparatively speaking, and it may be vain of us to imagine that one or two will happen along and notice our box.

But there is much to be said for preserving local treasures. Just ask some of those men and animals that used to live in the rainforest.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Biology is Destiny?

April 25, 2010

My daughter and her friends are playing “house” and one child complains, “I don’t WANT to be the brother.” Another retorts, “Well, you have to.  You have short hair.” In the game of “house”, at least, identity is simple, and it is determined by the strongest will.  “Sorry,” the child says.  “You have to.”

You have to, you have to.  If you are a plant or animal you do have to.  You must inexorably be what you were meant to be.  A duck cannot grow up to become an opossum.  DNA controls the whole thing and there is no getting out of it.  Whether or not there are ducks out there who feel (as some humans do) that they are stuck in the wrong body, I don’t know. But I hope not.  No living thing should endure the kind of imprisonment  that can happen when genetics go wrong.  I suspect that natural selection would winnow the problem out in the wild, and I fear that may be true in a sense among humans, too.  It’s rough if you are much different from your own kind, and not enough like another.

But by and large if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.  As so it is with animals and plants the world over.  We even have math to prove the inevitability of destiny. It’s called the Fibonacci sequence  and while its’ application isn’t perfect, it surely gets you thinking.  The sequence is this:  add together (starting from the number 1) the number, and the number immediately preceding it.  Here goes: 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55 and so on.  If you draw this out in a picture rather than a series of numbers you get a pretty collection of spirals. And here is where the odd part begins.  These spirals are the same that are found in the arrangements of pine cones, sunflower seeds, branching plants, seashells, bee family trees and a host of other living things. Admittedly, some of these examples are a bit of a stretch-Fibonnacci was a math expert, not a biologist, but the essence is that there is some plan to the arrangement of nature, and that the arrangement is similar across a range of species.  In art, we prove our similarity to others by teasing out our emotional reactions. In math and science we are reminded of it in a formula.

Is an individual’s life predestined by biology?  Are accountants born and not made?  Theodate Pope, the designer and inhabitant of Hill-Stead would I think, tell you no.  The word iconoclast was made for her, a girl born to tea dances and quiescent wifedom who instead became a pioneering architect and lady farmer. Unlike so many who lose their way as they grow up, succumbing to the vises of financial imperative and the opinions of others, she grew into herself.  As a girl, she declared she wanted a farm.  She wanted to make an impression on the world as a leader and thinker.  If ever there was an argument against predestination, Theodate is it.

Miss Pope became what she wanted to be. She was able to follow the path of her choosing and not necessarily the one society of her day understood. She was freed by an indulgent Papa and plenty of money. But her willpower did the rest. For those of us without it, as the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

Muskrat Love

April 7, 2010

I am dating myself to admit I remember a certain popular song describing the romantic antics of two muskrats.  I believe the animal’s names were Suzy and Sam, though I wouldn’t swear to it.  If I did, I’d have to admit that I actually remember some of the mortifying lyrics. If there’s a list somewhere of egregious top-forty tunes, this should be number one. The musical duo “The Captain and Tennille” should relinquish any royalties they earned from it to the George Gershwin estate, or maybe Cole Porter’s. The crazy thing is that they unwittingly hit on a certain truth: Muskrat family relationships are marked by a touching constancy.

A muskrat family lives at the edge our pond. Their tunnels extend into the surrounding meadow. The waterside part of their home is made from plants, so if they get hungry during a winter cold snap, they just crawl down and take a few bites. The tunnels make nice, snug winter quarters, and they start low near the water and go upwards, keeping the burrow dry when the water rises.

I enjoy watching the muskrats, and though they are largely nocturnal, you can see them during the day, particularly in the early morning. They glide around the pond, busily chomping up wetland weeds. Sometimes they carry a big mouthful of greens, pushing it along with relaxed determination. They never seem to hurry, even if disturbed by a possible threat. Instead, they gently flip underwater leaving a little eddy to mark their place.  I’ve read they sometimes slap their tails to warn of danger, like the beaver, but I’ve never seen that.

Baby muskrats are called both kits and pups, and sometimes pinkies,-though I don’t care for that name because it is the same as the tiny baby mice you can buy frozen to feed pet snakes with. Muskrats do look like little puppies paddling about with their mother in the spring. Prolific breeders, muskrats can turn out up to four litters in a year. Gestation is a month or a little less, and the pup has to move on after about a month of life, to make room for the next batch. In this they are much like big, aquatic field mice. But families don’t stray far, just further on into the wetland. They live essentially in an extended family group, with grandparents, cousins, aunts and parents all within shouting distance.

Vegetarians, muskrats don’t pursue prey, they instead forage for plants. Cattails are catnip to them. It’s their favorite food, and not a bit goes to waste. Cattails are edible (even by people) from root to flower. It’s sad that cattail colonies are destroyed by the graceful but useless phragmites plant, an invasive species that overruns wetlands that cattails (and those dependent on it) favor. As cattails disappear, muskrat families peter out too, to disease, predation by coyotes or foxes, or they just move on if they can manage it.  Muskrat families become fragmented, much like the American family after World War II. Before 1940 25% of Americans lived with parents, grandparents and children. Often aunts, uncles and cousins lived close by.  The habits of children were policed by legions of well-meaning relations. Forty years later, that life had become an anomaly, vanquished by the post- war economic boom.  Phragmites is a world war to cattails, and to muskrats. Fragmented family units fare poorly in contrast to those that are intact, be they one mammal or another.

We have a big stand of cattails which is holding its own. We have phragmites, too, unfortunately, but not nearby. Though phragmites spreads like wildfire, it would have quite a distance to cover before reaching the pond. So I think our little muskrat family is safe at least from that threat.  I’d hate to see them split up.  Pretty soon we’d be seeing those little muskrat pups listening to thumping popular music on ipods, wearing droopy pants, with no nosy aunts to disapprove.

Interestingly, today economics is driving a revival of the extended American family. Expenses for seniors and a paucity of entry-level jobs for young people are keeping us together longer.  It’s not muskrat love, but it’s a start.  Pass the cattails, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist