Category Archives: Non-human Neighbours

A Climate Professional Tries to Mow the Lawn

I don’t know how all of you feel about carbon, but let me tell you, when you work in climate change, carbon guilt is real.

I very rarely fly anywhere (maybe 2x in the last ten years), bought a very fuel-efficient car and live as close to work as I can, walk when I can, purchase renewable energy for my home at an additional cost (Canadian readers, ask me if you’d like more info on that), read a truly alarming number of climate books and articles, etc. etc., and still it feels like it’s never enough.

And scientifically, it isn’t.

Mind: I am not about to tell anyone else what to do about their carbon guilt, or even that you ought to feel carbon guilt. All I am saying is that I feel a lot of it, myself, and do my best to manage it.

This is the context in which I bought my first lawn mower when we moved into our home six years ago.

It’s a big lawn. It’s a 1965 suburban corner lot for a side-split detached house. It takes 45 minutes on a good day when the grass hasn’t grown much.

And we live in a time where spending ungodly amounts of energy creating an environment were weeds thrive* yet are not legally allowed to grow and where you are required to grow a plant that sprints upwards at the mere thought of rain yet must be kept below 8″ (eg. grass) or fines will follow. I truly think future civilizations are going to look back at by-laws about lawn maintenance and think we were the stupidest people ever. We’re worried about peak oil and petro-states and climate change and energy costs and fossil fuel consumption, and yet we have actual laws that necessitate people to spend rising amounts of money on increasingly scarce energy with disastrous environmental and social outcomes to give our real estate a regular hair cut. There are wildfires burning out of control all over the world, spurred in great part by climate change, but is there a single municipality thinking, you know what? Grass could be a great carbon sink and all of those gas mowers are not helping. Maybe we should loosen the noose a bit.

Nope.

So here I am, a single mother with limited time and a lot of carbon guilt, legally required to keep the grass growing but not more than 8″ tall, and determined not to use any fossil fuels in the pursuit of this.

In the six years since I’ve moved in I’ve owned THREE battery-powered lawn mowers.

Do you know how much a climate-friendly tool has to suck before I’ll hate it?

It has to suck a lot, Dear Readers. Let me tell you how much.

First Mower

Black-and-decker plug-in. It worked for a few months, then wouldn’t start. At this point it was still under warranty, so I brought it in. It was the charging cable. It took weeks, in which my lawn continued to grow, and I received some warning letters from the local by-law office. Thank you, neighbours!

It worked again for a few months, and then stopped. Now out of warranty, so I had to pay for the new charging cable myself. This time, I also hired someone to mow the lawn while it was being repaired so I wouldn’t get a fine.

Then it worked again for a few months.

And stopped.

Nuts to this, I thought. It’s cheaper just to buy a new mower.

(This model is no longer for sale. I can’t imagine why.)

Second Mower

Ryobi, where the battery charges indoors and the machine folds up so you can store it in a shed. It has a five-year warranty. This should be better, thought I.

91 days later, one day after the Home Depot return period, the mower would no longer start.

Home Depot wouldn’t take it back, and Ryobi told me that even though the machine was obviously defective (91 days!) I had no recourse but the warranty. There is no service email address on their website; the service contact form doesn’t work; and the folks answering the service phone line are obviously told not to say or do anything that might incur any sort of obligation. There was no way to take it up the ladder.

The service company is 40 minutes from my house and only open during business hours and on Saturday mornings. Grumbling, I brought it in.

Repair guy tells me he sees this with Ryobi mowers all the time. Several weeks later, I have it back. Several weeks in which I have once again been paying someone to mow the lawn so I don’t get a ticket. It is, by this time, late in the south Ontario mowing season, so I mow the lawn once or twice and put the machine away for the winter.

In the spring, it won’t start.

Again.

I take it back to the service centre.

And, knowing that calling, emailing and filling out forms on their website are useless, I resort to twitter.

This is going to get expensive for you, if I have to take this in to have it repaired twice a year, was the essence of it. You would have been better off allowing me to return or exchange the mower when I first called.

And I kept it up. Politely. They shared with me an email address–that doesn’t exist anywhere on their website; you can check–to get resolution. I emailed, and waited. No response. Tweeted again. This went on for a while, and then finally someone from the company wrote back.

We can send you a new mower, they said.

Great, I replied; but what is the warranty on it? I didn’t trust the machines at this point and thought I was most likely to end up with a dud, and no receipt for getting it repaired.

No reply.

Send us your address, they said.

Great, here it is, I replied; but what is the warranty on it? How does that work?

We’ve mailed you the new machine, they said.

