THROUGH THE WOODS: The importance of clouds

Photo contributed

SUMMER AND GOOD WEATHER meant lots of work and hectic times on our farms. Farmers always have an eye on the weather, and this was instilled in us at a young age. When work was done, and we had a play time we often took a rest and lay on our backs in the grass and looked up at the sky. Up there is an ever-changing scene and on a clear day with big puffy clouds it was irresistible not to search for animals, people or other shapes lurking in those clouds. By the time we argued over whether it was a horse, a cow, or a dog, it would transform and the whole thing was gone. Our imaginations went wild, and it was always a fun form of entertainment.

My grandfather kept our attention with his sayings and ways of predicting weather, and he constantly said them until we were sure to know them. We learned the high, wispy mare’s tails clouds that predicted rain within about a day. A mackerel sky had slightly lower clouds that looked kind of spotty and meant it would rain in less than 24 hours, particularly if the cows were lying down in the field. If there was a “red sky in the morning, sailors take warning” and if there was a “red sky at night, sailors delight.” Those red skies in the morning often brought bad storms by late afternoon.

During the day we watched the sky and checked the wind direction to see if thunderheads were building up or a sudden change in wind might clue us to coming rain. Then we would be racing to cover the loads of hay with heavy canvas tarps and tie them down tight to the wagon posts. At the same time, the men would be baling up dry hay and trying to get it into the wagons and into the barn. We all had a job at these times. I usually got to climb the wagons and tie the canvasses. As I got older, I might have been raking the hay for the person baling or hauling hay back to the barns. During this we always watched the sky. We had to fill the barns with hay each year so there would be enough hay for the cattle during the winter. It was vital to our existence. If the dry hay got wet, it would turn black and mold which made it inedible or could possibly make us and the stock sick to breathe it. Another problem was that damp or green hay could spontaneously combust and burn down a barn. If the black ruined hay was left on the field, it would smother the grass beneath it and decrease the amount of hay obtained at the next cutting. In a good year we might get three crops of hay from a field. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Stumped, briefly, by stunt

THE GIANT CORPSE FLOWER, which takes a decade to bloom and stinks like rotting meat, makes a good morning newscast story. And while I agree that everyone should start their day knowing about Amorphophallus titanum, there are many other notable horticultural stories that get less press. Gypsy moths and emerald ash borers sometimes merit a feature as they destroy our woodlands, but such killers as verticillium wilt, Swede midge, and spotted-wing fruit flies remain unknown to the public. And even I, who strives to be in the know, learned some lessons this week when a landscape contractor sent me photos of dying spiraea.

If you can’t quite picture what exactly a spiraea is, you are forgiven, and to add to the confusion, the word is often also spelled “spirea.” The bridalwreath spiraea, a tall deciduous shrub with abundant but tiny white flowers in late spring, was popular in Victorian times and still grows in older neighborhoods. Most would say, however, that spiraeas in general were bit players and never the stars of a garden. Then, about 20 years ago, many new, smaller types of spiraea featuring colorful foliage or flowers, were developed. Prized for their site adaptability and low maintenance, they were installed by the millions in new housing developments, strip malls and roundabouts. I call them “gas station plants” and in such harsh environs they appear with other tough customers like Stella de Oro daylilies, barberries and arborvitae. Read more…

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…