Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Phenology for 6/7/12 to 6/13/12: Poison

The Blogspot statistics page shows one good trend: lots of people in India are reading this blog; and one bad trend: there's been an alarming uptick in interest in the outdated announcement "Please Help Feed the Volunteers." I've been offline for a while. Non-local readers, who don't realize that this was (originally entirely) due to a streak of cool, sunny mornings, have been worried. And the bad news is that, since Thursday, there has been some cause for your concern.

The federal government was not, of course, trying to poison me personally. So far as I can tell, the chemical defoliants sprayed on every guardrail along Route 23--which has a lot of guardrails--were aimed at the wildflowers your tax dollars paid Job Corps kids to plant a few years ago. What was really flourishing on this year's weather, and looking beautiful, as of last Thursday, was oxeye daisies.

On Thursday afternoon I walked out to visit my mother at her house, which is nine miles down Route 23. I walked all the way. I've done this many times; shoe damage and occasional blisters are the only unwanted effects.

However, a few minutes after sitting down in Mother's house, I started to feel terrible; as if the only reason why I wasn't fainting or vomiting was that my body couldn't decide which to do first.

Mother offered all the usual home remedies for ordinary tiredness. Water was welcome, but didn't help. Food tasted good, but I could hardly swallow it. A shower felt great, but I couldn't stand up in it. Lying down seemed to help, but sitting up showed that lying down hadn't done me any real good.

Since her accident last summer Mother hasn't owned a car. She has been issued a truck, which she's supposed to use only for work and real emergencies. Perhaps by way of security that she won't use it for personal amusement, the truck is a thirty-year-old ticking bomb Mother absolutely hates to drive. After two hours even Mother, who has this weird tendency to project her juvenile Supergirl fantasies onto me and never notices when I'm ill, said "Get into the truck." We drove past the grocery store that has the best prices on several things I buy. Did I want to pick up some groceries while I had a ride? I did not want to stand up and walk around in the store.

I went home and lay down, but didn't sleep well. I kept waking myself up by wheezing and gasping for breath. My nose was completely blocked and my throat kept clogging up. In the morning I couldn't make use of the beautiful cool sunny weather; I spent the whole morning mopping my nose.

I did not have a fever. I had no signs of food allergies. Blood sugar, up or down, made no difference. What on Earth was the matter with me? I've had reactions like this maybe half a dozen times in my lifetime, none quite this bad. Every one followed exposure to some sort of chemical pesticide.

Anyway, around the middle of Friday, I stopped sneezing and wheezing long enough to buy some groceries. I walked just three and a half miles down Route 23. Where had all the pretty daisies gone? I saw yard-wide swaths of scorched, ugly, brown stalks along every guardrail.

Now I knew why I'd been ill. Some lazy fool had been poisoning...not marijuana, not poison ivy, not even kudzu, but daisies.

Note to all the lazy fools out there: If you can't appreciate looking at them, you can actually eat daisies. They're not a gourmet favorite--the flavor reminds me of boiled eggs--but there is no excuse for poisoning a daisy.

I made it home with enough groceries to get me through a weekend of cool sunny mornings, but the story doesn't end there. When I got home I noticed that the kittens, who had been healthy, were looking ill.

The Patchnose cat family came here with one of the mild, but nasty-looking, viruses that cause feline rhinotracheitis. The way the vet described this virus to me made it sound like a feline version of mononucleosis: cold-type symptoms for anywhere between a week and six months, after which the virus lies dormant in the liver, ready to flare up under stress. There's no cure. Most cats eventually recover. A few don't. Distemper shots, when a cat is old enough to have them, can have a kill-or-cure effect. However, since they get the virus from their mothers, all these cats have gone through a bleary-eyed stage before they were old enough to have vaccinations. Just three of the kittens were beginning to look bleary-eyed on Thursday.

On Friday, one of those kittens was dead. Another one bounded across the porch to catch up with the rest of its family, fell off the porch, and lay on its side in a coma for three days before it died. (Aware that cats can go into a deep coma for long enough to kill disease germs, and recover completely, I kept the comatose kitten indoors.) Even the adult cats looked bleary-eyed...again.

Then on Monday my attention was distracted by a new arrival. When you live in an orchard, with a yard full of wildflowers, you get used to seeing honeybees. These were feral honeybees, probably strays from one of two neighbors' hives. I didn't know where in the woods they lived. But on Monday I saw that a small remnant of the bee colony had left the woods and been trying to set up housekeeping on my front porch.

Like most honeybees we see these days, they're a mix of "Italian" and "African" breeds, also known as "domestic" and "killer" bees. (Like other animal breed names, "Italian" and "African" reflect the remote history of where the bees were first identified as breeds.) Pure Italians have poor resistance to fungus infections; in our warmer, damper climate it takes a few African genes for a bee to survive.

I have seen no evidence of a "killer" instinct in these so-called killer bees, but I'm seeing all kinds of other behavioral evidence...African bees are sometimes attracted to nasty stuff. The Bible character Samson found it remarkable, a real believe-it-or-not story, when he saw bees nesting in an animal carcass. My unwanted bees have shown more interest in dead kittens than they have in the clover that's still blooming in the yard.

Bees tend to specialize: when they make a comb, they fill it with honey from one source and not another. My porch now has a small amount of honey. You would not want to eat this honey. I don't even like to smell it. The older batch of kittens were born early, during a cold snap, and spent their first six weeks indoors; they formed the habit of using a litter box. I've indulged them to the extent of bringing the box outdoors with them. They use it, and have taught their young cousins to use it. And that is what these bees have really been working, producing what may be the nastiest honey ever recorded in history.

Is there hope for these bees? Will either of the beekeeping neighbors reclaim them, or at least reclaim the queen? I once wrote an Associated Content article advising people not to poison honeybees. I don't intend to poison honeybees either. Nor do I intend to kill a sunny day indoors instead of working down the list of possible things to do about them.

This morning, for the first time since Thursday night, I woke up breathing normally. Being a larger and healthier animal than a spring kitten, I may recover completely from the effects of the defoliant to which the cats and the bees and I have been exposed. In a few weeks. Maybe.

My cat Bisquit is dead.

Route 23 is no longer lined with beautiful spangles of red and white clover, Queen Anne's Lace, crown vetch, native vetch, fleabane and oxeye daisies. It's barren, brown, and ugly; it's been Agent Oranged. What was justified as an act of war necessary to contain the Soviet Menace, when I was a little girl, has been deployed...against daisies.