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Oh Plastic Tannenbaum

>> Monday, November 30, 2009

'Tis the season when we drag out boxes of Christmas ornaments from the attic and decorate the house.

When I was a kid we always waited until right before Christmas to decorate, but I've begun pulling out ornaments and lights earlier.  Partly we decorate early because our whole neighborhood decorates the weekend after Thanksgiving and if I don't join them I start getting stressed out about the decorations being one more thing on my to-do list.  Partly it's because I dearly love the Christmas decorations and like to be able to enjoy them through the whole month of December.

And partly it's because last year, the weekend after Thanksgiving was spectacularly warm and we sat on our porch enjoying the weather and watching our neighbors decorate.  We then decorated ourselves the following weekend in bitter cold, howling winds and driving sleet, and thereby belatedly realized our neighbors just might be on to something with their whole early decorating thing.

Anywho, in the unseasonably warm day on Sunday, we spent the morning chipping away at our never shrinking wood pile, and in the afternoon we joined the neighborhood in decorating.

One of the things that gives me pangs every December is our tree.  It's fake.  It's plastic and metal, came in a cardboard box, and bears warnings about being made out of chemicals known in the State of California to cause cancer.  We bought the current tree last year because it was our first year in a real house that could fit a big tree.  So we went to a variety of stores and found a full-sized cancer-causing environment-destroying artificial tree to replace our miniature cancer-causing environment-destroying artificial tree.

As I put the thing up yesterday, I contemplated the sticky film that developed on my finger tips, and wondered just what on earth it could be.  I contemplated the nasty chemicals that went into making the plastic of the needles and the green coating on the metal.  I contemplated the petroleum wasted both in making the tree and transporting it here from China.  I even contemplated the human rights and labor issues that might be involved in purchasing another product made in China.

I also contemplated the carbon dioxide that would have been used by a real tree as it grew to Christmas tree height, and the oxygen it would have given off.  And, I contemplated the lack of petroleum involved in getting a live tree from the Christmas tree farm that's right in my own little village.

So with all this anxiety, why did I purchased an artificial tree?  We had real trees every year as a kid, and finding and cutting them was a family affair.  I love the smell of real trees, and, well, the realness of them.

It comes down to this:  I just can't bear to kill a poor little tree.  I know, I know - at the Christmas tree farm that's what they were planted for.  But trees have been my friends for as long as I can remember.  I spent most of my childhood climbing and playing and just being in the maple tree in front of our house.  I talk to trees.  In the grand environmental scheme of things, buying a tree made of plastic probably killed off more living things than cutting a tree would.  I get it all, intellectually.  But when it comes to Christmas trees, my sentiment trumps my intellect.  I just cannot meet a sweet little tree and then chop it down.  It doesn't seem fair.

So, I put together my pre-lit plastic tree year after year, and don't have to wrestle with untangling lights.  I arrange the conveniently bendable branches to suit the ornaments.  I then scrub that yucky weird film off my fingers and hope it didn't soak into my skin too much, and then try not to think about what it's probably doing to the indoor air quality.

After it's up, I then sit and enjoy basking in its lovely, decorated, non-dying artificial tree glow.


Ode to Bird-Watching

>> Thursday, November 26, 2009

One of my very favorite poets is Pablo Neruda.  My best friend introduced me to him (well, to his poems, not to the man himself) a number of years ago.

A few tidbits about the man:  Pablo Neruda was originally the pen name, although later also the legal name, of NeftalĂ­ Ricardo Reyes Basoalto.  He was a Chilean communist politician, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and at one time a political exile from Chile.  Pablo Neruda was also at one time nominated as a candidate for the presidency of Chile, but instead backed Salvador Allende, who became the first democratically elected socialist head of state in Chile.  He served as a diplomat, and a senator.  Pablo Neruda died in September of 1973.

I find Pablo Neruda's poems positively enchanting.  He wrote some moving political poems, but also has poems called "Ode to Laziness", "Ode to the Onion", and "Ode to My Socks".  For me, the really incredible thing about Pablo Neruda is how deep and dark the places are that he reaches inside me - for pity's sake, I cry when I read "Ode to My Socks".  Seriously.  And I am not a crier, at all.

By far my favorite Pablo Neruda poem, though, is his Ode to Bird-Watching.  Of course, it makes me cry, too.  I thought this a fitting post for Thanksgiving, as it reminds me how grateful I am for the woods and the wild places of this earth, and of course the birds, despite how exasperating they can sometimes be.  The exasperation is part of their richness.

(translation by Stephen Mitchell).

Ode to Bird-Watching

to look for birds!
The high iron branches
in the forest,
the dense
fecundity of the soil,
the whole world
is wet,
rain or dew
shines, a tiny
in the leaves:
in the early morning
mother earth is cool,
the air
is like a river
that shakes
the silence,
it smells of rosemary,
of space
and roots.
a wild song,
a waterfall,
it's a bird.
from a throat
smaller than a finger
can the waters
of this song fall?
Luminous grace!
of music
in the leaves,
sacred conversation!

