THROUGH THE WOODS: Friendly flies?

MEMORIES GO BACK to our dairy farms where we had annoying fly problems all summer. In the early 1950s my father sprayed the porch and barns with DDT until my mother convinced him not to. She was a registered nurse who read about the latest environmental concerns and was very protective of her young family. In later years she shuddered at what children had been exposed to during those times and wondered the harm that may have been caused. We went to less poisonous sprays and repellents to protect stock and us.

Courtesy of NYS DEC

In the house we used fly swatters and those ugly sticky fly papers hung up to catch them. There were some versions of these papers and traps in the barns to reduce spraying. Some flies bite us, and flies in general carry bacteria, viruses, and diseases, including TB, salmonella, cholera, dysentery, hepatitis, meningitis. They can cause food poisoning and more. In fact, the Orkin Pest Control Company says, “Every time a fly lands, it sloughs off thousands of microbes….” It is good to keep food covered and wash hands and surfaces.

My favorite natural fly controls are birds, frogs, and reptiles which I encourage outdoors around my home, including snakes. One bird, a barn swallow, may eat more than 60 flying insects/hour. Phoebes help clean up flies on my porch. Deer are often seen running at full speed trying to evade biting deer flies. They painfully bite to cut skin, including ours, to get blood. To facilitate the blood flow, they inject an anticoagulant which contains bacteria and may cause itching or possibly a severe allergic reaction. Some flies lay eggs on or in their host which develop into larva that eat from the host. Ugh. Read more…


TODAY THE DAWN BROUGHT a gray sky with clouds scudding across the field to catch the treetops. Nothing else moved except the taller grasses, and most of the birds and all the animals were absent. One moth from the night clung to the window looking in with sleepy eyes, sheltered by the overhanging frame. It was a very dreary day indeed and good for quiet contemplation and respite from weather related aches and pains. The field looked so much greener today and the flowers out front had perked up from their semi-wilted state of yesterday.

We knew it would rain today without looking at the news report, because the robins called for rain last evening. They are such a common bird that it is easy to pass them by and not really pay them much attention, but if you listen carefully, they give quite a commentary on the state of the yard and are good weather predictors. Their hollow bones are very sensitive to air pressure changes, and they tell us about it in special phrases we can learn to recognize. Many things come to mind with the rain… “raindrops keep falling on my head,” “the quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath,” “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” “singing in the rain.” We have dedicated much song and poetry to it. It is understandable since our bodies are mostly water and our lives dependent on it.

Photo contributed

We are sometimes accused of not having enough sense to come in out of the rain, but if we do, we miss so much. A walk in gentle warm rain is very pleasant and appeals to all our senses. After brutal, hot days it is very welcome. Donning old clothes for a walk through the wet trees is calming and refreshing. Sneakers squishing, the head cools and the water tickles as it runs down the face, over eyes, down a shirt and legs. It is a natural cleansing and baptism in its purist form. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Our water wells

CHILDREN GO THROUGH PHASES of bad dreams and nightmares. Mine were about old water wells and my mother, with good reason, instilled the fear. We had two behind our farmhouse. One was possibly the original 1700’s well dug into the shale hill behind the house. This was a shallow basin only a couple of feet deep and fed by a natural flow of spring water which never went dry.

The other well was many feet deep. She led me into the small concrete house that covered it and we peered down into the dark water surrounded by laid up field stone. I could not see the bottom and it was a damp, terrifying place.

I was taught where more old, uncovered deep wells were located around the area, often near old house foundations. Getting out would be nearly impossible. Read more…


“JUST SIT BACK and watch it grow!” was a favorite line proclaimed by radio talk-show personality Ralph Snodsmith after he dispensed gardening advice to a caller. The onetime horticultural guru of New York’s WOR-AM, Ralph knew that most plants want to grow if we gardeners just give them the right conditions and care. But sometimes, a plant will take its own sweet time deciding if it is going to live or make a one-way journey to the compost pile instead. This has been my experience with a species called Acanthus spinosus, a.k.a. bear’s breech.

Acanthus spinosus. Photo contributed

Hailing from the Mediterranean, Acanthus spinosus has much to recommend it as a garden plant. Growing in a large clump, the attractive, dark green, glossy foliage is deeply cut, thistle-like, and only modestly barbed. It is resistant to insect pests and rabbits. Spikes of snapdragon-like flowers in shades of pale and dusky pink are distinctive and rise to three feet or more above the leaves. The ancient Greek architect Callimachus was a fan of this plant, decorating the top of his Corinthian columns with Acanthus leaves, and it’s still a common design element in contemporary art and design. Often commonly called “bear’s breeches,” the plant has nothing to do with the slacks Smoky wears or we wish Yogi would put on, but derives from the bear claw-like flower bracts. Other common names are oyster plant, sea holly and bear’s foot. Such a historic plant with a dignified demeanor certainly should have a loftier moniker. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Green Grand Canyon

Rosebay rhododendron. Photo by David Chinery

BEING A PLANT GUY, I can’t help but turn any outdoor vacation into a busman’s holiday. On a recent trip to the Pine Creek Rail Trail for a 120 mile bike ride, I knew I would enjoy cycling amongst the mountains, seeing the landscape and maybe spotting some wildlife. I also ended up, no surprise, looking at a lot of plants. While much of the flora is the same as we see here in the Hudson Valley, it was fun to spot the differences among the wild plants in “the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.”

I was rather skeptical about this loftiest of landscape titles, but Pine Creek does indeed flow through a narrow valley up to 1,450 feet deep; standing on top we were above the vultures and fog. While a good part of the area is now protected, it is a site of former widespread devastation. In 1798, the first of the giant trees, centuries old, were felled and sent downstream to hungry sawmills. Soon tremendous rafts of timber choked the creek. When the trees near waterways were gone, railroads moved in and climbed up the adjacent valleys. By the dawn of the 20th century, the canyon was stripped bare, only thorny brambles and mountain laurel remaining. Then, in 1903 wildfire swept through, opening the ground up to landslides. The timber companies made their final profits selling the exhausted land to the state. Looking at Pine Creek today, it’s hard to imagine the transformation from hell-on-earth green-cloaked paradise. Bears, deer and rattlesnakes crossed the trail in front of us, and eagles soared overhead. River birches, with their flakey bark of gray, cinnamon, and tan, lined the banks of the creek. They don’t mind life clinging to a streambank or the occasional flood. Stock-straight sycamores in uncountable numbers grew along the trailbed, their trunks like Greek columns holding up a leafy canopy. Tulip trees, their show of yellow and orange flowers past but easily identified by their distinctive four-lobed leaves, were another species common in the canyon but rarer in our neck of the woods. Exotic invasives also call the canyon home, including not a few Norway maples and many acres of Japanese bamboo. Since I was on holiday, I tried to keep my blood pressure down, but closing one’s eyes isn’t good while riding a bike. Read more…