Wonderful, I replied, and thank you, but what is the warranty on it? What do I do it if it breaks?

There is a full warranty, they replied.

Third Mower

The new mower is fancier than the first one, which is a nice touch: it’s self-propelled.

Not so nice?

It worked once.

I mowed the lawn with it once.

I mowed with it once, folded it up to put it in the shed, and the very next time I brought it out, it wouldn’t. I tried it with two fully charged batteries (I checked them in compatible devices–no problem) and two keys.

Email: Hey. I just went to use the mower for the second time, and it wouldn’t start. Same issue I had with the first one. Honestly you guys really need to address this problem in your machines. In the meantime, I’m going to need a receipt or something to take it to the service centre.

No response. Ten days pass.

On twitter: Hello. I emailed the service person I’ve been talking to. The replacement mower is broken and I need paperwork to bring it to the service centre.

THEY BLOCKED ME.

Dear Readers, I can’t say if my experiences with the actual machines is typical or not. Maybe I have the only two fragile, persnickety, battery-powered lawn mowers ever manufactured by Ryobi. It’s possible.

But I leave it to you to determine for yourselves if anything about this scenario reflects how you would want a company to respond in the case of defective products.

A service contact form on the website that doesn’t work–an email address only given out in case of twitter complaints–beleaguered service call centre staff who aren’t allowed to help people who call in or forward complaints on to management–and then when someone’s twitter complaints makes you look bad in public, providing them with a replacement machine and no warranty paperwork.  And then when the replacement machine has the same issue the first one did, blocking them.

On the plus side, I’d already brought the first Ryobi mower in for servicing, so it is working. For how long, who knows?

