Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Blue Moon Rises

What a pleasant surprise to see the sun emerge by late afternoon, while light snow was still falling. The skies cleared for the sunset and the moonrise. We watched the full moon rise over the white pines behind our house. Feels like an auspicious end to the decade -- may the next 10 years be more peaceful.

The Blue Moon Rises Over Our Backyard

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Woodland Mouse

What a joy to step outside this afternoon into bright sunshine and actually feel warm. Not that the temperature is higher today. The difference is the wind. The wild wind of yesterday is gone (for now). One little fellow did not make it through another winter season. I found him lying beneath our retaining wall along the driveway.

Peromyscus, a woodland mouse

These little woodland mice are hardy winter creatures. So, although his body was intact, it is likely that something dropped a meal by mistake. They are cute little things, when you hold them in the palm of your hand and stroke their soft fur. Their numbers are plentiful, which is good for the other animals that eat them -- hawks, owls, foxes, and coyotes. We have at least one resident mouse that makes a nest in the snow blower each summer. Now we check and clean the blower before the first snowstorm. Even then it is tricky getting all the hay and other nest material out of the engine!

Four front toes and long whiskers

The commonly seen tracks of woodland mice, Peromyscus

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Wild Wind

The skies are clear tonight, making it that much colder with winds gusting to 40 mph and temperatures creeping toward zero. The moon is inching toward full. This might be the last night to see it in this phase. A big winter storm is brewing for the New Year.

Our trip to Vermont over Christmas resulted in one casualty -- a muffler clamp. By the time we reached home on Sunday the car was sounding like a hot rod. Our local mechanic fixed us up today, but I had to walk 2 miles in the cold wind to get the car. I bundled in long underwear and wind pants, my warmest hat and gloves, and multiple layers of sweater, fleece and coat. Bella waited patiently (not) as I struggled into all my gear. She was ready to go in the same winter wear as her summer wear.

Dogs are amazing and frustrating. They have no idea how cold it is and expect us to take them out just as often, which we do. Rain, sleet, snow, or sun we venture out. Forty below wind chill or 100 degrees we venture out. I think Bella and Aria prefer the cold to the heat. Aria, the 12+ year old Shepherd is happy as a clam lying in the cold snow on a sunny Saturday. Bella trots along oblivious to the cold wind.

The odd thing though is that in the house they want their cozy beds. Aria sleeps on a large futon at night and various sofas during the day (we indulge the 12 year old!). Bella curls up on a soft dog bed next to my desk. Both don't mind lying next to one of the radiators. Bella would love to curl up in bed with us, but she was banished last spring after she got a little possessive about the pillows.

The wind is howling outside, while we are all curled up snug in the house. If I have to go out again it will take me 10 minutes to get dressed, while the dogs will be ready, quick as the wind.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Mother Nature is toying with the weather over the holidays. A dusting of snow, rain, fog, sleet, cold winds, calm days, fluctuating temperatures. We arrived home yesterday to temperatures in the mid-40s. Most of the snow has melted or turned to ice.

Bella and I revisited what has become our regular walk on the Sweet Trail in town. The trail offers enough ups and downs and twists and turns to provide a good workout for both of us. The woods felt different today, compared to a week ago. Today I could smell the wood air, what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku. The smell of wet, decaying leaves permeated the woods. Droplets of moisture hung from every twig. A weak sun, shrouded by a thin layer of gray clouds, was at least higher in the sky.

A week ago we walked confidently on the frozen wetlands. Today, the thinning, gray ice looked ominous, and the wetland edges had thawed completely. Last week in the cold winter air and among snow covered trees, the woods were silent. As soon as we neared the wetland today, I heard the meltwater rushing from the pond down through the woods to the bigger wetland below.

It felt like a March day, when the vernal pools begin to thaw and you listen intently for the first wood frogs to "quack" from the still partly frozen pools. The woods have the same shinrin-yoku. Yet this is still December. Months of winter lie ahead. Cold temperatures are returning as soon as tonight; as low as zero degrees by Tuesday. Look for the blue moon on New Year's Eve -- the second full moon of the month, although Mother Nature may foil the viewing. Snow is predicted that night.

Friday, December 25, 2009

In the Land of Gnomes

Here we are in the land of
gnomes, fairies, and trolls for Christmas.

Spending the holiday with my 5 and 6 year-old nieces, who are full of wonder, laughter and play, makes everyone feel younger. We skated on the fire pond, swung on the new community swing-set, walked the paths that wind through the open space, tossed a squishy ball into the basketball hoop, and zipped along the zip line. The latter is strung between two pines, in the woods where the barred owl hooted on Christmas Eve.

