213Copyright 2016 Rolf Margenau - CopyThe first time I visited Jackson Hole, Wyoming I was just thirty years old, green in judgment and what my friends who worked coal in Tennessee called “too city.” It was late summer, the snow on the Teton range was blinding, and there was a sense of relaxed purpose from passersby. I walked to the center square and saw the high corner arches created from elk horns.

In my ignorance, I did not know that elk shed their horns each spring. I thought elk were like elephants or rhinos, keeping one set of tusks lifelong. So, I stood in the center of that sunny square suddenly overwhelmed by a vision of a great elk slaughter to harvest their horns. But the people of the town didn’t look like elk slaughterers. I asked a friendly woman in a clothing store about the horns.

She explained that elk historically came down from the high grazing ranges each fall and migrated south to lower altitudes. Unfortunately, as Jackson Hole grew, it blocked their migration route, bottling thousands of them up in the long valley north of town. So, the people of Jackson Hole sledded hay and fodder to the elk each winter. And harvested their horns in March and April.

During that first visit, I decided that, one day, I would return to help feed the elk. And, chastened by my ignorance, learn more about them. Elk are the largest of the deer family, which also includes caribou and moose. Maybe it’s coincidence, but their names are both singular and plural. I guess nobody could figure out the plural of “moose.” Mooses? Meese? Leave well enough alone.

Through conservation and relocation, significant populations of elk are now found in the western U.S. and Rocky Mountain regions. Smaller pockets of elk can be found in various Midwestern states, such as South Dakota and Minnesota, and small populations have been established in eastern states including Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Over the years, our family has enjoyed seeing these massive creatures in our national parks. Olympic, Rocky Mountain, and Yellowstone are favorites. We also found Tule elk in Point Reyes, California. A bull’s antlers can weigh as much as twenty pounds, but they can’t be taken as souvenirs without permission. Other creatures of the forest chew on the antlers for needed micronutrients. Nothing goes to waste in nature.

One of the most eerie sounds I’ve heard is a bull elk bugling. It’s a high-pitched song that echoes through the mountains. It’s even more impressive when one can see clouds of cold air coming from his mouth as he sings. There’s a picture of a bull bugling above.

Though I’ve visited Jackson Hole often since the first time, Nancy and I were in our seventies before we came to feed the elk. We discovered the government had designated the area as a national elk refuge and taken over the feeding program. No romantic sleigh ride onto snowy fields to pitch hay to the gathered animals. Now, a big sled loaded with food pellets is dragged out to the meadows. The deer like it and thrive. However, we could take a sled ride into the refuge to be among the elk. It was a memorable visit.

So, as with elk and many other things, it is important to remember carpe diem. Seize the day, don’t delay. You might miss the chance to feed the elk.

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Blind hogs and acorns

A few years ago, we had a section of our back yard graded. That created a bare and muddy slope crying out for stabilization. Having strained the household budget for the grading, we elected to seed the slope with a foolproof mixture of long fescues and perennial rye grasses. It probably would have worked but for a torrential rainfall that prompted our neighbor, Noah Anderson, to start in on an arc.

So, looking at a washed-out slope and a swath of seeds and mud that resembled caraway seeds on a bagel, we searched for alternatives. Exotic Asian ground covers were offered. When that was too pricey, we considered similarly expensive shrubs and small trees. I recall “styrax” because it was such an odd name for a snowball tree. Though I loved the name, the cost was not so loveable. The search continued.

At the shaded edge of the woods behind out house I discovered a neglected batch of wild day Lillies, overcrowded and almost yellow from neglect. Maybe they would recover if I transplanted them to the raw but sunny earth. What the heck. I might even fertilize them. I dug them all up and moved them to the ugly slope.

Early next spring, I tossed a few handfuls of a neighbor’s chicken manure on them. Green spikes appeared in March, reaching quickly skyward. Lush spires followed and, in early July, buds on tall stems opened. Not too many, but enough to get my attention. They were beautiful, large double orange day Lillies.

That was a few years ago. Now the Lillies thickly cover the former muddy slope, providing their annual lush green foliage and abundant flowers. However, they were never wild. They originated in China and Korea, where their buds have been roasted and eaten as part of the Asian diet for centuries. Nancy is skeptical about roasting their buds, so we just enjoy their blooms. Maybe next year will be the year for roasting.