What I normally hear is something like, “LOL, just get a gas mower!” Please don’t. I am completely opposed to burning any kind of fossil fuel in the pursuit of anything as trivial as grass length. A better indictment of the values of 21st century North America than “sure we’re running out of gas and oil and yes the planet is on fire and definitely we’re losing biodiversity and pollinators and of course energy is increasingly expensive and all of this is awful and terrible and we care so! much! But we’re still going to pass laws to require you to spend ever more money on fossil fuels to destroy your property’s biodiversity while contributing to the climate emergency. Here’s your fine.”  It is actually a hill I’m prepared to die on, and would be prepared to pay a whole lot of fines to make a point. Though of course I’d rather not.

~~~~~

*All of the plants defined as weeds for the purposes of early 21st century lawn maintenance are what’s known in ecology as colonizers: they have a need for lots of sun and lots of space, can’t tolerate shade, and can grow like the dickens. They do very well in clearcuts, after fires or rocklides or other natural events that clear out the tree canopy and competition, and they really really love lawns. If you really want to get rid of weeds, what you need to grow are trees–lots of them–because weeds hate shade.

Review: Stumpwork Butterflies & Moths

Stumpwork Butterflies & Moths
Stumpwork Butterflies & Moths by Jane Nicholas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am incredibly impressed by the level of research in Jane Nicholas’s insect embroidery books. I don’t read them expecting to learn more about the critters she embroiders, but I do: The natural history and basic biology of the insects are included; she also includes the history of the use of those insects in art, design & embroidery; and all of the projects are based on specific species of insects, quite true to life, with background information on their classification, habitat, and life cycles. It blows me away.

I’ve now completed one of the butterflies–the Chalkhill Blue Butterfly.

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Below is a photo of an actual Chalkhill Blue Butterfly, to give you an idea of how realistic the embroidery is:

Wow, right?

The instructions were detailed, thorough and accurate. This time, I used a much finer gauge of wire, and it was much easier to couch to the fabric and buttonhole stitch over it.

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The instructions for shaded satin stitch in the wings also made sense, and made a final product that looked mostly like the photo in the book (any discrepancies I’m chalking up to my poorer relative skill level).

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The wings cut out well and inserted through the background fabric no problem, and the remaining instructions to embroidery the body and antennae were simple and accurate. Voila, the final product (beside the ladybug I embroidered from her beetles book a few weeks ago):

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Some imperfections to note:

-I didn’t have the stripey thread she used for the antennae, so mine are solid.
-I also didn’t have and couldn’t find 3mm beads for the head, so my head is not quite the right proportion for the body–still, I think it works
-I also didn’t want to pay shipping on the brand of chenille thread she used for the body, so I used a fuzzy thread I could buy locally. It’s not quite right but it’s better than the shipping charge would have been.
-And lastly, you can see the pencil tick marks on the background fabric showing where the butterfly ought to have extended to, according to the “finished size” photo/diagram. Mine is clearly smaller. I followed the patterns for the wings quite carefully, so either the photo/diagram of the finished project is a smidge off, or you’re supposed to buttonhole stitch around the wing shape, and not directly over it. In any case, it’s a minor thing, and won’t affect my ability to use the butterfly pattern on anything else I choose.

Five stars. I’m having a fantastic time with stumpwork so far. Yes, it’s small and fiddly, but the smallness means that each element works up really quickly, and I can see lots of potential for including little bits like these on clothing and bags and other projects.

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Fireflies!

The Royal Botanical Gardens is an extra treat for those of us who live nearby; it has the gardens, yes, but also many kilometres of hiking trails through nature preserves and active nature education programs for artists, adults, kids and families. Naturally Frances has been a constant attender of the daycamps since we moved here a few years back. This past weekend we took advantage of the other programs and attended their Fun with Fireflies evening.

The RBG staff started with a presentation on fireflies (fun fact #1: fireflies aren’t flies. They’re beetles) a few games outside while waiting for the sun to set; then we set off on a short walk to the shore to see if we could find any fireflies, bug nets in hand.

Did we ever. There were hundreds of them, twinkling in the trees like a fair city. Frances didn’t manage to net any, but I did get one exceptionally blurry photograph.

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Besides stalking fireflies in the woods in the dark, which was pretty fun, I loved learning about their deceitfulness. No, really. They use their flashing butts to talk to each other and find mates of their own species, as you probably already knew. But females will also use the flashing patterns of females of other species to lure in those males, and then eat them (yes, fireflies can be cannibalistic). And, in a lovely mind-bending twist, the males will sometimes use the flashing pattners of females of other species who are pretending to be his species in order to convince the males of their own species that they are in imminent danger of being eaten, to frighten them away, so they can have the territory and the females to themselves. Amazing.

Fireflies are declining in numbers and becoming endangered, due likely to light pollution (hard to talk to each other when they are being washed out by streetlights everywhere) and habitat loss. If you’d like to learn about how you can help them, or about the different species of fireflies, check out firefly.org. You can even contribute your firefly sightings to help scientists further their research into these important and beautiful insects.

Nature Photography Day

So did you get out to take pictures?

(I know at least one of you did. How about the rest? I may not be getting a lot of traffic here but I do have more than one reader for a fact. So.)

1306_nature photography day_042The Ebony Jewelwing damselfly picture in the background on the front page is the favourite so far, but if you want to see some other shots, they’re all on my flickr stream. And just as I said, I looked for things that most people would be able to find within a walk of their home, no matter where they live.

