Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Spuds of Another Sort

Living out here among the trees and critters of Oak Hill includes some form of daily yard upkeep, be it raking, picking up fallen limbs, fertilizing, watering or cutting the grass. This morning it was picking up something of another sort out along the back fence separating me from the national wild life refuge. Southern Florida is plagued by a wild potato plant that rivals kudzu in its ability to spread, take over and ultimately kill other species. Left unchecked, the air potato can quickly get out of hand, weaving a mat of shade over everything within reach. The task today was gathering up the fallen potatoes and pulling up any newly sprouted tendrils. I collected a bag of about twenty-five in a matter of minutes. 

Native to Asia and Africa where it is a food crop, the air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera) is an extremely fast-growing invasive species that rapidly takes over wooded areas. Established in the US by gardeners who admired its attractive leaves, unfortunately it soon spread beyond garden borders and is now wreaking havoc on pinelands and hardwood trees, displacing native trees and plants. The wild variety growing in Florida is considered toxic. It was first sent to Florida in 1905 for evaluation as a horticultural crop and subsequent reports from scientists and horticulturalists warned about how quickly it spread. Disregarding that warning, gardeners promoted the air potato as an attractive garden plant. Even today it is still grown by curious amateur gardeners.

The air potato gets its unusual name from the small warty potato-like tubers, or bulbils that grow from its vine. It is a climbing plant that twists itself into around and over shrubs and trees, even reaching the tops of trees sixty or more feet tall. Not at all a delicate plant, it blankets everything it grows on, starving the plants beneath it for sunlight. Once established in the wild, it begins producing countless small bulbils on its stems, with one as small as a fingernail capable of sprouting and resulting in a new plant. The bulbils in their early stages are light enough to float and travel long distances, and while at one time only a problem in Hawaii and Florida, the air potato is spreading along the Gulf Coast and finding new ground in which to spread.

In its native countries the potato is sometimes used as a folk remedy to treat conjunctivitis, diarrhea, dysentery and other ailments, but the strain growing wild in Florida is considered by most to be poisonous. Contradicting stories have created confusion over the Florida air potato’s actual toxicity, with some claiming that the wild variety are edible if they are dried and boiled.

As if I didn't already have enough trouble with squirrels getting in the bird feeder, I find now that the pesky devils spread air potatoes around the yard.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Umbrella of Rain

In a backyard rainstorm…

Spanish moss trembling in a downpour, 
on the bird feeder’s plastic face
tiny wet footprints 
desperate squirrels. 
A bamboo wind chime on porch eaves clucks 
and chuckles, 
laughter celebrating long-awaited rain, 
wetness turning grass brighter, 
the crispy green of celery. 

A scene blurred by rain,
filled with the mix of birdsong and far thunder,
while a spear of light from somewhere outside 
illuminates a spot on concrete underfoot. 
Rumbles of thunder, whistling birds 
each part of a larger sound 
inside this umbrella of rain
where drops strike every surface in separate percussion… 
tin roof, leaves, picnic table
concrete and grass
and trees tilt their faces to the sky.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Karaoke with Arletta

A friend came out to the country on Sunday to while away a few hours under the oak trees with their swarms of mosquitoes and graceful swags of Spanish moss. After a time of enjoying the redbirds, blue jays, woodpeckers and other hard-to-name birds and then a hard fought target competition with BB guns, we pondered the few restaurants in the area, figuring one or two might be closed but that one at least must be open on Sunday night. Little surprise really that we found nothing open, heading finally for a barbecue restaurant about twelve miles up the road. 

On the way we passed a place on US 1 called Chap’s Steakhouse & Nite Club with a dozen or more cars in the parking lot. I have noticed the steakhouse many times in passing, but usually it looks abandoned, and more than once I’ve wondered if it were ever open. With all the cars in the parking lot and a blinking sign we thought we’d give it a try.

