Fallout Shelter – Swamp Style

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Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, we came to recognize the symbol above as a place where you would hunker down in case of a sudden nuclear attack.  We can laugh at this today but please bear in mind we had films and such that conveyed to us that if we were smart and we ducked under our desks if we saw a bright flash we would make it through World War III alive.  Nevermind the very desk we were ducking under would be kindling after the blast wave arrived….

My house in the Swamp here was built in 1960.  Apparently the original occupant was scared enough during the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62 that he had a bomb shelter built directly in the backyard.  Today I would ask him what he was thinking because (1) the warning time from missile penetration into U.S airspace to detonation here just north of Jacksonville would be no greater than ten minutes.  Also, (2) there is a reason why we don’t have cellar in the Swamp – they flood – badly.  Finally, (3) what naturally is attracted to dark, damp places?  Bugs, and lots of them.  Which is great because they would be the only residents  left after the radiation settles.  But whomever was selling these shelters apparently got three residents to buy them and have them installed.  Apparently the locals knew where to run in case of sudden war I guess.

When I first moved in to this house in 1995, I had no clue I had a shelter in my yard.  I thought the water pumps and pipes were a part of the city’s water system.  After living here a few years I mentioned this to a neighbor and they revealed it’s true purpose.  Then it was followed up by a stunning revelation.  Apparently as a child he had used it as an underground swimming pool!  Bear in mind this space is only 10 foot by ten foot by six feet in height.  Also, that explained all the water pumps and pipes in the area.  I asked him why they used such a small space underground for “swimming” and he told me it was to avoid getting sunburn.   Yea… okay.

About ten to twelve years ago I went down into the space and saw that it was dry.  I moved some “extra” furniture down there, but since then the ventilation pipes have collapsed and the space is now a bug-infested flooded space.  I dare no use the wooden ladder that was installed there because it would collapse under any amount of weight.  So I do what I can to make sure nobody gets in there by placing about a half-ton of concrete on top of the entrance hatch to the shelter.

I do occasionally get asked about the shelter.  Some of the locals tell me it is awesome I have it because I have someplace to go during a hurricane.  I respond with “Sure, with the storm surge I am happy I have a place where the rescue teams can find the bodies after the water subsides.  Some tell me it is a great place during a tornado, but again, after moving all the rocks off the hatch I am sure I will be in rough shape as the funnel passes and I am outside.

Hopefully those locals who know about the shelter will not pass this knowledge to their kin in case of World War III.  I can only imagine living within miles of a nuclear submarine base that this damp hole in the ground will keep all of us safe from a sudden strike.  Trust me the last thing I want is to become a permanent monument here in the Swamp.

 

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A Peg Legged Goose

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I was running late from leaving work earlier this week and I knew I was needed at home.  I drove my truck away from my office when I quickly encountered a large pack of fifty or so Canadian Geese loitering in the middle of the main road I use when I leave at night.  Knowing full well that honking at them with the horn is useless, I refrained from that course of action.  I edged just a few inches at a time towards the grounded flock and they got the message clear enough as they broke into two groups.  Suddenly, the group on the left of the truck wanted to rejoin the larger body of geese on the right side of the road so once again they ran out in front of the truck impeding my progress. And, as it turns out, the goose at the end of this procession was an adult goose with a limp from a damaged right leg.  Moving at the speed of lint, they finally cleared the road and I moved myself cheerily along.  When I was asked why I was running late, all I said was I was held up by a peg-legged goose.  My wife did not blink at my answer – in fact it appeared to be an acceptable answer.