We are in Charlotte, Vermont at my sister's cohousing community (read more about the Champlain Valley Cohousing here and here). Their energy efficient house, completed last winter, has a total electric bill for the year of - $150. That is minus $150. They are feeding energy back into the grid from their rooftop photovoltaic panels. The walls are a foot thick and the heat is solely from wood (a masonry fireplace), so you really can hear a pin drop. How nice not to have an oil burner furnace kicking on every hour and the radiators ticking and knocking, as in our house.

A Merry Christmas from the land of gnomes tucked into the woods and fields above Lake Champlain.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Mix of Seasons

Another sign of Spring (only 87 days to go) appeared yesterday: two seed catalogs in the mailbox. Page after page shows succulent multicolored tomatoes and bell peppers; greens of all types -- mesclun, mustards, microgreens, summer lettuce, ruffled, red and festive mixes; smooth, bulbous eggplants; oh so sweet peas; bright flowers. Seed catalogs are a marketer's delight. Who can resist a packet of each type of nasturtium?

These colorful catalogs are a gardener's treasure-trove too, especially when winter is just underway and the arctic wind continues to blow. Turning to the catalog I imagine stepping out across the lawn in bare feet to wiggle my toes in the soft garden soil on the first warm spring day. I can taste a cherry tomato -- warmed by the summer sun and plucked fresh -- and feel the seeds squirt out my mouth. I can smell thick slices of eggplant grilling on the deck. In between batches of Christmas cookies baking in the oven, I leaf through the catalog to catch a glimpse of summers past and future.

After the cookies cooled, Bella and I retraced the steps of our walk on the Solstice. The deer, coyote, and mice had done the same, many times over. When we set out the temperature was below twenty, colder than Monday. Today though, the sun is shining. Even the chickadees were whistling a sweeter tune under a bright sun. As we walked the wind waned. I sense a change in weather. These past weeks of sub-freezing temperatures have left the wetlands frozen solid. We wandered farther out to cast our view across the beaver pond. A warming trend may soften the ice, so we take great pleasure in our walk on frozen ice today.

The heron nests are silent now.
In the stillness of winter,
one can almost hear the croaks of young herons
from nesting seasons past.

Winterberry bursting with holiday cheer.


Monday, December 21, 2009

A White Winter Day

The woods are white with snow -- soft, sugar-white snow. Bella and I set off on this first day of winter for a mid-morning hike on the Sweet Trail. A coyote trotted ahead of us, a few hours earlier. Fresh deer tracks crossed our path, their trail lead from the wetland up the slope into the oaks. Atop Jeff's Hill the wind rushed through the canopy and swirled down around us. We dipped down behind the hill and into a hemlock glade. The wind now thwarted by the thick hemlock boughs.

The woods are still. We pass more fresh animal trails. A female fisher surely bounded up and over this large boulder not long before we passed by.

She was looking for one of the red squirrels that scampered among the hemlock or the white-footed mice, now snug in their burrows. These woodland mice, crossed from stone outcrop to stone outcrop, tree trunk to tree trunk, fallen limb to fallen limb. Their passing noted only by the tracks: two small prints bisected by the long thin tail drag.

An unseen, lone coyote wandered around wetland edges and large boulders, under fallen trees, and out to a silent beaver lodge. Back in the solitude of the hemlock forest, I pause to absorb the quiet. A small flock of chickadees flits overhead, gleaning hemlock seeds and overwintering insects. I hear their thin chips as they communicate something to each other. Small bird tracks -- the chickadees? -- leave an artistic impression beneath the high bush blueberries at the marsh edge.

Winter arrived several weeks ago, long before its proclaimed day. Freezing temperatures and cold arctic winds have been with us for days. A layer of ice lies beneath the fresh layer of powdery snow. Bella is sure-footed bounding through the forest on her four legs. I am more tentative on my two, but stable in my yak-trax-clad boots.

Getting outdoors, bundled against the wind, is the only way to enjoy winter. And knowing that spring is already on its way -- tomorrow will be two seconds longer and there is only 89 days until the Spring Equinox. A long winter is still the shortest of the four seasons.