Clean, washed, cool
is this day,
like a green zither,
I bury my shoes
in the mud,
I leap over springs,
a thorn
nips me and a gust
of air like a crystal
separates on my chest.
are the birds?
Was that one, maybe,
whispering in the foliage
or that fugitive ball
of gray velvet
or that sudden shift
of perfume?  That leaf
which the cinnamon tree let go,
was it a bird?  That dust
from the irritated magnolia
or that fruit
which fell resounding,
was that a flight?
O invisible little cretins,
fiendish birds,
to hell
with your twittering,
with your useless feathers!
I just wanted
to stroke them,
to see them glisten,
I don't want
to see their lightning embalmed
in a showcase,
I want to see them alive,
I want to touch their gloves
of genuine leather,
which they never forget in the branches,
and to talk with them
on my shoulders
even if they leave me like certain statues
undeservedly whitened.

They can't be touched,
they can be heard
like a heavenly
whisper or movement,
they talk
their observations,
about whatever they're doing,
on whatever exists,
certain sciences
like hydrography
and know for certain
where all the grains
are being harvested.

Well then,
of the forest, of the woods,
of the pure bower,
birds of the acacia
and of the oak,
crazy, amorous,
astonishing birds,
migratory musicians,
one last
I go back
with wet shoes, thorns
and dry leaves
to my home:
I love you
far from the shotgun and the cage,
this is the way
I love you,
united and sonorous
society of the heights,
of the air,
of smoke,
flyers and singers,
aerial, terrestrial,
sailors of the wind,
of the softest nests,
messengers of pollen,
of the flower, uncles
of the seed,
I love you,
I'm going home,
happy to have lived with you
a moment
in the wind.


Canine Wisdom

>> Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I had fun making my "10 things I've learned from heating with wood" list, which really turned out to be 13 things and counting.  Now all I can think of is lists.  Here's the start of what will likely be a very long list eventually.

20 Reasons to Have (Two Bad) Dogs, in no particular order:

1)  This one's obvious - that whole-body-swaying-leaping-up-and-down-so-excited-they-can't-contain-themselves joy when one comes home from work makes everything better, no matter how horrible the day was.

2)  Having lost another pair of shoes to doggie teeth means one gets to purchase a new pair.  I can't get bored with my shoes that way, right?  (Although practically speaking what it really means is another pair of heels with the tooth gouges colored in with a sharpie).

3)  Likewise carpeting.  Who would want carpeting in place for more than a year or two?  It gets boring.

4)  When you come home frozen through after spending hours outside in the cold, they will curl up with you and let you stick your icy fingers in their naked little armpits.  Simon doesn't even react when I do this.  Lucy will give me a plaintive look as if to say "Really, Mom?  Those suckers are freezing!" but she lets me do it.  One's fingers get warm in a jiffy!  It actually makes me rather teary to consider the incredible generosity of spirit thus exhibited. 

5)  One does not need a television if one has two Basset hounds and a laser pointer, and all the more if one also has cats to add to the mix.  It's instant noisy hilarity even if it is somewhat hard on the floorboards.

6) That squishy feeling one gets in the pit of one's stomach when the dogs sleep in an unbelievably adorable pile.

7)  Never needing to feel lonely when one is at home, even if no other humans are anywhere nearby.

8)  Window nose art.

9)  Eyeglass nose art.

10)  Never needing to pick up the bits of food that hit the floor while cooking.

11)  The sheer artistry of the elaborate twists and lurches one performs while cooking and trying not to trip over the canine floor cleanup crew.  You never knew you could dance, did you?

12)  This one's specific to Basset hounds and a few other jowly dogs - piles of lips on the floor, the arms of chairs, or, if one is lucky, moist, sticky and warm on the flesh of one's bare arm.  Gross but amusing.

13)  Having to wash the floor of the shower less often because Simon (a.k.a. "Slimy") so kindly licks it clean after every shower.  Coupled with this is the risk to life and limb presented by stepping into a shower where the floor is covered with a liberal layer of slick dog slime.

14)  Speaking of dog slime, I derive a sick fascination from the incredible viscosity of the substance left in the bottom of the dogs' water bowl when it's almost empty.  Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeewwwww.... cool!

15)  That stupid, happy, dopey, tongue-lolling grin they get on their faces when something pleases them.  Is it possible to look at that expression and not grin back?  I didn't think so.

16)  Laughing so hard that tears roll down one's cheeks while watching what appears to be a WWE match between two dogs at play.  I find myself flinching as one dog takes down another, and then the victim of the take-down gets revenge by gnawing on an exposed limb or ear.  It's amazing that it's all in good fun, and generally ends with two of those stupid happy grins in #15.

17)  Continuous redefining of the term "personal space".  Dogs?  They don't have any.  At least mine don't.  I have two 50 pound lap dogs.  We affectionately refer to Lucy as "Kudzu" and "The Invasive Species" because of her ability to creeeeeep surreptitiously into one's personal space.  She particularly loves to press her cold wet nose against a human's lips and stare into the human's eyes.  This behavior has also earned her the nicknames "The Dementor" and "The Soul Slucker".*  And let's not even get started on their crotch poking, butt sniffing and dirty underwear stealing habits.  It all makes one continuously question one's boundaries, which is probably a good thing given the overpopulation path the planet is on.

