Saturday, August 31, 2013

In Dutch Bill Creek

The creek is dry at the end of August.

I am laying on the cool, streambed gravel.  In the cottage, Madi and Diana are house cleaning - I can hear their music faintly.  They are happy, and I hear one of them singing along with the radio.  Each shift of my weight delves my contours deeper into the contours of the stones. Slowly creating a perfect, me-shaped vacuum to fill.  I am gazing up through the quivering leaves of California bay laurel - and above it to the gray-green towers of redwoods. The intoxicating aroma of the bay laurel is riding down the meandering watercourse.  A sprig of wild mint in my breast pocket vies.  A crow croaks and a vulture cruises the blue above the redwoods' ragged crowns.  I can tell it is hot out there, but here in the stones where the breeze flows all is cool.

In the car, riding from San Francisco up to the Russian river, I'd been talking with Diana about spirituality and paganism and how I had been turned away by California New-Ageism - corrupted as it is by a kind of weak-minded anti-materialist consumerism -- and how I hadn't found my coven among the Rhode Island Unitarians.

But on the gravel, in the perfume of bay laurel, redwood and mint, in the thick, flickering green light of August afternoon, in a haze of natural pleasure I find myself in Church, with no need for a coven or for a fellow congregant - unless it be a doe or a lizard or a satiated mink.

Eventually, I rise and return to my friends.

Delivering Porter

photo: Cate School
On Tuesday we delivered Porter to the Cate School for 10th grade.  Anna and Alberto met us there with the luggage we'd left with them during our travels to the Sierras.  The Cate seniors come a day earlier and are there to help each student with getting oriented, hauling bags, etc.  The returning sophomores and juniors arrive the day after.

We all helped Porter move into his room.  It's small, but comfortable -- wood paneling and french doors that open onto a small balcony.  And battered enough to feel comfortable in -- including scars that showed where a former student may have been throwing shuriken against the walls and a spot where the phrase "butt cheeks" had been carved into the wood.  "A testament to the maturity of Cate students," as one of the returning students remarked.

The Cate students, the faculty and staff are a likeable crew.  And Porter, despite a bit of nervousness showing through in the past few days - was clearly ready to get himself involved in it.

It's a pretty school -- sitting along citrus and avocado groves upon a mesa -- above the beach town of Carpinteria and below the Santa Inez mountains which rise above it in chaparral-draped stone.

The headmaster charmed with his stories, the admissions director gave her pep talk, the faculty introduced themselves.  We met teachers and advisors and other parents.  As they said, you are not losing a kid, so much as gaining a whole set of allies in raising him.  We'll see.  I think it will be a good thing.

Porter's crew
the abuelo, Alberto
Porter on his balcony

Friday, August 30, 2013

Lake Tahoe


Summer Vacation:

dead tree above Cascade Lake
By Friday smoke from the raging Rim Fire filled the Tahoe basin and the mountains across the Lake disappeared into the haze.  Tahoe's blue sky and blue waters a familiar visiting place to Monica, and she was the most disappointed by the shrinking vistas.

Our hiking became much less ambitious - a half mile nature trail around "balancing rock" and a mile and a half walk to see the falls that give Cascade Lake its name.

Although the cascade creek had dwindled to a trickle, it was fun to walk the scoops and channels that a million spring thaws had sculpted into the granite.

Saturday we swam at a sandy Tahoe beach in Rubicon Bay, and spent the day relaxing.  We had planned to visit friends in Sacramento and San Francisco.  But since we were going to be dropping off Porter at boarding school on Tuesday, we chose to spend time together as a family.

Porter was getting anxious about the impending arrival, and took breaks from reading The Hobbit by reading his new school handbook.

smoky vistas
Being travelers at heart, Monica and I tend not to stay in one place for long when we go on vacation, so it was a rare treat to spend some down time before the bustle of the new school year.

We had to remind ourselves to start loading Porter up with good advice . . . 

a dry cascade

balancing rock or dreaming tortoise?


Thursday, August 29, 2013

Velma Lakes


After our Tuesday hike by the Gaylor Lakes, we drove deeper into Yosemite National Park, down the dramatic high valleys to Olmstead Point where you occupy heights above the famous Valley and see Half Dome looming in the distance.  Lunch was a picnic of fruit, cheese and sandwiches along Tenaya Lake, where travelers rested along the sandy beach. Stellar's Jays and Clark's Nutcrackers watched for their opportunities from the pines.

We drove back over Tioga Pass, and down the stony valley.  In his imagination Nico designed the castles and battlements that should be perched upon the cirques and crags.