We have lived here in the Swamp waaaay too long.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy where I work.  I have been nearly run over in the parking lot by deer and I have seen some prize wild turkeys foraging in the back of my building. Currently, I have been assigned the task of dealing with any of the snakes and insects that get INSIDE the office building (yes you read that right) and I am also called to identify any mysterious fauna that manages to pop it’s head into the view of any of my co-workers (because there is the threat it could kill us).  Near my office we have encountered eagles, hawks, ibis, spoonbills, storks, egrets, snakes of all shapes and sizes, gators and turtles in the ditches, geese, coyotes (way back in the woods), turkeys, opossums, raccoon, bobcats, angry wild boars, deer and marines.  One day I do expect the ghost of Marlin Perkins with his beloved Sherpa to come out of the woods from behind the building to say we have been filmed the whole time.

I will give credit where credit is due.  We have a veteran and talented Game Warden that works with us and an excellent staff of environmental engineers and technicians that make sure the wildlife in our areas are well taken care of.  Having come from an industrial work area whose biggest natural threat was a wharf rat the size of a large beaver, this was a bit of a change.  Trust me I am not complaining, but when I spoke with the police in our area I asked them what their biggest challenge was and they all said the wildlife.  And these guys are armed!

Such is life in the Swamp.

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The Hefty Brothers

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For those of you who are not familiar with these gentlemen posted above, they are the Hefty brothers of the show AG PhD on RuralTV.  Each of them owns a farm in the Midwest and every week they present some topic that is related to their craft.  They have segments on their show titles, “Farm Basics”, “Iron Talk” and one of my personal favorites, “The Weed of the Week.”  Now I am sure by now you think I have completely lost my marbles because there is nothing in common between the farms in the Midwest and my land here in the swamp.

Now it is true there are more differences than similarities with our methods of crop production.  They have heavy machinery.  I have a shovel with a crack in it.  They have tiled fields with good drainage for their crops.  I have a swamp.  They have serious corporate backing complete with computerized soil sampling and grid layout of each of their fields.  I have a Lowe’s credit card and a book on gardening.

But what I do admit is the very basics of crop production remains the same.  You need good seeds.  You need good soil.  You need decent moisture, heat, light and food to help the plants grow.  Then you need some sort of pest control because, as we know, the swamp is filled with these little pests that eat everything.  So lets look at each one.

As far as seeds are concerned, Lowe’s carries much of what I need.  Whether it be from an actual seed or from a seedling, their product seems to have worked the longest for me.  Personally, I prefer a pre-started plant if it is not a root crop.  For example a pepper plant or a tomato plant I prefer a seedling of at least 12″ in length.  The extra cost is well worth the hassle.  For carrots and such, well the seeds will do just fine.

Now moisture is an issue.  I cannot afford to tile my lawn like the Hefty boys do so I decided I will grow my plants above the base soil.  The soil here in the swamp is acidic and sandy – any growth above the indigenous weeds and vines are likely to have a short lifespan.  I have watched healthy trees go from full blossom to dead in less than a year so again, unless the soil has been fully prepared by adding 100% organic soil to the entire plot, forget about growing anything IN the soil.  So what do I do?

(1) Use well-drained pots.  This is easier to maintain, especially if the weather turns severe you can simply pull the pots under a roof or inside the house.  The key is they have to drain very, very well.

(2) Raised beds.  Now I will start by saying I have had only moderate success with this method.  What I did was lay down a barrier of cloth over the grassy area I just cleared.  I put in 6″ tall wooden barriers in a 6 foot by 6 foot square.  I fill this bed completely with organic soil and then plant what I want.

Have I seen locals raise crops directly in the soil?  Yes i have.  I hate them.

The next thing is the heat of the summer.  Many of the ordinary crops will melt away in the summer’s ugly heat.  Those Florida hybrid tomatoes?  They were the first tomato crop to die last year.  Beefsteak tomatoes?  They were the second to go.  I have found the cherry tomatoes and the heirloom tomatoes the best of that type of plant to use here.  The peppers do fairly well here also.  I have had success with pimento and green chili peppers – so much so they lived all through the winter and have produced very well for two years and counting!  I keep them in partial shade and pull them further into shade in the heat of the day.  I have had some limited success with carrots, aloe, bamboo, rosemary (for the baked chicken) and basil.  The rest – not so much.  Hopefully this list will (forgive the pun) grow well in the future.