18)  The necessity of taking long walks to wear off a little extra dog energy.  When I'm snuggly warm and it's cold out I never want to leave the fire and walk the dogs.  Once I go, though, I'm almost always grateful I have done so, as the dogs have unknowingly given me gifts such as a few moments of peaceful intimacy with the moon or the joyful discovery of a flower or bug.  The only time I'm not grateful is when the walk results in #19.

19)  The incredible humility one feels while lying face down on the walkway, empty leash hand extended above one's head, having just suddenly and gracelessly lost the battle over whether the dogs are going to chase that squirrel or not.  Everybody's ego needs an occasional check.

20)  The inspiration of watching my physically disabled dog tackle life (and occasional Adirondack High Peaks) as though there's absolutely nothing wrong with her.  Talk about humbling.  My little Soul Slucker is a constant reminder that most of the limitations we perceive in our lives are just that - perceptions.  If we stop thinking of things as barriers, we often find they aren't barriers at all, just slight diversions.  Sometimes they're even opportunities for a little creativity - Lucy, for example, has discovered her stump is great for clubbing her brother over the head.  See #16.

* Harry Potter fans should get this without a problem.  All others should note that Dementors are evil hooded creatures that suck the soul out of their victims by administering a "kiss of death".


Ten things I've learned from heating with wood:

>> Tuesday, November 24, 2009

1)  While a "timberline brown" enamel finish on the wood-burning insert was great in theory and looks lovely now, the fumes emitted during the "curing" process when we first fired the thing up killed more than a few of my brain cells and of course of the rest of the family as well.  I promise, the dogs didn't have any extra to lose, either.  I suspect the toxins emitted also undid some of the air emissions good we thought we were doing by purchasing a high-efficiency wood stove.

2)  Chopping wood has to be one of the most g-d satisfying things I can conceive of.

3)  Stacking wood is satisfying, too, but is a hell of a lot of work.  The growth of the stacked wood pile and the diminishment of the unstacked wood pile bear no relation to one another.

4)  People who sell firewood have dramatically varying definitions for the words "face cord" and "seasoned".  Thus far my experience tells me you get what you pay for - well, I mean, the place that's charging us the most is the one that delivers a full face cord when we order it, and it really is seasoned.  Earlier attempts resulted in our not getting what we paid for.  We got partial, green cords.  Green wood is remarkably hard to burn, bad for the environment, bad for the wood stove and chimney, and bad for my mood.

5)  If my husband beats me home, it's best not to plan on his accomplishing anything in the first hour he's there other than letting the dogs out and starting the fire.  Once the flames start flickering, he will be utterly transfixed and will tinker with the fire for at least 60 minutes.  Hunger, thirst, howling dogs and even a wheedling wife have will no ability to reach him until he's had his fill of fire.

6)  There's nothing quite like coming in from the cold and standing in front of the roaring fire.  It makes winter infinitely more lovable when you're someone who's always cold, like I am.

7)  A hot wood stove is a dog baby sitter.  Hallelujah!  The only time my dogs hold still, ever, is when the stove is roaring hot.  Then they lie still in front of it sometimes for hours at a time, occasionally moaning contentedly and moving only to roll over and roast the cold side.  One of the cats does the same.  She gets so hot I can't even pet her, and I have nightmares about all three of them developing horrifying skin conditions from spending so much time at that temperature.

8)  Heating with woods means the room with the wood stove has to be vacuumed daily.  Not only do stacking and loading wood and wood ashes generate a lot of mess on their own, but the dogs think their main purpose in life is raiding the wood pile and chewing all the wood into minuscule pieces, all over the room. In fact, I think wood chipping is their primary talent.  They're part beaver, I swear.

9)  I will surely never know whether heating with wood was the right choice environmentally, and all that wondering is going to continue to eat at me.  I do recognize, however, that whatever choice we made was probably going to leave me wondering and agonizing.  I can't help myself. 

10)  Good-quality, long cuffed, insulated fireplace gloves are seemingly always sized for men, and large men at that.  My hands are not the size of garbage can lids.  It would be safer when I reach into the fire if I could move my fingers, and didn't have 3 inch long flaps hanging off the tip of each finger.

11)  (I know, I said 10 things, but I can't help myself)  Nylon carpeting in a room with a fireplace is a profoundly stupid idea.  A tiny spark can create a massive ugly black spot, not to mention smolder dangerously.  Fleece long-sleeved clothing doesn't fare much better than nylon carpeting.  Wool?  Now that is a remarkable fiber.  Wool carpeting, however, is an expensive home improvement project I hadn't figured on.  I'll just add it to the very, very long list.

12)  Wood piles collect all sorts of great wildlife, including mice and bugs and amphibians.  They also grow some cool stuff, like fungi and lichen.  Am I the only person who feels horribly guilting putting a log on the fire when it has cool lichen growing on it?

13)  Despite all the work, the mess, the fluctuating temperatures, and the shock to the system of getting out of bed in the morning when the house is 50 degrees, heating with wood is still romantic enough to be worth it.  I have no regrets.  At least not yet.


Holy wood pile, batman!

>> Monday, November 23, 2009

It's the time of year for wood hauling and stacking.  This is what our driveway looked like Sunday morning:

That would be 9 face cords of wood.  It actually pretty much looks about the same this morning, despite a whole lot of hauling and stacking - like about 4 hours worth of hauling and stacking.  The stacked wood pile has grown a great deal, but the driveway mound has not shrunk, I swear.  It's the incredible never-shrinking woodpile.