Passing through the front entrance we were both amazed at the size. It was huge. There must have been no less than a hundred tables and booths, a stage filled with amplifiers, drums, keyboard set ups and half a dozen guitars on stands, a salad bar twenty-five feet long, a dance floor big enough for thirty or forty dancers and at one end a square bar crowded with people. The bar was full but the dining tables, all one hundred of them, were vacant with not a soul to look at a menu, talk to a waiter-waitress or eat dinner. A vast empty dining room trembling with the huge sounds of a karaoke machine playing its wires and springs out without a singer at the mic. The hostess assured us we could order dinner then asked for my email address. I declined and started toward the dining area when she asked if she could give us name cards. Have you ever been offered a name card in a restaurant?  

It wasn't long before the waitress-owner brought two wrinkled mimeographed menus sealed inside dirty plastic. All of it could have easily fit on an index card, but it didn't much matter since the first three things we ordered they were out of. Suddenly the waitress-owner went away and after ten minutes another woman came and introduced herself as Arletta. She must have misplaced her name card. Anyway, she continued to tell us what was not available on the menu until it was whittled down to a Rueben sandwich with French fries. I asked about the salad bar after which Arletta took a slow look over in that direction, then back to me to say that there had never been a salad bar no matter what the sign said.

With Arletta barely off with our order for two Rueben sandwiches, (stopping on the way to take her shot at the pool table) the live karaoke started with a shattering guitar twang and suddenly someone named Kenny was singing his heart out and our ears off. Neither my friend nor I could identify the song and figured it must be an original. Whatever, it was very loud, very long and basically made up of three, maybe four phrases repeated over and over in a Joe Cocker growl. Then it was time for Dennis to try his hand at “New York, New York" in a version that attempted to mirror Frank Sinatra. Well, almost. Dennis sang to himself just off the front of the stage, bobbing or throwing out an arm on occasion, at the end bowing, mumbling “Thank you, thank you!” and blowing kisses to the empty dining room. The next singer was a gentleman in his mid-sixties who did all right, hit the notes and made them sound not bad if thunderous. His wife moved from one side to the other taking photos on her smartphone, and at the end asking her singer-husband to pose for several shots as if in mid-performance.

The Rueben sandwiches took thirty-five minutes and when they finally arrived at the table we got a story about the “House Chef” not being satisfied with the corned beef and driving off to the store himself for a fresh supply. To be fair, the sandwich was tasty but the fries were a formerly frozen mess. And the ketchup bottle, half full, had not been opened in maybe a month. 

Obviously, it’s the crowded bar that keeps the place going. But you have to wonder what the owner cum waitress was thinking when she put in all those tables and booths and a twenty-five foot salad bar that never met a leaf of lettuce. Well, I think that what it adds up to is this: If you’re ever driving south on US 1 between Edgewater and Oak Hill, Florida, feel a bit hungry and see a big lit up steakhouse on the right hand side, then keep that wagon rolling unless you’re especially fond of a long-time-coming Rueben sandwich in a red plastic basket.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Under the Camphor Tree

Surely a connection to the absence of noise and distraction, the days here in the Florida wilds far removed from city sights and sounds pass like the slow drip of honey from the comb. On most days, with coffee and toast I sit at the backyard table before the sun is a hand span above the horizon, a line of sight blocked by a thousand old oaks. But while the horizon is hidden from my view, the first light of morning weaves its way through those trees and floods speckled and golden across my yard, a slow moving kaleidoscope of flickering sunlight. For a long hour the morning creeps lovingly across what could be an uninhabited world, the silence unbroken by birds or the hum of insects. The only things moving are light and breeze, both a gentle stimulus in the stirring of a new day.

With the turning of the hour countless voices rise from trees and grass, the slow arrival of a soundtrack that would deafen if ever connected to amplifiers. In no time a crowded community of life is moving about the trees, clicking, rasping and chittering in the grass, while in my ear the annoying buzz of mosquitos stops and starts between slaps and waving hands. Soon the ground around the bird feeder is busy with five or more redbirds, perhaps another one or two at the feeder tossing down sunflower seeds to mates below. At one time I had little admiration for the female redbird, counting it a dull opposite to the dazzling male. Not the case any longer. The close by abundance of these feathered beauties has shown me that in subtle coloration the darker female is the true beauty.