Like … bugs! Surely there are caterpillars and beetles in your vicinity. (Fun fact: beetle species make up 40% of all insect species and 30% of all animal species. That’s a lot of beetles! But by weight the ants win; if you took all the ants in the world and weighed them up together, they would weigh as much as all of the people in the world put together. That’s a LOT of ants. There are probably at least a few ants within a few feet of you right now, whether you can see them or not.)

This lovely fellow is a six-spotted tiger beetle; very common in woodlands in these parts and easily seen because he likes to sun himself on paths, rather than in the foliage.

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And garden flowers. I don’t know if I’ve ever been anywhere that didn’t have at least a windowbox growing something with petals–and very likely there is a front stoop or boulevard garden with roses growing nearby.

The deer, turtles and frogs I admit you may not see on a stroll around your neighbourhood.

But by far the best part of Nature Photography Day was getting out on a gorgeous afternoon with enough time to poke around and discover some previously unexplored corners of the trails near my home. The first led me to a small, shallow pond full of tadpoles; the second to a larger, deeper pond full of frogs, with turtles sunning on a log and dragonflies (mostly Common Whitetails) and damselflies (mostly bluets) darting around the edge like WWII fighter planes. It was Happy Season for the Whitetails; I lost track of the number of mating sessions I saw in the two-hour span I sat there for, the bright bluish-white males and the golden-brown females flying by, joined in a heart-shaped loop, then the females laying their eggs in the pond while the male guarded them from above. I did try to get pictures but they all turned out blurry. Maybe next time.

Overhead, flycatchers (I think) swooped over the pond in low arcs, while woodpeckers called from the trees. It was odd to think that while I sat there, taking some time away from any kind of work and entirely at peace, I was surrounded by animals busily at work providing for themselves and their families, largely by eating each other. And yet it was perfect. I somehow doubt that our human, urban environments provide our non-human neighbours with the same sense of calm.

Nature Photography Day is Tomorrow

I write a lot–when I have time to write, which lately happens to be more often, hurray!–about how nature is everywhere and everything, and you don’t need to go far (or anywhere) to find something beautiful. Tomorrow, on Nature Photography Day, I would like to challenge myself and you to get out there with whatever camera you have and take a picture of whatever nature you have close to hand. Your finger counts, if you’re really stuck, but also consider:

  • weeds in the sidewalk or growing through your driveway
  • street trees, living and dead
  • grass, other things that grow in grass
  • bugs
  • a puddle
  • gardens, flower or vegetable
  • windowboxes and flower pots
  • nurseries and garden centres
  • stormwater ponds and drainage ditches
  • overgrown lots

If you want to participate officially, join the Nature Photography Day facebook page, and then post one photo you took on Saturday June 15 of a natural subject. You’ll have a few days to upload your picture afterwards. It’s not a contest and there are no prizes; the goal is simply to enjoy the nature that we have all around us, all the time.

I am planning on getting out to a Conservation Area tomorrow to see some of my favourite green kin and non-human neighbours for some (hopefully) good shots, but I’ll also take a few of the kind I list above. I’d love to see yours too, whether you post a link in the comments below, post it to the facebook event page, send me an email, or however suits you best.

The picture in the background of this post, by the way, is a little spider on the petal of a gerbera daisy I planted in a flower pot. You don’t have to go anywhere to find nature, or something beautiful. If all else fails, take a picture of the sky.

Review: Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology
Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that should be read in the spring.

Unfortunately, I first picked it up in the fall, and found the first fifty pages a tough slog. Where was the evidence, the statistics, the science? There is none, of course; this is a book of moral and environmental philosophy, and more of the felt-truth flavour than the chain-of-logic variety.

I had much better luck with it when I picked it up after a full day of hiking and gardening, with the dirt still under my fingernails and the songs of birds in my ears. Well, of course–the earth is alive, and we are connected to it, and we should remember that we too are animals and part of the world. And it doesn’t need any evidence. It’s self-evident.

“there’s a tacit sense that we’d better not let our awareness come too close to our creaturely sensations, that we’d best keep our arguments girded with statistics and our thoughts buttressed with abstractions, lest we succumb to an overwhelming grief–a heartache born of our organism’s instinctive empathy with the living land and its cascading losses.” (p. 7)

That hurdle overcome, I polished the book off lickety-split.

Abram’s central argument (if you can call it that, when it consists largely of appeals to the reader’s empathy and personal experience) is that we, too, are animals; and, being animals, we ought not to think of ourselves as or act as if we are separate from the rest of nature. Go outside; pay attention; listen to things, because everything has a voice, and talk to them too, because they are listening to you. You may not find his argument convincing in a typical linear logic sense, but it is beautifully stated and deeply felt, and it’s hard to see how taking ourselves off of the evolutionary pedestal and resituating ourselves with the rest of creation could possibly lead to any harm.

“Perhaps the broad sphere, itself, needed our forgetfulness. Perhaps some new power was waiting to be born on the planet, and our species was called upon to incubate this power in the dark cocoon of our solitude. Ours enses dulled, our attenntion lost to the world, we created, in our inward turning, a quiet cave wherein a new layer of Earth could first shape itself and come to life. But surely it’s time now to hatch this new stratum, to waken our senses from their screen-dazzled swoon, and so to offer this power back to the more-than-human terrain. The cascading extinctions of other species make evident that the time is long past ripe. The abrupt loss of rain forests and coral reefs, the choking of wetlands, the poisons leaching into the soils, and the toxins spreading in our muscles compel us to awaken from our long oblivion, to cough up the difficult magic that’s been growing within us, swelling us with pride even as the land disintegrates all around us. Surely we’ve cut ourselves off for long enough–time, now, to open our minds outward, returning to the biosphere that wide intelligence we’d thought was ours alone. … Sentience was never our private possession.” (p. 129)