So, there shall be stacking aplenty in the coming week or two.  You should note that this is the second round of hauling and stacking this autumn - we already stacked 5 cords.  We have about 1½ cords left from last year, and we're hoping that will be enough to get us through the winter, although we really don't know.

If you hadn't guessed thus far, we heat with wood.

When we moved into our 2,200 square foot house that was built in 1831, we had some concerns about heating costs, and the environmental impact of us two (well, 7 if you count the fur-bearing members of the family) occupying that ridiculous amount of square footage.  I love old houses and desperately wanted to try fixing one up for the sheer fun of the thing, but I recognized my carbon footprint was going to be bigger than it ought to be. 

We spent a lot of time researching different methods of heating and what their costs are (both up-front and long-term) and what their environmental impacts are.  Spouse was partial to a wood-burning stove since that's what he grew up with.  He's from the North Country, in the middle of nowhere near Canton, New York, where it gets mighty cold.  His only neighbors were Amish.  Theirs was an enormous old drafty farmhouse, and his family went through 15-20 cords of wood a winter heating it.  Since he was the only boy in a large family, let's just say my husband is comfortable with an axe.

In contrast, I grew up in a raised ranch in suburbia and as a child never knew people heated with anything other than a furnace.  Ours ran on gas.  You wanted heat, you turned up the thermostat - that was all there was to it.

Despite that our house can be heated with the perfectly good high-efficiency gas furnace that resides in the basement, it's mighty pricey (we're currently estimating it is at least 3x the price of heating with wood), and gas has its own environmental impacts.  It takes a lot of work to extract any fossil fuel, and the results aren't always terribly pretty.

Is wood really a better choice?  I just don't know - it's mighty hard to say.  Wood is renewable, but was the wood in my driveway harvested in a sustainable manner?  And while our wood burning unit is one of the most efficient available and has one of the lowest emissions ratings out there for wood burning stoves, it's still combustion.  I gather from conversations with a couple of environmental engineers I know that the cleanest burning units available at the moment are actually coal-burning, but we ruled that out because of what has to be done to the earth to get the coal out.  Plus, I don't like the smell of coal when it's burning, and it doesn't have the same ambiance.  Pellet stoves also seemed to lack ambiance, and we have friends who have trouble getting enough pellets as demand seems to have outstripped supply, at least around here.

Our house technically had a wood burning insert in it when we moved in, so installing a new one didn't seem that difficult.  That, combined with the cost of running the furnace, my husband's love of wood stoves (a.k.a. pyromania), and some odd romantic notions about woods stoves and country living being suited to one another, and we ultimately decided on wood.

Using the ancient wood stove that was in the house when we moved in was out of the question.

That's not really a great photo of it, but you can sort of tell it looked old and iffy.  We moved in a year ago March, and finally got that old clunker out last November.  This is what we found when we pulled out the mantel and unit:

Well, really, it was far more alarming than this when we first pulled it out, because this is after we added a second layer of brick inside the fire box and installed a floor in the fireplace.  Yes, you read that right - the unit was teetering on the hearth over a yawning chasm that dropped into the basement.  That fact was even more impressive when we realized the entire 6" thick concrete hearth was almost unsupported from underneath, and was held in place at its corners by a few dry-rotted slats of wood.  Yikes!  Glad I didn't jump up and down on it between March and November.  You can see the pretty char marks up the brick, ending only an inch or so below the wood wall beam.  Nice, no?

A lot of sweat, 3 months, 1 mason, various frightening and amusing discoveries about what people had done in renovating the house in the past, and beaucoup $$$ later, and we had a visually appealing, properly-installed, high efficiency wood-burning fireplace insert:


Now if only the area around the stove stayed looking that nice and neat and clean on a day-to-day basis.  And, (shifting uncomfortably and wincing slightly) if only hauling and stacking were a slightly less painful process.

To be continued...


Speaking of ants

>> Thursday, November 19, 2009

Yippee!  After all my whining and lamenting, it turns out there are plenty of industrious ants who worked hard all summer on their food stores.  Even better, some want to sell their food to this lazy grasshopper!

My Dad, his girlfriend, and my favorite aunt came for a visit on Saturday.  After sitting around and chatting for a while we worked up quite an appetite, so Spouse and I took them to lunch at a lovely little restaurant only about 15 minutes from home, called the Restaurant at Elderberry Pond.  We had actually been there once before with friends, and found their dinners are beyond delicious.  The best beef I have ever eaten in my life was at this restaurant.

We were so distracted when we were there before that we didn't pay enough attention to the whole story behind the place, and its mission.  I walked away with some vague impression of organic-ness and home-grown veggies, but that was about it.

Saturday, happily, I paid more attention.

Elderberry Pond is a 100 acre mostly organic farm, and they serve home-grown and home-raised foods at their restaurant.  Local AND organic.  Even better than that, they will cater to my weird dietary restrictions.  Plus, the restaurant is set in an idyllic, pastoral spot, surrounded by beautiful fields and orchards.  The building is elegant, inside and out, and is tastefully furnished with antiques, arts and crafts.  In short, the place has atmosphere.  For me, it doesn't get any better than that combination.