Food for the plants is important.  I do lay out washed out egg shells for fertilization often.  If you grind them up and put them on the leaves they are also an insect repellent.  We also use cayenne pepper on the leaves to keep the damn squirrels from chewing on the green shoots for moisture when it gets dry out.  I also place organic plant food every so often and we transfer the plants to other pots after a year or two to get fresh soil.

Now I do have some blueberry bushes.  I learned that they do moderately well where I placed them on the slope of my backyard as it begins to tumble down into the moat.  I have for the most part left them alone, only going back there to water during the drought years and to keep the thorny vines off of them so they are not choked to death.  When they produce berries the race is on between the damn squirrels and me to harvest as many of these little gems as possible.  I am pleased to say I harvested about a cup and a half total last year, and I am optimistic this yield will continue to increase.  One lesson learned, when planting these bushes, buy two different sets of two species of blueberries to allow for cross-pollination.  That way additional “baby” blueberry bushes will end up growing alongside the ones you planted.

So as you see I do gain some knowledge from watching these two Midwestern good-ol-boys talk about their trade.  Farming is not easy, nor is growing anything of substance here in the Swamp.  But I will admit, there is nothing like harvesting and eating something you have grown.

 

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The Winter Cut

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There is a brief window of time here in the Swamp, that exists between the time the insect clouds are knocked down due to the drop in temperature, and the onset of the first frost.  I had a few days off where I was not clogged down with other duties and responsibilities so all of us here decided it was time for the winter cut.  What is the winter cut you ask?

The winter cut is the time when you hit the lawn hard with the lawnmower and the other motorized tools to prepare the yard for winter so you don’t have a ragged carpet of brown weeds in the place of your lawn.  The problem with the Swamp is looking over the damage and/or the growth remaining after the items you tried to grow has been harvested.

In my case, we have different chores for the different parts of the yard.  The front yard that people see now looks trim and squared away.  The backyard (as seen in photos) – not so much.  The issue is just how much to we attack the area that we could mow just last year.  I even planted green beans to help stop erosion.  Now we have what you see.

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backyard bamboo

So here I am, posed in front of the now nearly 20-foot bamboo wall that is now growing between my yard and the railroad moat.  I have had to evaluate if the bamboo is trying to head over to my left, across my neighbor’s fence to get at her orange trees – something I cannot allow.  I did return a few moments later to remove the bamboo shoots that were trying to entrench themselves into the fence itself.  I will leave it until the frost kills off most of the underbrush and also sends what lives in there off to a much deeper slumber.

Bear one thing in mind with these three photos; less than 12 months ago I could easily mow this tract of my yard.  Now so much now as you can see.  Considering the staggering amount of rain we received this year, I am honestly not surprised at all this growth.  Such is life in the Swamp.

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It the Most Wonderful Time of the Year…

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No I am not referring to Christmas.  That’s one minefield I will not dance on.

What I am referring to is the now-late grounding of the Air Force here in the Swamp.  I have written before about the wide variety of winged attacking insects that love to call this place home.  This variety runs from sand gnats, mosquitoes, the much larger Tiger Mosquito, the horse flies, the deer flies and all the other species that compete for airspace and my blood.  So why the celebration?

Well the Air Force warms up it’s engines in late February to early March.  By mid-March they are out in full force and they are hungry.  Heavy rain, much like what we have had over the past four months or so, makes their numbers exponentially increase, making outside work a hazard unto itself.  As far as the Municipal Mosquito Abatement is concerned, they are upset they could not run their trucks after 7am because they were spraying chemicals into the faces of the kids at the bus stops.  Yea, no kidding.  So the one spray truck they run around my side of this small city is more like a unicorn – you hear about it every once in a while, but you will never see it.