Today I spied a large, black beetle with white spots rolling a ball of dung through the grass. I could see nearby where the beetle’s prize had come from and for a moment thought a dog had been in my fenced yard. I’ve read sparingly of dung beetles but had never before seen one at work. First thought was of how the beetle had managed to get his cargo so perfectly round.

Busy at one time scaring a pesky squirrel off the bird feeder, Mr Ryder’s BBs whizzing past his furry butt, I caught sight of a small bird not more than six feet away. Nuzzling new shoots on a large bush I haven’t identified yet, it appeared to be searching for nectar. Totally unbothered by my nearness, it continued searching, giving me a chance to see its color patterns clearly: a small bird with gray back and wings, white breast and pale yellow at the throat, it also had a faint patch of yellow on its back; a bird smaller even than a sparrow. I tried looking it up online, but none of the  sites I looked at had an adequate search engine. Every description I typed in came up blank.

Blank. A good word to describe my understanding of the many sights and sounds coloring this new life out among the frogs and leaping lizards. Little by little, day by day the mysteries will be unveiled.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Red Ryder

In 1886 the Plymouth Iron Windmill Company of Plymouth, Michigan made windmills for farmers, but sales were poor and the company was near to closing until a manager convinced the Board of Directors to try offering a bonus to customers. Sometime earlier, this manager had been out shooting a popular BB gun of the day and pleased with it, shouted to all, “Boy, that’s a Daisy!” Plymouth soon began giving out this same BB gun with the purchase of a windmill. Popularity of this bonus was huge, with customers more interested in the “Daisy” than a windmill. Response was so great that the company shifted focus from windmills to air guns and by 1890 twenty-five employees were producing 50,000 guns a year, most of them distributed within a radius of a hundred miles. The company eventually became Daisy Outdoor Products and in 1958 moved from Michigan to Rogers, Arkansas. Their success multiplied year after year but it was one particular tie-in that eventually made the Daisy BB gun legend. 

Publisher and comic syndicator Stephen Slesinger met artist Fred Harman in 1938 and lured him from Hollywood to New York. The two worked together for a full year before Harman’s Red Ryder comic strip was ready for syndication. Slesinger guided Harman and his comic strip through a carefully planned campaign of merchandising and licensing, with the Red Ryder comic strip soon boosted by an endless flow of comic books, novels, serials, radio programs, rodeos, commercial tie-ins and licensed products. One such product was the Daisy Red Ryder BB Gun, which remains the longest continuous license in the history of the licensing industry.

Beginning November 6, 1938, Red Ryder was syndicated by the Newspaper Enterprise Association, expanding over the years to 750 newspapers, translations into ten languages and a readership in the US of 14 million. The 26-year run of the strip came to an end in 1964.

In Harman’s story, Red Ryder was a tough cowboy who lived at Painted Valley Ranch in the San Juan Mountain Range with his aunt, the Duchess, and his Indian boy sidekick, Little Beaver. On a big horse called Thunder, Red often took off to wrangle with bad guys, taking along Little Beaver on his horse, Papoose. Little Beaver spoke lines like, “Spinach heap good. Me like’m!” and “Me so tired now my legs hurt-um!” or “You betchum!” Other characters in the story were Painted Valley ranch hand, Buckskin Blodgett, Red’s lady friend Beth and bad guy Ace Hanlon.

I didn’t see a great many of the Red Ryder movies, but I did read the comic strip in the Sunday paper and seated on the floor of Griffith’s Drugs with a bottle of strawberry pop after school, I must have read a ton of the comic books. Memory is not too sharp, but it seems we also saw a few of the Red Ryder serials at Saturday morning movies. Like every other boy in the neighborhood I had my trusty old Red Ryder BB gun. First introduced in 1940, popularity of the Daisy Red Ryder blossomed over the years giving the BB gun legendary status. The current model is the spitting image of the BB gun many of us cherished in boyhood. The Daisy Red Ryder resembles a Winchester rifle commonly seen in western movies, a design very probably responsible for much of its popularity.