Or so I thought.

Until I discovered they have a store, right next to the restaurant, where they sell the stuff they grow.  Hip, hip, hooray!


And squash of many varieties, and Swiss chard, herbs, apple cider, eggs from the chickens we could see out the window, beef, pork, potatoes, pickles, and jams, and

in short


It doesn't hurt that the store is a beautiful and charming old stone community pork rendering and smoke house from the 1800s.  They've done a lovely job preserving that old-world country store feel.

Like all good farmers, these folks are scientists.  Check out some info about their farming practices, and how they work this land that has been farmed since the 1800s.  It's amazing to me how much can be done with a little thought, planning, creativity, ingenuity, and an incredible amount of hard labor.  A whole heck of a lot of apparently profitable, sustainable and yummy farming can be done without pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

I now have apples aplenty to get me through the holidays, of three different varieties.  Their Swiss chard is a work of art.  Seriously.  It's so pretty I hate to cook it.  Some of our haul:

Sadly, the store will close after next weekend and will be closed until perhaps May, when the asparagus and rhubarb can be harvested.  You can bet we'll be there for their grand spring re-opening.

For now, this grasshopper is so happy she's Muppet Happy.  (Come on, you can picture it  - remember Kermit from the intro of the old Muppet Show?)


Before you squish that spider...

>> Wednesday, November 18, 2009 might want to read this.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has spent any considerable amount of time watching ants or honeybees that they are remarkably complex creatures.

I've spent quite a bit of time with my eyes at ground level watching ant wars in my own yard.  It's incredible when one nest swarms another and they battle it out on an epic level that would rival some Civil War battles, with wings of troops coming around the back to surprise the enemy, attempts to divide up the enemy groups, and all sorts of other amazing and minute tactics.  I only got a decent camera when I started this blog and I still don't have a macro lens, so I don't have great photos to share.  You can be sure the next time I witness an attack I'll do my best to capture it, though.

I also watched a show on PBS a number of years ago about how honeybees engage in pattern and color recognition, and can even potentially count.  The article I linked to above notes that "bees, for example, can sting, scout for food, guard the hive and fan their wings for ventilation, along with more than 50 other behaviors. The insect's behavioral repertoire, in fact, surpasses that of some vertebrates."

Okay.  50 separate behaviors.  Huh.  I'm not sure my dogs even have 50 separate behaviors.  Begging for attention, whuffling the cats, stealing anything remotely edible off counters and out of garbage cans, eating shoes, barking at people who walk by, begging for forgiveness after they've done something they shouldn't... uh, chasing the laser pointer... yeah.  I'm rapidly running out of "behaviors".  50 is a LOT.

We humans tend to be so egocentric when it comes to all other life forms.  Articles like that just reinforce my "try not to squish anything living thing" philosophy (okay, except for mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and a few other bugs that bite, and those slinky fast nasty centipedes that make me stand on a chair and scream like a little girl.  Those I let the cats get).  I say live and let live, as best we can.

For fun, since we're on the subject of bugs and spiders, check out the creepy critter pics that were popping up with the article above.  In case you missed them, click here.  Incredible!


Pretties and Ickies

>> Tuesday, November 17, 2009

While Creepy Man ruined the usual mood boost I normally get from a walk in the woods, our Sunday stroll did have some nice moments, too.  Autumn fields are awesome.  I've always loved the fields along the highway in the fall, with gold and red slowly turning to brown with fluffs of white.

I'll start with the milkweed, just because it has so much charm:


Then there were the lovely flashes of color in a sea of brown.  I love raspberry leaves and grapes because they're just so autumnal.  Anybody know what the purple is?  I can't seem to spot it in my flower book but have a nagging feeling I ought to know what it is.

A very blurry Basset hound at the end of a long hollow log (you'll have to take my word for it):

And just a few random pretties that I can't identify without a book, and haven't gotten around to looking up just yet:


Here's a "Where's Waldo" puzzle for you.  Or Waldoette?  Or perhaps just Waldoe.  Can you spot her?  If you click on the picture you can zoom in.  She's just about dead center.  I mean - oops - perhaps that's not the best turn of phrase during hunting season.  She's - ah - in the middle of the photo.

Then there were the moments that would have made a lot of people say "ick" but which make me say "oh, cool!"

One stretch of trail was covered, covered, I tell you, in pellets.  There were dozens of them.  I didn't have the time to hang out and dissect them, but wished I could have.  I am no good at identifying predator or prey from pellets, but suspect this might be a good place to go for an owl walk of an evening.  One fine example:

Methinks that might be a bad area in which to be a mouse or other rodent.

Then there was the fungus that looked like a Nerf ball that had been chewed on and left out in the rain until it started to grow mold.  That's about the right consistency for this thing, too.  I had to poke at it gingerly to make sure it wasn't actually a Nerf ball some camper had left behind.  Then I realized there were a whole bunch of them, of varying sizes but all looking almost exactly as moldy and munched on.  I couldn't even begin to identify it.

hm.  Nerfy.

We also stumbled upon a lovely hornets nest, long empty, sitting on the ground.  Out of sheer curiosity we did a little poking into it, and were astounded by how beautiful the striations were in the paper.