A Merry Winter Solstice to All!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Carbon Dating

Yesterday while listening to National Public Radio two stories caught my attention. One made my head hurt. Actually lots of current news makes my head hurt, but this particularly story sent me into a tizzy. It seems that the MGM Mirage CityCenter opened this week in Las Vegas. This is a gargantuan 19 million square foot complex occupying 68 acres -- three times the size of the Pentagon. And we know that the Pentagon is way too big, so who could cook up such a crazy complex. Apparently the CEO of MGM mirage (I wish he were a mirage). He wanted to build "a chunk of midtown Manhattan in the desert."

This project cost $8.5 billion, half leveraged by the collapsing Dubai World. But here is the part that makes your head explode. This is the world's largest project built to LEED green building standards. This project was recognized for being "sustainable." How is that possible? LEED certification allows access to state and local incentives. This is absurd. The NPR reporter partly redeemed the story by interviewing an L.A. Times critic, who said "One of the most basic rules of sustainability is that you build only as much as you need." I think we learned that in Kindergarten.

Which leads me to the next story: greenness in Britain. Children there are leading the way -- as they do everywhere -- encouraging more energy efficiency, recycling, reuse, and the rest. It seems though that even the greenest kids, start to lose their way as they reach adolescence and into adulthood. And politicians? Copenhagen says it all. So, a non-profit group in Britain is promoting carbon dating. Maybe to see if some of these politicians are really fossils. No, no, not that kind of carbon dating. They are encouraging people to go on carbon dates: spend a day together cycling instead of driving, eat vegetarian food together, or enjoy a candlelight dinner instead of turning on lots of lights. And a mechanical engineer wants to grow algae on buildings and construct forests of artificial trees to absorb CO2. Maybe the Vegas CityCenter can be covered in algae, creating a different kind of "green certification."

Meanwhile, I am staying home for a carbon date.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Thin Ice

At the start of a new week we have a brief blip up in temperatures. The predicted dusting of snow arrived Sunday afternoon, turned to rain, then froze hard overnight. The road was ice covered and crusty this morning, but the wind chill was a modest 24F, rather than the 3F Sunday morning. As soon as the sun rose, the air warmed, and by midday was a balmy 40F.

The low early winter sun does not reach the cold side of rocks,
where rivulets of water remained frozen as a popsicle.

An acorn is trapped in a thin veneer of ice,
ready to break free with the first thaw.

The rock tripe of December 3rd,
then the feel of dried leather,
today moistened by the light rain and warmed by the sun,
now the feel of latex gloves.

I wonder why people live in San Diego. I have heard that the weather is warm and sunny every day of the year. Oh I suppose that sounds nice when the weather for Wednesday night, under a new moon, calls for 10 below zero wind chill. But if you were in San Diego you would not get to pull on long underwear, or smell the wood smoke curling from chimneys at dawn, or feel the changing nature of rock tripe, or see an acorn stuck fast in ice.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Winter Wind

The wind whipped into a frenzy yesterday, racing across the country and blowing fierce cold air into New England. The oak leaf still holding fast was tossed about like a cowboy on a bucking bronco.

The rock polypody living on the cold, north side of the boulder
is curled against the weather.

Meanwhile, a short distance away,
other polypodies bask on a warm, south-facing rock.

Yesterday my walk in the woods with Bella was a sloppy mess - the ground unfrozen, air temperature above freezing, after rain had fallen on top of six inches of snow. What a difference a day makes. Today the temperature is stuck in the 20s. With winds gusting to 35 mph, the wind chill is a chilling 12F.

Friday last week capped a week of temperatures in the 50s and 60s. What a difference a week makes.

One year ago today we were without power, after a major ice storm knocked down trees, limbs, and utility lines. We have no wood stove. By Saturday last year the thermometer in our kitchen read below 50F. We were desperate to find a generator. One of our neighbors loaned us one for three hours so we could get our house up to 60F before they reclaimed the generator. On Sunday, after 3 1/2 days without power, we found a generator (my brother bought one for us at a Home Depot south of Boston - none were available in New Hampshire). The exact moment that we plugged it into our power supply, the power was back. At least we are prepared for the next storm, which could come any time.

The clouds are building as I write - snow is on the way, although predicted to be just a dusting. Reminds me of a cartoon though, where someone is calling the weather-caster to come over and shovel off six inches of "partly cloudy."

Before the clouds rolled in, I stood next to a winterberry bush in the brisk wind, soaking up the sun's warmth under a clear blue sky - the beauty of winter.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

One Less Junco

As I was tapping away on my laptop this morning, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. As I looked out at the falling snow, a gray hawk was suspended in midair in front of the feeders, its tail and wings spread broad. A second later it swooped down to the ground about 30 feet away.