It is a lever-action, spring piston air gun with a smooth bore barrel, adjustable iron sights, and a gravity feed magazine with a 650 BB capacity. The special feature is a ‘Red Ryder’ engraved stock and a saddle ring with a leather thong. The one I ordered recently from Amazon is the 1938B model, first produced in 1980, with the shot tube replaced with a loading door and the addition of a new safety. Shoots like dream.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Growing Accustomed

This Thursday marks one week that I’ve been in the Oak Hill house and not surprisingly a week of trial and error, discovery, realizations and not more than a couple of small disappointments that will no doubt mellow out in time. Inside, the rooms continue to be much of a jumble apart from the bedroom, the living room still in-progress and the guest room a heap of books, boxes and files I am reluctant to face. Of course, I’ve lost things that don’t turn up no matter how thoroughly I search, the arrangement of kitchen drawers and cabinets is not to my liking and fourteen paintings still wait to be hung, their places on the walls not yet clear in my mind. Apart from cooking, showering, sleeping and watching television on some evenings, most of my hours are spent either on the back porch or sitting in the yard.

The biggest and most pleasant surprise has been the screened back porch where I am happy to sit for hours reading or watching the cardinals—three families at least—and the often mischievous squirrels, all of them no more than ten feet from my chair. Imagine a cool shaded spot free of mosquitoes and other bothersome insects offering a panorama of two dozen oak trees hung with Spanish moss, and now a regular setting for lunch each day. Later in the afternoon I prefer sitting out in the yard to better enjoy the play of light filtering through trees all around me. Don’t think I have ever fully appreciated the countless facets and voices of the passing day in a rural setting. 

One of the problems, and it isn’t really, is the nasty smell and taste of the well water. It comes out slightly greenish brown reeking of iron but smelling like first cousin to a fart. Undrinkable to me, though I suppose some do eventually get used to it. I rely completely on bottled water and bags of ice from the store. Brushing my teeth with the well water is bearable, but only just. Somehow, showering in the water doesn’t bother me at all. The shower is much better than the one I used for so long at the beach and being from a well in my yard, the water is free. Something to get accustomed to.

My iPhone won’t work in the house, so I either miss calls or run outside when it rings. Looks like the only alternative is to change providers, not something I want to do, but Sprint has no solution. It wouldn’t be all that bad switching to AT&T if it weren’t for the need of buying a new AT&T compatible iPhone. They tell me the architecture is different on a Sprint iPhone and an AT&T iPhone. Sounds like a good deal for Apple, forcing customers to buy a new iPhone when a problem arises with the provider.

My neighbor gave me a treadmill the other day, one in perfect working order that he didn’t want any longer and was taking to Good Will until I showed interest. Living at the beach I walked almost daily and since coming to the country have wondered how to manage the same walking exercise. Somehow, walking on a dusty dirt road in the hot sun, doesn’t sound like a fair tradeoff for a walk on the beach. For the past two days I have used the treadmill set up on the back porch and it’s a good substitute. While walking I look out at the redbirds flitting about, some of them coming to within arm’s reach of the screen. Only thing missing is the suntan.

The male…                           and the female

I tell myself it is time to establish a routine of sorts for this new life where quiet is all pervading and where it is easy to be lulled into comfortable torpor. At least three writing projects lay waiting for my return and I know this is something where momentum is vital. One day soon I will have to turn away from the verdant wanderings that now hold me in thrall and get back to scribbling.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Training Day

Today was squirrel training day, hours spent in a hard backyard chair guarding the bird feeder and teaching discipline to prospective contestants on The Biggest Loser for Squirrels. We all know that this quest comes with tears and pain and at this point I’m ready to dish it out. See below.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Light Up!

Today was a time especially geared toward the avoidance of yard chores, well maintenance or the impatient arrangement of stuff piled and waiting for placement in this country house beneath the oak trees. Too tired and too worn after the move to push myself into things that can easily wait a few days or even longer, I figured who cares if the guest bedroom is a heap of randomly stacked books, bed linen, knick knacks and unpacked CDs and DVDs? A week here could easily pass with me neither seeing or speaking to anyone, with truly no hurry about making the place ready for company. So I spent the day reading and watching the birds outside my back porch. One result was discovery of the poem “Smoke” by Faith Shearin.