Funny to think they apparently mastered the art of paper making thousands of years before humans did.

And finally, the coup de grace, a rotting deer hoof in a tree.  I'm not sure if someone found it in the trail and put it up there for people to see, or if a critter made a meal of it while sitting in the tree.  Regardless, kind of cool. 

Spouse stuck with me through the hornet's nest and the owl pellets, but this one finally made him say "oh, GROSS.  That's just... ew."  When I protested that I though it was fascinating, he looked at me oddly and said, "I repeat, that one's really kinda gross." 

Grossing out Spouse?  Now that's a successful jaunt in the woods for this fearless female.  :)


Day in the woods FAIL

>> Monday, November 16, 2009

Sunday, I woke up in a vile mood.  I stayed up too late Saturday night fiddling with a new (used) stereo receiver we were trying to hook up but which refused to work properly, and then reading.  Sunday morning dawned fresh and bright outdoors, but it dawned indoors for me with wafts of rotting fish mixed with something worse (garbage?  dead things?) as the hounds tried to get me up because they were bored.  I know, they desperately need their teeth cleaned, and that would help with the horrific dog breath.  I'm too broke for that at the moment.

Woof.  Woof.  poke - poke - poke.  Wiggle.  Nudge, nudge, nudge.  Poke.  LIIIICK.  lick, lick, lick.  lick, lick, lick, poke.  wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, pounce!  Mreeeeaow!  Purrr, knead, knead, knead.

Great.  It's a conspiracy and the cats are in on it too.  Once that happens there's really no hope of going back to sleep.  *groan*

All I really wanted for my weekend was some relaxation and a jaunt in the Adirondacks, up a high peak and back.  But there was way too much on the weekend schedule, and despite the intoxicatingly lovely weather, we were stuck with spots no more than about 45 minutes from home.

I figured that it didn't really matter where we went, the woods would be restorative.  It's always lovely to spend some time with the bugs and birds and plants and sun - we'd feel better after a walk.  So we rounded up the kids and camera, and drove over to Green Lakes State Park.

I shall post some pics of general autumnal sorts of things in another blog, but first I'd like to vent about the miserable wretched human who actually made a walk in the woods make my day worse.

Green Lakes has a campground, a couple of cool geologically interesting lakes, some fields, and a decent patch of woods.  It also gets an incredible amount of traffic.  There are boat rentals and swimming, and trails for hiking and mountain biking.  On such a gorgeous day it was very crowded with walkers, runners, bikers, and dogs.  Green Lakes isn't the sort of place one really goes for solitude in the woods.  We didn't venture very far (not much time) but wandered along a trail that winds through the fields, and through a little snippet of woods right along the edge of the campground.

In that narrow little wooded strip sandwiched between camp sites and picnic tables and playgrounds on one side, and a high voltage power line on the other, we were delighted to find some cairn art.  Some ambitious folks had come through and constructed a series of little stone cairns along the side of the trail.  They were quite appealing in a natural arts sort of way - at least to me - and I hoped as I looked at them that some kids had had fun building them while camping, and would want to spend time in the woods again.  I actually took pictures because I liked them so much.

We wandered past the power lines and through the fields a bit more, and were sorely disappointed on our way back through to discover that someone had decimated all those stone cairns.  Every last one had been violently dismantled, and the stones hurled into the woods.  It made me sad, so Spouse volunteered to rebuild my favorite cairn for me, since we had a picture of it still:

Part way through the rebuild, we encountered the individual who had destroyed all the cairns.  I expected teenagers, but so much for stereotypes.  Instead, what I got was a tall, paunchy, middle aged, aggressive creep of a man.  He announced his presence by running down the trail shouting at us: "Don't you know you're violating state law by doing that?  That's against the law!  You can't do that!  It's against the law to disturb anything in the woods!  I'm a citizen of New York State, and you're violating state law RIGHT NOW!" etc.  Seriously.

My reaction was to turn to him, look at him, and say "You're kidding, right?"

That, apparently, was the wrong reaction.  He proceeded to scream, yell, rant and rage at me for at least 5 minutes.  It felt like 20.  He got in my face and in my personal space.  He tried to physically take my camera from me (over my dead body) and actually threatened to sue me, and threatened to send park rangers to get me.  While I thankfully cannot remember the full extent of his commentary, the choicest bits I remember are that I "am one of those people who is DESTROYING the natural environment by building those disgusting human MONSTROSITIES" and that "the world doesn't need people like" me.

Oy Veh.

Spouse was hovering inches from my elbow through all this, adrenaline pumping through his body, wondering if he'd have enough reaction time to deck the guy the instant before the creep hit me.  It certainly seemed like creep was about to start raining blows on me.  Meanwhile, I was standing there wondering how much of my Tae Kwon Do I remember, and why he was screaming at me when Spouse was actually the one rebuilding the cairn.  I was also feeling incredibly sorry for the man's kid.