The bird -- an accipiter -- set about plucking feathers. An hour later, after surveying the dining spot, I determined that we had one less junco in our yard.

Remains of the Junco
(click on photo to enlarge)

We watched the accipiter feed for an hour. Steady snow and screens on the windows blurred our vision some, yet we could still see its reddish barred breast, gray head and back, and banded tail. This was a Cooper's or a sharp-shinned hawk, but which one. My first thought was a male Cooper's hawk, because it was not the bigger female Cooper's nor the smaller male sharp-shinned. But could it be a female sharp-shinned? As all the bird guides note, these two birds - male Cooper's and female sharp-shinned - are very difficult to distinguish.

After a half hour, the accipter paused to rest. I thought it was finished, but after 10 minutes it resumed feeding. This gave me time to set up the spotting scope and focus in on its features. After peering at the bird, looking at several bird books, and reading Tricky bird IDs: sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper's hawk at Project Feeder Watch, I concluded that our accipiter was a female sharp-shinned hawk. Here is why:
  • Square tail -- clearly seen while it was feeding on the junco; Cooper's have a rounded tail
  • Reddish color below eyes and around to "cheeks" -- this is a lighter color in Cooper's
  • Relatively small head and beak
  • Broad chest - center of gravity high; this was particularly evident when it was resting between meals and facing us
Both Cooper's and Sharpies are known for their regular visits to bird feeders. In past years a Cooper's hawk has swept in for a meal or two. We are happy to add a sharp-shinned to our yard list of bird diversity.

Monday, December 7, 2009

New Windows

A turkey vulture soared over nearby fields as I was on my midday walkabout today with Aria and Bella. This seems a tad late for this bird to be hanging around our area, but then again there is this thing called climate change...... In the woods the big pines were having a one-way snowball fight, lobbing wet blobs of snow, big and small, to the ground. Back at the house we are replacing nine windows with more energy efficient ones - better glass, better fit, more wrap to prevent leaks.

All this, plus the Copenhagen Climate talks just underway, got me thinking about energy. If I were to change careers I think it would be something related to energy (this might not be a random thought). This past week I also received my "personal" email from the Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Amory Lovins, touting their next big thing - Reinventing Fire. No small task. They plan to do this, in large part, by tapping into the "the two biggest motherlodes of energy, efficiency and the Sun," according to Lovins.

We are nearly totally dependent on fossil fuels for heating and running our house. A part of reinventing fire should include reinventing home building and renovation, at a scale and cost that works for the average homeowner. Sad to think that the entire mortgage crisis and housing collapse relates to houses that are probably neither efficient nor self-reliant on alternative energy.

We are tapping into the Stimulus Plan for our window renovation - a tax benefit on the cost of the windows. I do not know if these one-time programs, such as cash for caulkers, are a good thing for the environment or the economy. Why are we not just making high quality, energy efficient goods to begin with? Surely it is because it costs more. Yet, people spend money on all sorts of frivolous things. Maybe by saving more, we could afford to buy better-built and longer-lasting highly efficient stoves, washers, windows, houses, and such.

Okay, the sun is not out today so I am going to ponder energy efficiency. Although right now one of my front windows is out while our carpenter prepares the opening. With temperatures barely above freezing, energy efficient we are not! If only the sun was out.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

White Dawn


Began last eve,
wet snow fell fast.
Lit by the headlamp,
strobe lights flashing
before my eyes.

Four inches of heavy snow,
a white blanket covers the earth.
The drone of snowplows
heard through the night.

Waning gibbous moon above,
white, wintry carpet below.
Gray birches burdened by past storms,
bend lower, tips reach for the ground.

A gentle wind stirs the tree tops.
The tall pines, bathed in first light,
sway slowly, as birds wake.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

An Old Spice

The two rows of cilantro in the garden are still green and fresh into early December. This week, under warm skies, even a burst of growth. Wind swept oak leaves provide a thin layer of mulch.

We use cilantro - the leafy part -- as a garnish, mostly in Indian dishes, but also on pasta sauce and enchiladas (anything with tomato sauce). The seeds of the cilantro plant are known as coriander, and, ground into a brown powder, are a central ingredient in Indian spice mixes (masalas). Fresh cilantro can be used in place of parsley, its relative within the carrot family Apiaceae, or instead of basil (in pesto).

Cilantro arrived in Massachusetts before 1670, by way of the British and the Romans (who carried it around Europe). I assume that the more mild-tasting parsley rose in popularity among our early settlers, bypassing its more aromatic cousin. I don't recall cilantro or coriander ever appearing in a cookbook of New England recipes.