OK, the language may be a little overwrought from time to time. Also, Abrams really likes the word “cascading.” But as a book to bring you back into your senses, as a living creature in a living world, it’s hard to beat.

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may apples

The may apples are finally blooming–now that it’s almost June, thanks I’m guessing to the chilly spring. I wouldn’t blame you for not noticing, though …

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…since when they bloom, they look like this. Go ahead. Find them!

A large field of flat-topped five-lobbed leaves, and underneath every plant with two leaves, growing from the joint between them…

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… one hard, waxy, white flower with a bright yellow centre.

As is common with other spring ephemerals (trilliums, trout lilies, bloodroot, etc.), may apples reproduce both sexually (through the flowers & fruits) and asexually (by spreading roots underground and forming colonies). The colonies can be quite large so while it is difficult to see the flowers when they’re blooming, it’s impossible to miss the leaves! And if you scootch down on the ground and take a peak beneath, you’ll see dozens blooming all at once, a whole dimly-lit wonderland of lovely ivory flowers.

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Later in the summer they’ll become small fruits, which are not poisonous if eaten when ripe in small quantities. The leaves and roots, however, are toxic, although First Nations would use the extracts to treat stomach aches.

May apples are another way nature has to reward those who are willing to take their time and really look. No one ever saw a may apple, while distractedly rushing through the woods.

Anthropomorphism FTW

I am taking it as a propitious sign that, my first spring in my first house, there are not one but two robin’s nests on our outside lighting fixtures: one in the carport, and one by the front door. We have watched since April as the nests were built, the eggs were laid then hatched, and now the baby birds are being raised by their Mama Birds (with some help from Papa). It has become, temporarily, a three-family home.

My daughter is ecstatic. The light fixtures are a metre or two above the ground, and even I can only see into them by way of a stepladder and a carefully angled cell camera. She loves these pictures, and I send them to her when she’s at her Dad’s house; when she’s at my house, and the weather is nice, all she wants to do is sit outside and watch her “favourite TV show”: the nests. “Mummy! I see heads! Oh, she’s stretching! What a cute little baby bird. I see beaks! They’re chirping! Oh, here comes Mama Bird with some worms! Hungry babies. Aww, now they’re snuggling.” At times she becomes quite indignant: “Mama Bird, where are you! Your babies are hungry and asking for food. When is she coming back, Mummy?” (When she finds some worms, I’m sure.) “Well, how long can that take?”

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Mama Bird II, by the front door, has her work particularly cut out for her, as she takes flight whenever my daughter or I enter or exit the house. “Sorry, Mama Bird!” we say. “We won’t hurt your babies, promise.”

We are all about anthropomorphism, at our house.

Look: if you believe that we evolved, along with all other animals, from common ancestors, then our emotions are not a gift that arrived precisely at the moment we became homo sapiens sapiens. Our emotions, too, evolved; and we have them in common with our non-human kin. The relationship between mother and child was first; all of our relationships–father and child, mother and father, nuclear family, extended kin, tribe, friendship, and on and on–are built on the basis of the feelings and patterns of care that first developed between mother and child, millions of years ago. Whoever you love and how much, and however you express that love, is all possible because millions of years ago, an ancestor distant beyond knowing looked at her babies and first felt that she would die for them. That ancestor was not human. She was not even mammalian.

One of those first mothers began the time-honoured tradition of chewing up her baby’s food and spitting it in to the baby’s mouth, soft and somewhat pre-digested; it is from this that our kisses have evolved. Even sex, as much as we like to keep it as separate as possible from any tinge of maternity–all of those good feelings use hormones and chemicals that first evolved in the context of maternal care.

hatchling

For the newer nest, by the front door, when I first carefully angled my camera phone to take a picture of the first newly hatched egg, that little naked blind bird, so much smaller than even my hand, reached its head up to the camera with beak open wide for food. That helplessness and vulnerability struck me as so essentially the same as our own babies, that dependency on unearned trust because it is only by trusting in the adults nearby that there is any hope of surviving–even if sometimes, even if often, the trust is misplaced and the hovering shadow is actually a snake or a rat, or the adult arms reaching to pick up the wailing infant mean to leave it on a hillside to die. Babies can’t afford to be choosy. They so need care, that they must trust that the care will come, even when it doesn’t.

But the care came for these little robins, with the dedicated and hard-working Mama Birds hunting and bringing back pre-chewed treasures to vomit in their hatchlings’ mouths. And the hatchlings became baby birds, little brown heads with yellow beaks propped on the nest’s rim, waiting for Mama and–possibly–wondering when they get to do more than just stretch their wings. The first nest has already fledged.

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I’ll miss them when they go (though we already have plans to take their nests into the house as souveniers, since robins won’t re-use a nest). My daughter will miss the babies, the daily dramas of their feedings and stretchings and growing, their cuteness and compactness and how they are all snuggled in the nest together. I will mostly miss the Mama Birds, how they would scold me from the shrubbery if I ventured too near the nest while they were watching, their effort in hunting the tastiest morsels for the little beaks back home, the solid white chunks of poop they would scoop away in their beaks to keep that nest clean and comfy, their snuggling in with the growing birds–giving them a hug. Because we’re not so different, those Mama Birds and me, and I know they love their babies just as I love mine.