Sunday, November 29, 2009

Corn Cribs and Country Fairs

We spent Thanksgiving with family at Winterberry Farm. When your family has lived in a place for more than 5 decades, things accumulate. Memories are stored in boxes and tucked into attic nooks, and linger in out buildings. Each time we all gather there, my mother brings out more things that she has saved from our younger years, and some memories emerge from storage.

This time it was a box of ribbons won at country fairs. A small card on the back of each ribbon tells the entrant's name, category, and year of the prize. Each ribbon tells its own story. I was 10 when I first showed at these fairs --in Middlefield, Littleville, Greenfield, Westfield, Cummington, and Northhampton. Just the town names evoke memories of filling the truck with animals and vegetables and plants and driving up into the hill towns of western Massachusetts on fair day.

My ribbons tell of showing red satin rabbits and a Flemish giant, wildflower arrangements, forest weeds, miniature arrangements, leaves and leaf prints, garden pests, tomatoes and peppers, native wood, and insects. This was a family affair. We all showed one thing or another at the fairs. I was the youngest of four, and after four years of showing we all grew out of 4-H. Other interests took hold -- high school, sports, activities beyond the woods and fields around home.

More memories seeped out as I walked about the yard on this overcast Thanksgiving holiday. The old corn cribs remain from the fair days, when we filled them each summer with shucked cobs of field corn. Food for the farm animals and the squirrels that we could never quite keep out.

The old corn crib,
empty of corn, still full of memories

Sifting through the pile of ribbons brings memories of fair days. The taste of old fashioned cider donuts dipped in cinnamon, the sweet smell of fresh hay in the animals barns, the sounds of carnival games and rides. The corn crib, growing a trendy "green roof," stands in memory of carefree days. A nice interlude from the stresses and strains of modern day life.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Birds and Baking

The day started gray and dreary, darkness lingered. But then the feeders were abuzz with birds. Everybody arrived nearly at once -- a male red-bellied woodpecker, a hairy and a downy woodpecker, a small noisy crowd of blue jays, one male cardinal, a mixed bunch of chickadees, titmice, juncos, and white-breasted nuthatches, and one lone grackle.

I have been thinking about grackles for a couple weeks, after seeing large flocks moving through our woodlands. Just last weekend a flock of several dozen (which is quite small in grackle terms) grackles swooped into the woods between our house and our neighbor's place. Their glossy, iridescent feathers shimmered as they strutted around on long legs, tossing leaves in search of insects and seeds. A few remained in the pines above, squawking out a harsh, metallic "kh-sheee." In one great swoosh they flew off in search of a roost for the night. Perhaps joining other flocks, building to numbers in the tens of thousands as they migrate farther south. My friend Scott, a fabulous nature photographer, captured some shots of a large flock that he estimated at 100,000 -- see his photos here and here.

Although the sun never emerged, the day brightened as it went along. In between watching birds gather black oil sunflower seeds, I squeezed in play with the dogs - they were in a good mood -- and poked at my work, while spending much of the afternoon baking for Thanksgiving. Here are the fruits of my labor, with a few cookies shy of the recipe. Nothing brightens a day like a homemade cookie(s) still warm from the oven. Such are the benefits of working from home, for myself.

molasses cookies

lemon squares

pumpkin bread

apple pie

My list of favorite pies is long -- apple, pumpkin, strawberry rhubarb, black raspberry, sour cherry... it goes on. But not a blackbird pie. Do kids still learn this old English nursery rhyme....

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;


They must have known something in the English countryside back in the 1700s, that blackbirds were a hardy group and liked to hang out together. Twenty-four in one pie - that is a tight fit! No wonder they sang once freed from the pie.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Climbing for Fargo

Our blog friends Tom and Atticus are climbing the 48 4,000 footers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire this winter, while raising money for the the MSPCA-Angell. You can contribute by donating one of the 48 peaks to an animal. We have done just that. Tom and Atticus will climb Carter Dome in memory of our dog Fargo. Click on Tom and Atticus to see the dedication to Fargo. And of course see pictures of Atticus, the phenomenal miniature schnauzer that literally scales tall peaks, and read about all their adventures, including the curious tale of the smoke alarm.

Here are Fargo and Aria (and me), when he and Aria were in their peak hiking days.

Hiking the Carter-Moriah Trail

After the 14-mile hike.

Watching the bird feeders together.

Our best boy, Fargo

Aria is still with us at age 12, although a little wobbly in the hind end. Her mind is playful, but her body can no longer tackle the hikes.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dawn Emerges

Before the sun is up,
a light goes on in a neighbor's shed.
Chickens cackle, an egg laid?

A warm breath meets cold air.
Fingertips tingling, our pace quickens
to warm the hands.

Grass blades and oak leaves,
rimmed in ice crystals,
glisten in the headlamp's rays.