Cilantro, Coviandrum sativum

The leafy cilantro, being a hardy annual, is easy to grow from seed. It takes a while to germinate, so give it time. It is best picked fresh as an aromatic garnish. The round, ridged seeds can be purchased whole and ground into a fresh spice to use in most any bean or dal-based dish. Cilantro and coriander, although from the same plant, have completely different flavors.

The origin of this now widespread spice is thought to be the Mediterranean region. Its use, in food and medicine, dates back thousands of years. Jill Norman's beautiful, The Complete Book of Spices: A practical guide to spices and aromatics, offers a brief history and photos of spices in all their forms, including cilantro, the old spice.

Our main "Indian spices" --
black mustard seeds in the middle,
Clockwise from bottom left --
urad dal, cumin seeds, turmeric,
coriander powder, fennel seed, cumin powder

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Rock Tripe

In the nearby Oaklands Town Forest, huge boulders lie strewn about by the hand of the last glacier. Named for the many red oaks that grow in this undulating woodland, it could also be called boulderlands, so prominent is this feature. Covering many of the biggest boulders is rock tripe, or as French Canadians might call it tripe de roche, meaning "rock guts."

Huge boulders covered in rock tripe
at Oaklands Town Forest, Exeter, New Hampshire

This green (above) and black (beneath) lichen grows slowly on the steep sides of boulders and cliffs. From afar it looks like a bunch of dead leaves glued to the rocks like an art project. Up close it resembles a bed of leathery leaf lettuce. Rock tripe soaks up moisture from their air; during dry periods it becomes brittle. Regular rain this fall has kept trails muddy and the rock tripe moist and pliable.

Being a lichen, rock tripe is a partnership between a fungus, which gives form and color, and an alga, which cooks up the meals for the pair through photosynthesis. The Latin name for rock tripe, Umbilicaria mammulata, stems from its single point of attachment to the rock -- similar to an umbilical cord. Hence the other common name for this species, navel lichen.

A large, tortilla-sized rock tripe;
note the "navel,"

its point of attachment to the boulder

Rock tripe can be considered an extreme food, eaten only in an emergency. Many are said to have eaten it when starvation was the alternative -- Washington's troops at Valley Forge, Canadian trappers, Franklin's expedition to map the Northwest passage through northern Canada. Unless cooked carefully, it is known to cause cramps, or worse, and may be on par nutritionally with old shoe leather. Native peoples used it to thicken broth. Rock tripe is not to be confused with the other tripe - the lining of cow stomachs that can also be eaten, but also with much care in its preparation.

Another use of rock tripe, among other lichens, is as a dye. In an article, Local Color: Finding Wild Sources for Dye in the Forest in Northern Woodlands magazine, Allaire Diamond writes about Anne Williams who maintains a lichen dye bath in her garage. Anne ferments rock tripe in a solution of ammonia and water for 12 months to get an intense purple dye. She recommends how to harvest the tripe with care, mostly taking only the "leaves" that have sloughed off the rock.

Walk up to the nearest tripe-covered boulder and gently pull on one of the leathery disks. The rock tripe is attached like super glue, but pulling too hard will break the umbilical cord. Best to leave the tripe to continue its slow growth on these giant boulders.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Blog Carnivals

I submitted a post to my second blog carnival in November, via the Nature Blog Network. Until you step into the tent and join the fun, you do not realize all the amazing stories, poems, tales, people, and places to be discovered by following the threads that emerge in a carnival.

My first carnival entry was a A Not so Clever Nest, sent to I and the Birds carnival #100. One of my favorite trees is the eastern hemlock, which I wrote about here, just as Dave Bonta was soliciting submissions for the Festival of the Trees #42. Dave is a "poet, editor, and shutterbug from the eastern edge of western Pennsylvania," who writes at via negativa, and The Morning Porch, and other places, and lives in Plummers Hollow.

Dave, as host of the the current issue of the Festival of Trees, gathered, organized and presented the collection of posts related to this carnival theme. Click here to read his compilation, and follow the links wherever they take you. This carnival, thanks to Dave and his online literary works, opened a porthole for me to a whole new world of creative writing. I look forward to exploring the festival links and reading Dave's daily musings from his morning porch.

Winterberry Bird Scat

A week ago--on a coldish January day--a small flock of robins ate all the berries from one winterberry shrub in our yard. They flew off as q...