Family friends of Monica own a little cabin on the southwestern shore of Lake Tahoe, and they were lending us the place for the rest of the week.  We arrived in the drizzling evening.  After a couple of hours of driving I'd developed a touch of altitude sickness -- a headache and lethargy.  I'd suffered it once before - the only other time I'd traveled from sea level to the mountains and then hiked above 10,000 feet.  Fortunately, Monica was unfazed and set about settling in and cooking a dinner.

On Wednesday we explored the shore, strolling a nature trail, picnicking among the boulders (until the thunderstorms chased us away).  At the cabin all the electronics got stowed and we played cards and read books.

Thursday was our most ambitious hike up into the Desolation Wilderness.

The hike up to Middle Velma lake and back is about 10 miles all told.  The first two miles are mostly uphill - climbing 1600 feet past Eagle Lake to the high country beyond.  From there the trail wends up and down through the barrens and groves and twisted, gnarled pines.

Although the morning was clear, smoke from the fires to the west and south gradually began to haze the air - and the smell of smoke sometimes stung the nose.  

We pushed on past the reedy banks of Upper Velma lake to Middle Velma Lake, where a scramble down the hillside brought us to the water's edge.  We ate our lunch and Monica and I both swam out to one of the small islands that stud the water.

The cool breeze dried us quickly when we climbed back out.  Except for the ducks and the dragonflies, we had the lake to ourselves.  Porter wandered off to explore, while Nico took a nap upon a rock.

It was the descent back down to the trailhead above Emerald Bay that really took it's toll.  Two miles of downhill strains the knees and tendons, and we were all weary and footsore by the time we got back to the car.  But the soreness would gradually give way to a tired satisfaction that we'd managed to climb to the high country, however briefly.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Gaylor Lakes


Summer Vacation . . .

On Monday the 19th we left Glendale - where we'd been spending the weekend with Monica's father and sister Anna.  We drove north along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  I've never seen it so free of snow.

On Tuesday, we took the Tioga Pass up to Tuolumne Meadows.  The highway, which is closed by snow most of the year, climbs and twists 3,000 feet up a great gorge of naked granite.  It crests at 9,934 feet on the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park where it reaches a valley of open meadows and lakes.

But we were anxious to get even higher and we climbed the ridge to the Gaylor Lakes.  (We were soon wheezing and gasping in the thin air.)  A young mule deer placidly ignored us, grazing beneath the pines along the trail.

Beyond the crest of the ridge is a valley with a pair of beautiful blue lakes.  An osprey was cruising above.

The granite mountaintops range all around, and the meadows, even in parched August are filled with wildflowers -- ground lupines, paintbrushes, gentian, daisies, asters.

The watercourse between the lakes was dry -- brown-stained rocks. A tiny frog hopped there.  A troupe of rangers was digging up the trail that wound along it -- laying in a substratum of rock under the trenched meadow humus. 

Above the work crew, chipmunks and ground squirrels were active in the rocks along the trail.  Yellow-bellied marmots kept their distance.  Titmice and warblers stayed close to the clumps of trees and shrubs - and disappeared entirely as a peregrine falcon flew past.

Tart currants could be plucked from under the shrubs, and bumblebees were busy in a greenish-yellow thistle blossom that was splayed close to the ground.

At the top of the hike, above the upper lake are the ruins of a mining settlement - the Great Sierra Mines.  A handful of stone hovels and storehouses - only one of which still boasted a stone and timber roof.

And at about 10,800 feet the Sierras stretch out before you.

Nico snaps a picture
There were rumors among the hikers that fires were out of control along the western slopes,  but no smoke had blown into the High Sierras at this point.  Our only concern were the thunderstorms that were springing up every afternoon.

Lower Gaylor Lake
Sierra gentian
unidentified streamside wildflower

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Amazon's Shark and the Wall Street Remoras


The New York Times has a personality piece on Jeff Bezos, the owner who recently bought up the Washington Post.  Personally - based on the way guys like Bezos run their businesses - I tend to assume they are canny sociopaths, whose rise to the top leave them with cripplingly overblown delusions of self-regard.  Normally, the lionization of such men in the business press is either nauseating or enraging.  The Times' sketch of Bezos would normally be more of the same, but probably some journalistic class anxiety about the man's foray into media ownership caused other, less laudatory information to seep into the article.

After all, despite Bezos re-creating the great American sweatshop in his archipelago of warehouses, despite unapologetic union-busting, despite a government subsidy of $1.7 billion per year in evaded taxes (that their competition has to make up instead!), despite being a darling of Wall Street - his company managed to lose money last quarter on over $15 billion dollars of revenue.