Because he had a kid with him - a shy young girl of about 9 or 10, with Down's Syndrome.  She was dressed in ragged clothing, hung back a little ways up the trail, paced nervously, and looked very worried and upset the whole time the man (presumably her father?) was shouting belligerently.  When I finally convinced him (I had to shout it to be heard over him and the frantically barking dogs) to go get his stupid park ranger to arrest me and leave me the hell alone, he stalked off down the trail, yelling back at me over his shoulder about how the world would be better off without people like me, yelling at the little girl to follow him, and walking way too fast for her to keep up.

It.  Was.  Horrid.

Now, should we have been off the trail?  Nah, surely not, although we were only about a foot and a half off it.  Should we have been rearranging the rocks?  Uh, again, no, prob'ly not.  But Green Lakes is not exactly pristine wilderness, and we were virtually in the much tramped-over camp ground that is intended for bringing people closer to nature.  Had we been in the High Peaks Region of the Adirondacks I admit I wouldn't have gone off the trail at all, much less rearranged the scenery, so a part of me has to admit the guy had a point.  But then again, the Adirondacks High Peaks are full of cairns, marking the herd paths up the trailless summits. 

I wanted to ask the guy what kind of car he drives, what kind of light bulbs he uses, how he heats his home, and where he gets his food and clothing.  What impact is his life really having on the natural world?  Because it strikes me that a small stone cairn along the side of a path in the woods is a lot less impact on the natural environment than an average American's daily existence.  I'm no angel when it comes to the environment.  No, I don't yet have a hybrid car, but it's not an SUV and we do at least car pool.  I'm not great about turning off the lights in the house as Spouse can attest (it drives him nuts), but they are CFLs.  I occasionally buy a piece of fish from Alaska or coffee beans from South America, but most of our food is local and organic.  We have a long way to go, but we really work at it.

I wish all humans could stand back and assess our lives from that orbiting-Earth-in-a-space-shuttle sort of perspective to recognize what our real impact on the planet is.  I wish it were easier to understand how all our little impacts add up and what the consequences are.  I also, however, refuse to believe that how we treat our fellow humans doesn't matter.  When it comes to the Golden Rule, that creepy dude gets an F-.  And don't even get me started on that poor little girl, and how much it worries me that she's with him.

It took a couple of hours for the adrenaline to fade from my system.  He definitely prevented the woods from doing their therapy-for-the-human thing that they usually do to me.  I very seriously considered filing a report at the rangers station about the guy, but in the end lost my resolve.  I was frankly afraid I'd cry if I tried to tell the story, which may have garnered me sympathy, but which would have made me feel pathetically female on top of feeling outraged, angry, frightened and violated.  Instead, we finished rebuilding the cairn (on principle), crept back to the car and got the heck away from the place.

Oh, and the icing on the cake of my day was that we all came home covered in TICKS.  Ugh.  I hate ticks.  The give me the hot-and-cold-crawly-all-overs.

Well.  I shan't be returning to Green Lakes any time soon.  Or building any more cairns.


Apple exasperation, or, How'd I get to be the grasshopper?

>> Friday, November 13, 2009

Please forgive me today's tirade - it really is one big, long, grouchy whine, but:

Why, oh why, is it so hard to find an unwaxed, organic, New York State apple???

I do so love apple season.  Crunchy, sweet, tangy.  I tend to go for the tart ones, but any apple will do so long as it's not a Red Delicious, which I am not convinced should even be called an apple.  Mushy apple = bleeeeeeeeech. 

Spouse and I betook ourselves to the Ithaca Farmers' Market a while back, and found a farm stand there that had absolutely, spectacularly delicious everything.  Organic, local, all that jazz.  I got some of the best spinach I have ever eaten in my life there.  They even had a painfully cute Bernese Mountain dog puppy in tow, rolling about all fluffy and floppy.  He was not for sale, thankfully, or I probably would have bought him, too, and stuffed him in the back seat of the car with the Basset hounds.  (Our awesome old dog who died about a year and a half ago was half Berner, and I have a wicked soft spot for them).

That farm stand's apples were to die for, and we bought several dozen.  I was in the mood to purchase bushels of the things for eating, freezing, and baking, but saw that they didn't have terribly many left and was conservative in my purchase, idiot that I am.  I also failed to ask them if we could get more from them.  There were surprisingly few apples for sale at the Ithaca Farmers' Market, or we would have bought some from other folks, too.  Of course, the apples we did get were so good that we plowed through them in a shockingly short time.

We went to the Regional Market in Syracuse for a couple of successive weekends after that, and found a few organic apples at the one organic produce stand there.  They were good, but not nearly as good as the Ithaca ones.  And now that stand is about out.

Which leaves me...


In autumn.

In Central New York.

Which strikes me as being ludicrous.  And exceedingly irritating.

Wegman's is our grocery store of choice, mostly because they do a better job than a lot of their competitors when it comes to organic produce and local produce, although those two seldom seem to overlap.  But a stroll through Weggies yesterday evening left me feeling Decidedly Disgruntled.  The vast majority of the apples were not from New York State.  But, wait - we're IN New York State, surrounded by apple orchards.  Is it really cheaper to purchase apples from Washington State and ship them across the country?  Our modern day food distribution network sucks from an environmental point of view.  Or are there no more New York State apples left?  Apparently one or the other or both. 