Faith Shearin’s first book of poems was The Owl Question, published in 2002. Her second collection, The Empty House, came out in 2008. More recent work has appeared in North American Review and Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework. Recipient of a 2009 NEA fellowship, Ms Shearin currently lives in North Carolina. “Smoke” is from her collection, The Empty House and upon reading the poem I knew that the writer had grown up with social customs the same as my own. We didn’t think much about it at the time, but in retrospect is it clear that the widespread habit of smoking permeated our days and nights in ways that imprinted indelible images in our memory. 

It was everywhere in my childhood: in restaurants,
on buses or planes. The teacher’s lounge looked like
London under fog. My grandmother never stopped

smoking, and walking in her house was like diving
in a dark pond. Adults were dimly lit: they carried
matches in their pockets as if they might need fire

to see. Cigarette machines inhaled quarters and
exhaled rectangles. Women had their own brands,
long and thin; one was named Eve and it was meant

to be smoked in a garden thick with summer flowers.
I’m speaking of moods: an old country store where
my grandfather met friends and everyone spoke

behind a veil of smoke. (My Uncle Bill preferred
fragrant cigars; I can still smell his postal jacket...)
He had time to tell stories because he took breaks

and there was something to do with his hands.
My mother’s bridge club gathered around tables
with ashtrays and secrets which are best revealed

beside fire. Even the fireplaces are gone: inefficient
and messy. We are healthier now and safer! We have
exercise and tests for breast or colon cancer. We have

helmets and car seats and smokeless coffee shops
where coffee has grown frothy and complex. The old
movies are so full of smoke that actors are hard to see

and they are often wrapped in smoking jackets, bent
over a piano or kiss. I miss the places smoke created.
I like the way people sat down for rest or pleasure

and spoke to other people, not phones, and the tiny fire
which is crimson and primitive and warm. How long
ago when humans found this spark of warmth and made

their first circle? What about smoke as words? Or the
pipes of peace? In grade school we learned how it rises
and how it can kill. We were taught to shove towels

under our closed doors: to stop, drop, and roll. We had
a plan to meet our family in the yard, the house behind
us alive with all we cannot put out... 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Old-Fashioned Redux

Apart from what books and school have taught me about hard living with few or no conveniences, a lifestyle that our forefathers experienced way back when, my own life has never included the chores of living in the wide open spaces or along country backroads where nature is more than a view out the living room window. With the move to south Oak Hill, onto an acre of land situated on a dirt road where the house is surrounded by old oak trees large enough to crush a house, where critters of every kind prowl the yard and where everything green grows quickly, Saturday started with a pioneer bang.

Bed came relatively early on Friday night and I was out like a light, sleeping through the night without awareness of what went on beyond the bedroom. I was up early enough to see the light come seeping greenly through the trees, pleased that the rain of Friday had passed on. At one point during Friday’s hard rain a part of my front yard began to look like a swimming pool, but when I looked out the window this morning the water was gone and the ground appeared dry. I jumped into a pair of shorts and boots and walked out to the back yard, the early light washing over the scene in half shimmer, half shadow. It took but a minute to realize that a good part of the yard was littered with fallen limbs from the many oak trees, too many to leave where they had dropped. Here was a chore all new to me, and with mosquitoes worrying my naked legs I began to gather up the limbs and carrying them to an old walled compost. Could be a mistake, but for the time being a better place didn’t come to mind. Forty-five minutes later I tossed the last of them on the pile, scratching mozzie bites and wiping sweat off my face. The work at least brought me up close to many of the handsome air plants that root themselves to the oaks. Tillandsia is one of the numerous species of flowering epiphytes native to the southern US and new to this southern boy.

Thought I’d better have a look at the well to see how the salt pellets were holding up, and danged if the reservoir wasn't close to empty. That meant emptying another two forty-pound bags of salt into the barrel. The purpose is to soften the water, an aim I’m not sure I like since I prefer hard water to soft, but I am trying to follow instructions. Still, wrestling the heavy bags from utility room to well and emptying them into the snake-scary well house—right after picking up a hundred fallen limbs—left me begging for a shower, some coffee and a quiet, peaceful sit down. But not before cleaning up most of the mud smears left on the side of the house from the cable installation on Friday. It had to be buried against the side of the house.