The hardwood trees,
empty of leaves,
their form laid bare.

A jet streams south,
the horizon appears, splashed in orange.
Dawn emerges, a star's twinkle fades.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Animal Planet

Although we do not get Animal Planet on television,
I wanted to alert those who do
that Atticus M. Finch of Tom and Atticus
will be on Animal Planet tonight:

Dogs 101 episode which originally aired on October 10th,
is on tonight at 8 pm and 11 pm.

Hunting Season

Hunting season for deer and bear is in full swing. Orange hats grace the heads of guys in pickup trucks. In our part of New Hampshire, fresh "Posted" signs are nailed to trees on many lands, but there is plenty of public and private land still open.

I don't hunt and I don't like guns, but I do see the value of hunting, as a way to gather a local, sustainable food. Though I have never been fond of the photos showing a killed moose, deer, or bear with smiling hunters sitting or standing next to their quarry. Especially those hunters who go for trophy animals, rather than to fill their freezer for the winter.

We still go for walks in the woods this time of year. Bella is outfitted with a hand-me-down orange vest, one that Aria (our 12-year old Shepherd) used when she was a thin pup. Bella stands only a foot and a half tall, but she springs through the woods, leaping logs, rocks and small streams in a single bound, and her tail stands up like a whitetail flag.

Bella models her orange vest

Bella is a tidy little package at forty pounds. Her breed -- English springer spaniel -- is a hunting breed. She seems to be more a show line than a field, hunting dog. As she flies through the woods she is mostly chasing her own demons. Not much flushing or "springing" of game. At home Bella struggles with her role in the pack, constantly stressing at the need to keep the humans and other dogs in line. We try to remain calm and assertive, but I suppose just like dealing with difficult teenagers, we don't always meet the test.

Bella is a challenge; sometimes we waver on our ability to live together peacefully, but then we see her big brown eyes and keep trying. She is happiest "hunting" in the woods, so I take her out as often as possible. I don't mind.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Beaver Pond in November

The beaver pond is quiet in November. Great blue herons, ospreys and kingfishers left the wetland weeks ago, their young fledged and dispersed by summer's end. A few mallards swim silently along the edge, preparing for a flight south. The water level is high following heavy rains last weekend. The sturdy dam holds fast. Any leaks are inspected and fixed each night by the resident beavers.

The industrious beaver, is especially busy this time of year. The parents and their 1 1/2 year old offspring are filling the pantry next to the lodge. They gather their favorite woody foods -- small branches from aspens, willows, birches, and other tender hardwoods. These twigs are cached in the pond close to their lodge; the top layer sticks up above the pond, which helps prevent water freezing around the food cache.

The lodge is firmed up with mud to form a solid roof that is nearly impenetrable by beaver predators such as coyotes. This also keeps the beaver warm in winter. Safe inside the lodge the beaver family -- which includes the parents, the teenagers, and the young of the year -- swims out from its underwater entrances to grab something from the underwater cache and carry it back into the lodge. Beavers can tuck their lips behind their large incisors. This allows them to carry twigs in their mouth without swallowing lots of water.

Elsewhere, along a river, another beaver seems to be on a different mission. This beaver is busy gnawing large oaks. Actually, he's taken a bite or two out of every tree in a small circle around this oak. Maybe he's nervous, feeling the pressure of oncoming winter, the lodge not ready, the food not stowed. Maybe he lost his life-mate and is starting over.

The results of a busy beaver

Back at the pond, the low sun captures a perfect reflection of the rock-studded shoreline. The pond is calm and serene at mid-day.

On warmer winter days, the beavers will swim out to feed on the fleshy tubers of pond lilies and cattails. On the pond's surface oak leaves and pine needles float among the lily pads now tinged in red, marking the season's end.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Cattails are common. They form dense stands around the edges of marshes, sometimes so prolific when conditions are right that they fill in the entire marsh. The roots - a thick fleshy rhizome -- creep along in the muck, such that a vast stand of cattails may be from just a few plants.

Marshes go by different names, depending on the water depth, and plant community, and substrate. Some are shallow, some are deep, some are more sedgy or have more grasses, some are shrubby or have some trees. One with mostly cattails, is simply called a cattail marsh. In these marshes cattails are so dominant that they exclude most other plant species. When they are not so dominant, cattails will share the marsh with tussock sedge, bulrush, bur-reed, manna-grass and blue-joint, and some others.

Red-winged blackbirds, muskrats, swamp sparrows, rails and bitterns come to mind when I walk near a cattail marsh. Muskrats and cattails are quite a pair. Muskrats eat their fleshy roots and make their small huts or lodges out of the leaves, creating channels through the cattail stands as they go. Ducks like the open water cleared of cattails by the muskrat. They can swim among the reeds, safe from predators, while catching small aquatic insects among the emergent wetland plants.