There is a saying on the Texas Panhandle (where I used to go often on business) that “even a blind hog comes acrost a acorn ever onct in a while” I guess I’m a blind hog and the Lillies are my acorns.


Double day lilly


Miraculous Mystery?

2Copyright 2017 Rolf Margenau copy

Prickly Pear Cactus

I may have stumbled on one of the natural world’s miraculous mysteries. Those are the categories of things that we understand happening, but can’t figure out how. For example, how is it that the fourth generation of monarch butterfly born in New Jersey can fly each fall to overwinter in the same group of evergreens in Mexico, a journey of almost three thousand miles? How does a week-old fawn know to withhold urine and feces (which might disclose its location to a predator) while its mother is away? How does a salmon, after swimming in the wide ocean for two years, find its way up a freshwater stream to the same place it was hatched—to lay its eggs and die? Why do gray whales leave the Bering Sea, navigate the west coast of Canada and the United States, and return each June to Scammon’s Cove on the Baja Peninsula to deliver their calves?

Sunlight, starlight, seasonal changes, even changes in atmospheric pressure all seem to play a role in these behaviors. At the moment, I am wondering whether plants can tell time.

A couple of years ago I discovered that that the Eastern prickly pear cactus (opuntia humifusa for gardening nerds) might grow in my northern New Jersey garden. That, I thought, would be cool. I might be the first one in the neighborhood to have a cactus in my garden. I bought four from a place in Arizona, planted them in the spring and nurtured them. No flowers, of course, but they did grow bigger.

The following spring, after a moderate winter with some snowfall, there were three cactuses (cacti?). Turns out that desperate mice burrow through the snow and will eat leathery cactus. One was a goner; the other three were nibbled upon, but thrived in spring.

Last June I noticed large new cactus ears supporting what looked suspiciously like flower buds. At the end of June, four of them opened—to disclose beautiful yellow flowers with orange centers hosting golden pistils. The ones from this year are above.

I take lots of pictures of flowers. I have a good camera (no smart phone, dammit!) that records the time and date a picture is taken in metadata. Early this month as promising growths appeared on the opuntia, I checked to see when the flowers bloomed last year. June 30.

Here’s the thing. A few days ago, on June 30, 2017, the blossoms on my cactus opened. The last two winters were wildly dissimilar. Winter before last we had thirty inches of snow in twenty-four hours and frigid weather through April. Last winter there was little snow and balmy weather in February. I don’t think the weather provided blooming signals to my cactus.

So, I’m wondering. Is this one of nature’s miraculous mysteries? Does opuntia tell time?

Check back next June 30. We’ll see.

First Random Thought

DSC_0305Not so much my thought, but an editor who nagged me about blogging. Apparently, it’s important to blog, especially if you are a writer. So I looked at some blogs. I don’t fear that mine will be worse than others now.

I intend to share some of the snippets I write about gardening; our cairn terrier, Luci-fur; and updates on how things are going with my latest novel. I have written four, and am about mid-thigh deep into number five–about Longevity and its problems.

I worked as a professional photographer to get through the years of my higher education and am still frequently found with a camera on hand. So, there will be pictures. Nature photographs are my favorite, though people and animals also creep in.

Below is a recent comment on cairns for a cairn terrier:

Luci-fur is our almost two-year-old Cairn Terrier. Her breed arose in Scotland, where farmers, who built cairns from rocks removed from fields, needed the dogs to find foxes and badgers living in their cairns. Luci is a sixty-pound dog in a fifteen-pound suit, with deadly choppers hiding in a cute face.

Recent earth moving at our place uncovered a cairn-sized quantity of rocks, so I decided to treat Lucy to her own cairn at the end of our woods. It was not a work of art, but serviceable and, I thought, sturdy. I was a little disappointed that Lucy did not notice it until yesterday.

She told me in no uncertain barks and howls that it housed an animal that she needed to indulge in extreme conversation. In about ten minutes she reduced the cairn to a six-inch pile of rubble. I knew she was getting close to her quarry because her stubby tail was rotating like the little propeller on a helicopter.

Finally, in a flash, a saucer sized dark green bullfrog leapt from the pile and disappeared behind a nearby tree. Lucy, accustomed only to squirrels, was convinced the bullfrog was up in the tree and circled it eagerly as the frog buried himself under leaves. She gave up after about a half-hour.

I’m trying to decide; should I rebuild the cairn and hope for a fox or a badger, or leave it as is—as testimony to an eager terrier and a crafty frog?