The Air Force does not fly when the winds are above 15 knots.  That does not happen much in the summer unless there is a storm coming in.  The Air Force scrambles when you decide it is time to water the lawn/plants (obviously not a problem this year) or when you want to cut the grass or when you just want to walk in your backyard in general.  Most insect repellents are useless for the most part – what works for some does not work for all.  Besides, I think repellents are looked at by these bugs as a dare.

The only other time the Air Force does not fly is when the temperatures get under 55F (12C).  When the temperatures get under 45F (7C) then they are tied down for the season until the temperatures get above 70F (20C), then they are back and ready to go.  Now if it actually gets down to freezing or lower, strangely enough this as no affect on their numbers come Springtime.  Only the amount of rain has an effect on their population overall.

Now when it is the season for the Air Force to go dormant, my wife and my youngest son can actually go outside.  You see, both of them are allergic to insect bites so essentially from March to November they are imprisoned in the house.  Now we can plan on bike rides, playground time and maybe some extra yard work that can be done without having to donate a pint of blood.  But there is always a price to pay and it come when the weather first gets cooler.

Like today, the overnight low was about 58F (14C).  All the creatures outside know the season is changing.  The ants in the yards are building their mounds higher and the wasps, hornets and yellow jackets are packing in their nests harder.  The army of ninja squirrels are burying everything that resembles a nut and many of the trees that shed leaves are finally doing so.  With these changing conditions, my wife and I are inspecting the house almost hourly for outside intruders wanting to find a place to winter.  Yesterday it was the Palmetto Roach the size of a matchbox car that wanted to see if the living room was a place to relax.  It wasn’t.  Today we have sugar ants who decided they would bum rush the kitchen window.  They are choking on Cayenne Pepper now and are in full retreat.  Tomorrow, who knows?  It can range from tree frogs to lizards to snakes to small mammals.

I will comment that yes the cool weather is late this year, but looking at the behavior of the critters here the winter may be as harsh as it was last year.  I guess we will see.  Meanwhile I will once again hope the moat (the ditch by the railroad racks in my backyard) will be wet and nasty enough to keep out the larger wildlife this winter (bobcats, deer, boars, coyotes, etc.). I guess we will see.  The only real hazard we have had this week is the noisy owl is making all kinds of obscene noises just outside my bedroom window.  (For those of you that have not read my post called “Hooters” you may want to look at it to understand why that it a hazard).

Such is life here in the Swamp today.

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Pond Scoggins

Florida Sandhill Crane,  Grus canadensis pratensis

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the local monstrosity known as the Wood Stork.  This is the ugly distant cousin that Big Bird’s family never told him about.  Growing up in South Carolina I did spend a lot of time out in the woods where I should not have gone, but this was one of the few times when I was interfacing with nature and I went, “what the heck is that?!”

Not long after I moved here I met a lady who was born and raised locally by her family of Swampers.  I asked her about this bird and she told me her kin called them “Pond Scoggins.”  I asked her about the origin of this title and she said she did not know.  Then she proceeded to tell me the Swamper nicknames for all of the local creatures.  One thing for certain, you can’t miss this bird.

It stands about a meter tall and you can obviously see it does not have feathers on the top of its head.  The reason behind this is because it immerses its head completely in the mud looking for edibles.  It has a LOT of competition for this food so they are hunting almost continuously in small creeks, ditches and mud flats.

Wood Storks

Now for the record, about 8 or 9 years ago, I did see a nesting pair of Wood Storks making a huge nest out in Magnolia Cemetery in the neck of the City of Charleston.  It seems they have been flourishing over the past few decades and they are slowly heading north from here.  Because I work on Federal lands, endangered species encounters are a common occurrence.  Naturally, they live around my office in great numbers and I see them almost every day.

These are not the only avian water hunters.  Like Charleston, we have Snowy Egrets.