David Carroll, a New Hampshire artist, writer, naturalist, philosopher and swampwalker, writes in his award-winning Swampwalker's Journal-A Wetlands Year:

"Determined swampwalker that I may be, I am kept out of much of this cattail marsh. As in many wetlands, the muck here is more than an impediment, it is an impassable barrier. I cannot make my way through most of the cattail stands, nor wade the muskrat channels. The pools of floating-leaved and submersed plants and the spaces of open water are well beyond my reach. They are the realm of muskrat, Blanding's turtle, black duck, and dragonfly.......I content myself with circling the wadeable margins, getting glimpses into the interior through reedy curtains of cattail."

The brown spike of the cattail is the pistillate or female part of the flower. The staminate or male part of the flower is above the corn-dog looking female flower. The flowers are borne on tall stalks, over your head and mine. The sword-like leaves are slender and stiff, sheathed together at the base. At this time of year, the brown spikes are breaking open, scattering their seeds -- up to 250,000 seeds per spike -- into the wind and the water.

Read more about David's art and his "wet-sneaker trilogy" at his studio -- the Carroll Studio Gallery -- a family affair. Meanwhile strap on some sneakers and wander the margins of the cattail stands, catching the fluffy seeds as they scatter in the wind. Watch for the muskrat, swimming among the reeds, its hairless, scaly tail, a tell-tale sign that it is this aquatic vole and not its larger cousin the beaver.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Rock Polypody

My handful of regular readers will know that I like ferns. One of our most common, in this land of rocky woods, is the common polypody (Polypodium virginianum). The polypody grows in cracks or small depressions in rocks and boulders or on cliffs, hence its other name, "rock polypody."

A walk in any woods around here eventually leads past a rock outcrop or a large boulder. These rocks host a miniature ecosystem -- much like the small terrariums we made as kids. Mosses, lichens, and ferns live separately or together under shade or part-shade.

Thoreau is said to have called these small ferns, "fresh and cheerful communities." They do brighten a woodland walk in November. Sometimes the polypody starts out on its own, in a small crack on the vertical face of a large boulder.

Its shallow roots form a mat, and are very shallow given their growing surface. The fruitdots, or sori, are round, prominent, and naked (no covering like most other ferns). Click on the photo above to see the sori on the underside of the frond.

The common polypody is evergreen, its leaves once-cut and leathery. Each leaflet is mostly entire (not lacy cut) and has a bit of a wave. The leaf, typically less than 10 inches, narrows to a blunt-tip.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Seafood and the Sea

Every once in awhile I get a craving for a tuna fish sandwich. I am not a fan of sushi or tuna steaks; my tuna has always come from a can. For the good of my health and the health of the fish, this necessitates specific choices. Tuna has those heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids-good, but tuna is also high in mercury-not good. Add to that, the variety of tuna species and methods of harvest and it starts to get a little confusing. This goes for all the other seafood choices that we make.

Thankfully, good guidance is at hand from such places as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute. The Aquarium just published Turning the Tide - The State of Seafood, a must read for anyone who eats seafood and cares about oceans and the life within. The Seafood Report offers a sobering summary of what we have done to fish populations and other sea life, what needs to change, and how we all can help.

Oceans are home to millions of species. How could one species - us - mess up such a vast area so much, not only for other species, but for ourselves. Oceans are key in regulating the global climate: they produce half the oxygen that we breathe and absorb 1/4 of the carbon that we emit each year. Of all the things we do to the oceans from dumping garbage overboard to allowing polluted runoff, the most significant factor in the ocean's state of decline is our demand for seafood. Consider that fishing (including wild caught and farmed fish) represents less than a quarter of 1% of the global economy, yet it has one of the largest ecological footprints of any economic sector in the world (see the Seafood Report).

Some of the sad stuff in the report: populations of large long-lived marine animals--whales, sharks, tunas, turtles, manatees, some fish--have plummeted; once vibrant coral reefs in Jamaica are essentially gone; industrial-scale fishing in the North Atlantic has wiped out major fish stocks of cod, halibut, and bluefin tuna; the Pacific leatherback--the largest of the sea turtles--may be extinct soon, its latest threat is as "bycatch" in longline fisheries.

According to the Seafood Report, some places are getting it right. Alaska has some of the best managed fisheries; Pacific salmon from Alaska is one of the "best choices" for seafood on the Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" list. Consumers are given credit for helping restore swordfish populations in the North Atlantic, by avoiding this species for a long while.

Julie Packard, Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, strikes an optimistic chord if we all act. The report offers ways for consumers, businesses, chefs, politicians, fishermen --anyone who is involved with seafood--to just that.