And of course, every single apple in the grocery store is coated in "food grade wax" to "preserve freshness".  First of all, the idea of eating wax at all is just icky.  But second, food grade wax is largely made from corn,  because corn is so heavily subsidized that everything possible is made out of it.  Do you know who cannot tolerate eating corn, even in tiny doses?  Yours truly.  It makes me feel incredibly crummy, with digestive discomfort and a variety of symptoms you surely don't want to know about. 

I can technically peel and slice those waxed apples if I do so veeerry carefully.  Even so, I tend to get trace amounts of corn that are transferred from the peeler, or the knife, or maybe even soak in through the skin.  It's less than ideal, and means I miss out on that incredible satisfaction one gets from just biting into a big juicy apple.

I also refuse to buy apples from the other side of the continent and support the gratuitous burning of all that diesel fuel to get them here, when there are local orchards that could use the support.

I can't seem to find a local organic farm to pick apples at.  I need to start looking harder.  Perhaps the Bernese Mountain Dog Farm allows people to pick apples?  Or even sells bushels directly at the farm?  It would help if I had made an effort to remember the name of the farm rather than just referring to it as the "Bernese Mountain Dog Farm". 

Sadly, we can't make it to Ithaca this weekend, and it's gotten past prime New York State apple season through no one's fault but my own, which doesn't make me any less grouchy.  I spent too many autumn weekends playing in the mountains, and not enough time working on my winter food stores.  Yup, just call me the grasshopper.  (You remember the old Aesop's Fable about the ant who builds up food stores all summer, and the grasshopper who plays all summer and has no food come fall.)  In fact, I think knowing I can largely blame myself for this predicament just makes me grouchier. 

Further investigation is definitely called for, if nothing else so I can have my fill of apples next autumn.  For now, though, it's looking like I may be appleless until next apple season.

Unless, of course, I find some diligent ant whose food stores I can raid...


Cold bug stew

>> Thursday, November 12, 2009

It's that wacky in-between time of year in Upstate New York.

Several times now I've received a vaguely amusing e-mail forward called "You know you live in Upstate New York if..."  One of the many "ifs" is "if you drive to work in the morning with your heat on, and drive home in the afternoon with the air conditioning on."  I'm not sure in how many areas of the country that kind of wild weather changeability is the norm, but it sure is around here.

Mornings this week have been decidedly frosty.

There has been thick, heavy frost on the ground, on the few remaining plants in my vegetable garden, and on the cars.  I've been having to start the car a few minutes early or use a credit card to scrape enough ice off the windshield to see out of it.  I actually ordered a new winter dress coat for work this year (long overdue), and wore it today for the first time with mixed feelings of excitement about a great new coat, and disgust at having to wear the damn thing at all.

Afternoons, however, have been sunny and warm for mid November, especially if one is behind glass.  My office faces south, and has been boiling each afternoon.  I hate having to close the shades and block the gorgeous view, but even with the shades closed it's been decidedly uncomfortable.  The view is the best thing about my office - or the worst, depending on how one looks at it.  Those lovely south hills taunt me when I'm stuck inside but would rather be out there.  Which, really, is most of the time.

While I haven't actually needed the air conditioning in the car on the way home, that may be because I generally head home after it's already dark.  Phoo.  I hate short daylight days.

We adapt.  I dress in layers for work and think nothing of it.  It's just the way it is around here.  The poor insects, however, seem to be struggling mightily.  On a couple of particularly warm evenings earlier this week we spent some time sitting on the front porch.  Swarms of bugs still gathered around the light on the porch, including some mosquitoes.  All of them seem a little sluggish and worse for the wear. 

This past weekend, the boxelder bugs were out in profusion, although not in droves as massive as last year when they practically obscured the entire front of our house on sunny fall afternoons.  The cats love it when they come inside.  Oooh!  Wiggling crunchy toys!  Pleh.  I actually find myself saving the poor little creatures and putting them outside so they don't have to face a slow, painful, crunchy death.  And if you think such little critters don't feel pain, read this.  Mind you, they're probably gathering on our porch because they want to come in and escape the cold, but I hear dying of hypothermia is not a terribly unpleasant death... at least compared with having one's limbs pulled off by a cat.

Somehow, mosquitoes are still getting into the house in droves - possibly even in larger numbers than they do in mid summer.  The peculiar thing is that they seem to all come to my kitchen counter to die.  I'll be standing at the counter preparing dinner, and a mosquito will suddenly fold up its wings and dive into whatever I'm preparing.  I'm not sure if my dinners are really that appealing that they can't bear not to become one with them, or they can't manage to fly properly to feast on my flesh, or what.  But I'm getting tired of picking dying mosquitoes (and a few other winged things) off the counter and out of my food.  Them, I don't save.  They get drowned in the sink.  I'm all for saving fellow creatures, but even I have my limits.

Much as I complain about them, though, come January I'd probably be happy to see a mosquito.  Oh, how I'll miss all that little irritating insect life in the deep dark days of winter.  The grass is always greener, especially in January when any grass is bound to be more colorful than the white cold drifts out in my back yard.  Actually, they'll be white if we're lucky.  More often they're just ugly gray/brown gritty snert (snow/dirt - get it?). 

Remind me again, why do I live where there's winter?  Oh, that's right - for the other three spectacular seasons.


Batten down the hatches and order some more wood.  It's almost time for the human to hibernate.


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