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We have lots of Spoonbills:

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We have Great Blue Herons:

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And we have huge flocks of White Ibis:

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The thing about the Ibis is they are fearless when they travel in packs.  They have even been bold enough to come up and search the grass of my lawn, despite the dangers of hunting raptors and other woodland predators.  When you walk up to them they simply just move away (imagine the Gallimimus scene from Jurassic Park).  Now the adults of this species are completely white, and the adolescents are a dusky brown.  I was asked by a sailor once who the brown birds were and I told him they were the Ibis who lived on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.

Now one related bird that is very common here is the cattle egret.

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When the mowers run their heavy machinery around the installation to cut the grass, they end up attracting hordes of these little white birds.  One of the mowers is a nice Native American gentlemen about the size of your average Samoan.  He says little, but he loves his job and he has done it for decades.  He is very careful on how he moves his cutting blades and the birds always seem to know it is him.  You know he is driving by the sheer volume of birds surrounding his tractor.  The other drivers attract birds too, but they are a little reckless, usually ending up in a bad situation for a careless young bird.  You will be driving along and a bright pink cloud along with a cloud of white feathers will explode out of the mower.  Immediately you know the driver is a rookie.  Hopefully the Native American won’t find out because I hear he can get grumpy from time to time if one of these birds is harmed.

So pink clouds, ugly birds and brown youths from the wrong side of town – just another day of life here in the Swamp.

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Froggie Butts

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One of the fair assumptions one can make about living here is that the conditions are ideal for amphibians.  The weather, a bounty of insects to feed upon, plenty of hiding spots and access to water all make this a heaven-on-earth for most frogs, toads, lizards and skinks.  For years I have witnessed dozens of tree frogs hanging on to my kitchen window eating the countless bugs that are attracted to the lights from inside the house.  But these tree frogs, I am convinced, have an agenda.

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First off, they like to “sleep” in the cracks and crevices that are abundant due to the fact I have siding around the house.   I did not realize there is a bit of a pecking order to where they hide until a rat snake came calling.  I watched this Circle of Life moment out my window one afternoon.  The snake could smell them in the cracks and he made a move like he wanted to climb up on the siding.  The younger frogs freaked out and jumped out of their safe places with this hungry snake in pursuit.   So the frogs recognize seniority – got it.

Second, these tree frogs LOVE my front door.  They love to crawl inside the screen door and hang out on the frame.  When the door opens, sometimes they will jump off the door and land on you.  Just this morning, I ended up playing an instant round of hockey goalie as a lizard (no doubt a cousin of “Stinkeye”) and a tree frog tried to make the living room carpet their new playground.  This is not the first time this has happened nor will it be my last.  That is why we cannot leave the living room door open when we take out the trash, even though we have a screen door in place.

Third, the carport is theirs.  I have learned to accept this as a fact.  All my things are in plastic totes or boxes and that is still not a 100% guarantee they will not find a way in during the colder months to hibernate.  Just grabbing anything for use on the carport can be an adventure.  When I use my gas grill, I have to warm it up for a good bit so all the frogs and insects have time to bail out before the heat makes life a lot rougher than they can imagine.  At least these frogs keep off the insect larva from around my trash cans because they like to hang out in and around the handles and trash can lid.

Now one thing I will also share is one late spring day a dozen or so years back, there was yet another strange “amphibian” incident on my front lawn.  You see, we had an exorbitant amount of rain that spring and we knew the toads were enjoying because the noise from the moat was deafening.   One evening, at dusk, I walked out my front door and I swore my front yard was moving.  Much to my amazement, it was.  Well over a thousand baby toads the size of the head of a Q-Tip were jumping all around the front of my house from my front walk to the street.  Needless to say, they had my attention.

So all of this went through my mind first thing this morning as I was putting out the trash.  I can only imagine the neighbors watching me holding a trash bag, dancing back and forth like I was signalling aircraft.  (The sad thing is, when I was just typing that sentence, my wife pointed out that there was a tree frog jumping behind the entertainment center.  I escorted him out the door after about five minutes – no kidding!).

Such is life in the Swamp.

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