So, here is what I am doing to help our fish, our oceans, our climate, and my health.
  • Follow Michael Pollan's advice: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Fish is a healthy food, so it meets the first principle. Just don't eat it too often (second principle), and when I do, have lots of vegetables and grains too (third principle)
  • Eat local, seasonal seafood when possible
  • Choose seafoods with low mercury levels, high levels omega-3 fatty acids, and those harvested sustainably. Based on Seafood Watch for the Northeast this includes:
canned clams
canned tuna (skipjack - "light")
canned pink salmon
U.S. or Canada shrimp
U.S farmed catfish
U.S. farmed tilapia
Alaska wild-caught salmon
Pacific halibut
  • There are other choices and a long list of things to avoid always such as imported shrimp (farmed or wild-caught), bluefin tuna, shark, most of the big fish, and most seafood imported from Asia.
Billions of people include seafood as a source of protein in their diet. What kind of seafood each of us eats makes a difference, just as it does with beef, and pork, and chicken, and other foods. We can save the oceans, but only if we try.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Walking in the Rain

The sky is shades of gray.
Rain drops fall on my raincoat hood
reminds me of camping
in the rain
on the rain fly.

Oak leaves fall sullenly
to the ground,
joining other leaves
now heavy and listless.

Earthworms lie stretched
and stranded on the pavement.
Rivers of water flow down the road,
carrying grains of sand, droplets of oil,
and bits of glass and food
cast off by the garbage truck.

A distant freight train
blows its horn,
the sound muffled by rain.

The dog's ears ragged and droopy,
by the walk's end.
Bald Hill, a road less traveled today.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Little Trees

I have always known them as princess pine and ground cedar, "the little trees" in our forest. They are perennial and evergreen and thus are perky all year round. These are the Lycopodiums or clubmosses, relatives of the ferns. There are a bunch of clubmosses in these parts, but the two I see most often are what I commonly call princess pine (also known as ground pine or tree clubmoss or Lycopodium obscurum) and ground cedar (L. complanatum).

Princess pine and ground cedar

Ground cedar

Clubmosses are old, 300 million years old. The ancient clubmosses, horsetails, and ferns, formed the coal that we mine today. Clubmosses propagate by running and sometimes by leaping! They creep along below ground, sprouting little trees every few inches. These plants also reproduce by spores, which are borne on cones or strobili that stick up above the leaves.

A candelabra of ground cedar strobili

Stemless strobili of the princess pine

The yellow spores are many, tiny, and kidney-shaped (if you could see them), and released in late summer and early fall. Today, when I knocked this plant a puff of yellow powdery spores was released. It takes many years for a released spore to set down roots and become a new plant.

To learn more about these enduring plants, you have to get down on the ground to be among this miniature forest. Imagine a chipmunk standing on its haunches and you will be about at the height of the Lycopodiums. Watch to see how far the little "pines" and "cedars" in your woods run each year.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Brown Pelicans

Watching Ice Age for the first time last night (I know we are behind in the Ice Age saga - cannot wait to see the meltdown and the dinosaurs), got me thinking about strange, but beautiful, animals that we have encountered recently. I count the brown pelican in that group, and the sea lion.

Adult brown pelican and Heermann's gull, San Francisco Bay

Back in September as we traveled from Seattle to San Francisco, we spent time along the coast, watching the antics of sea lions, gulls, and pelicans. See posts beginning in mid September.

Sea lions on Pier 39, San Francisco

Western gull atop car roof, waiting for discarded fried clams
or just watching the tourists, San Francisco

And now back to the pelicans.
The brown pelican is a big bird -- 3 to 4 feet tall,
with a wingspan of more than 7 feet.
And that pouch.......which can hold 3 gallons of water and fish....

.....attached to that bill.
To say that a pelican has a big bill is quite an under-statement.

Juvenile brown pelican, Monterey Bay

We watched adult brown pelicans fish by plunging head first into the water. After a big splash they bob up wiggling their bill and expanded pouch as they swallow the catch. If a gull is nearby, such as the Heermann's, the pelican does some gyrations to prevent the gull from stealing the fish. The adults were working hard for their meal.

Meanwhile the juveniles were hanging out at the fisherman's wharf, waiting for an easy meal. No flying and diving and getting harassed by gulls. They hung around outside, while fisherman cleaned the fish, and presumably threw them some scraps.

Or they hang out at the public fishing pier,
waiting for stray bait.

These pelicans are so common and so tame
that the locals ignore them.
Who would have thought that this population
is still on the Federal endangered species list.
[UPDATE: the brown pelican was just removed,
today from the Endangered Species list - a success story!]

This one I am sure is saying:
"Why are you looking at my feet...
I know they are webbed and turned inward.
That is so when I am ready to breed
I can use these webbed feet to incubate the eggs.
We all do it."

What to do with this long bill,
but hang my head. What a bird.

First Walks of 2024

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