Hanging the wash was next. I have a perfectly good clothes dryer in my utility room, but sunshine smells so much better. My problem was working with the wooden clothespins, a type quite different from the bilious blue or pink plastic kind I used for years in Japan and which adapted to their duty with ease. The old-fashioned, but aesthetically nicer wooden ones don’t catch the line and clothes in a quick, solid grip and I kept dropping them, or the clothes fell loose. I might register for a clothespin class at the Oak Hill community center.

Waiting for birds in my rocker

An hour later, clean and cool and refreshed by a plate of melon, toast and coffee, I relaxed in a rocker on the back porch to watch the birds discover the feeder hanging from the camphor tree, overflowing with a southern mix of best bird eats. I waited and waited, finally deciding that word of beak had not yet spread around the forest community. But the waiting was relieved by the appearance of a squirrel who rummaged the ground under the feeder never once looking up, only spying the feeder after climbing a neighboring tree and looking across to the red hanging feeder at eye level. He made his way over quickly and spent ten minutes trying to figure out a way down the thin rope to the treasure house waiting for his hungry jaws. Once he got onto the feeder and down to the slots with all the seed he munched away until I called a time limit and clapped my hands loudly. He scampered, but was back in five and at it again. With his stomach starting to swell and his teeth working double-time, I called time again and shooed him off. Afraid there would be nothing left for the birds, I temporarily wrapped a towel around the feeder and clamped it tight with clips. Ten minutes later he had managed to wiggle inside the towel, squeezing his way to the bounty. That’s when I got the idea of a BB gun to pepper his greedy butt after eating a fair share. For the time being I outfoxed him with a gooey slather of Vaseline on the rope leading from limb to feeder. That put him off, banishing him to the spill of seeds on the ground beneath the feeder.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sofa in the Rain

Today was a perfect moving day for tadpoles. The movers arrived on schedule at 9:00 and rain was coming down in a hard and steady drizzle. Though that didn’t deter the two guys who at first I thought were Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Chris “Thor” Hemsworth, men who obviously make their living lifting and carrying very heavy objects. My 900 pound sofa was little more than an afterthought and was carried to the truck mummified in plastic wrap as if it were a spindly Louis XIV chair. One of them hoisted a queen-sized bed frame in one hand and in the other wheeled my giant bicycle off to the truck. I had to hustle to get several quickly packed bins and bags out to my car before they finished loading the truck with all the big stuff, plus a dozen plastic bins and three lamps.

Looking into the master bedroom half-straightened

Little surprise that as soon as the truck and my car were ready to go, the rain stopped. Or at least until we were halfway along the twenty-one mile drive from beach to country. I couldn’t help worrying that the mile of dirt road leading to my new house might be a mud pit by the time we got there, but it turned out to be okay. It also happened that unloading and getting everything inside was even easier than the first half. The big sofa came through the back porch screen door without even touching the edges of the frame, and the double door from porch to living room made it a snap. I couldn’t help but be amazed by the efficiency and friendliness of the movers, John and Brian. The whole job took four and a half hours.

Looking across the living room to the kitchen

When I had a moment to look around at something other than the inside of the house and the piles of boxes and furniture, the wet and sparkling green of a freshly mowed yard caught my eye. Neighbor Manny did the job yesterday and judging from the look of things now, it definitely needed a cut. Beautiful job and now a broad swath of back yard less inviting to native serpents with long teeth. The photo at the top was taken through the screen and looks a little blurry, but it gives a hint of the mowed backyard. 

Corner with table; double doors look out to porch and backyard.

Meanwhile, I'm close to being ready for physical rehab. Just like the rain, moving day came on a day when my poor body is wracked by the coughs and sneezes of a spring cold. Think I have risked overdosing on Excedrin and Kleenex. At least I can take a slow pace in getting the house in shape after the arrival of the furniture. Mostly, books to be shelved and the fun of making it all look like home. 

From kitchen looking across the living room

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America