People are often perplexed as to why investors are enthusiastic about a company that has never made more than a trickle of profit. But this vast money-laundering operation is not really capitalism, it is the strangulation of a familiar kind of commerce - and the remoras of Wall Street intend to be thoroughly melded into the bloodstream of this shark once brick and mortar retail has been reduced to rubble.

Certainly, I can see why journalists might be vaguely troubled by his new interest in print journalism.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Giant Swallowtail in the Butterfly Weed


click to embiggen
Here's a new visitor to the garden, a Giant Swallowtail, looking a little tattered and far from home -- but still magnificent.

They are mostly a southern butterfly - it's the first time I've seen one here - maybe the first time I've seen one anywhere in the northeast, much less Rhode Island.

I wonder if climate change is pushing them northward.

My butterfly field guide lists the larval foodplants as citrus, torchwood and hoptree, but I wonder if she'll find some exotic northern leaf to lay her eggs upon.

The caterpillars are meant to look like bird droppings . . . 

Papilio cresphontes

I'll keep an eye on the rue, since apparently that will do for them as well.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Orcharding Blues

the Macoun apple

Over at the blog New to Farm Life, Aimee posts a cri-de-coeur about her frustrating attempt to form an orchard:

"Sometimes I despair of the orchard. I really do. There are so many factors conspiring against trees here; some of them natural, others decidedly of my own making. We didn't site the orchard very well, to begin with. It's right up on the highest part of the property, where the prevailing winds hit the trees full on. The trees in the southernmost row are all hunched over, curled around their own trunks, almost in the fetal position . . .

It's amazing, the sheer variety of of pests that have plagued my orchard. I didn't know there even WERE so many fruit tree pests. There are the ones that look like tiny little slugs sticking all over the cherry tree leaves, and that, as far as I can tell by googling, are called "bird-poop worms." There's fire blight on the pears. Caterpillars chew on the leaves and voles gnaw on the roots. Something makes certain leaves turn white; something else makes other leaves curl up. Yet something else shreds them like a hail of tiny meteors. There's white fly and mildew and scab, oh my."

Oh Aimee, I hear ya,

not peachy
I thought that if I could garden, I could just as easily have fruit trees.  It turns out that's like saying that since I can drive a car - hang gliding will be a snap.  The only fruit tree here above 9 feet high is a volunteer mulberry, but these trees are already a cruel education in casual orchardry. Brown rot withered the peaches (well that at least got me to prune), Japanese beetles made lace of the cherry leaves, the deer pruned the plums and not kindly, raccoons vandalized the mulberry, the black raspberries are making life miserable for the sickly Jonathan apple and the only really vigorous tree, a Macoun apple has decided to call it an early autumn this year for some reason.

Monica's doing a foraging camp with the kids this week.  If she comes up with a good grasshopper recipe - I'm goin' a-harvestin'.
katydid upon a plum

My models for fruit trees were the ancient, feral trees you'd find in the woods or pastures of Pennsylvania - producing apples or pears through decades of neglect.  Or my grandfather's cherry tree, which produced gallons of cherries (mostly for the birds to decorate the property with lavender poop, but still) the thing was productive and all he ever did that I saw was shake his head at the mess.  Sure, I'd seen my father fail at peaches a few times and I certainly knew that part of venison's popularity was one part delicious taste, and one part vengeance for farmers, gardeners and orchardists.  But still.

I've resisted the warfare model of gardening in favor of being an ally to my plants.  I do what I can to help them - little sprouts that they are.  I kind of thought trees would be a little more self-sufficient.  Who knew they'd be so needy?

cherry lace

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Rhubarb Wine update

The experiment with rhubarb wine continues.  I bottled another nine bottles from a couple of jugs that I had racked earlier.  A tenth bottle I left uncorked, and I am trying it out. 

It's . . . um . . . young tasting.  A good few months in the cellar is obviously still called for.  Nonetheless, it's not terrible, and when it is cut with some lemonade it actually makes for a pretty good summer cocktail.

No ill effects, yet, but there is still plenty of the bottle left.

Monica wasn't willing to sample it -- she and Porter went deep sea fishing yesterday with the nature center campers -- and though they came back with some nice bluefish and striper -- she also came back with lingering queasiness.

The bluefish (which is best served the day it's caught), was fantastic with some garlic bread and a salad snipped out of the garden.  Tonight it is the striped sea bass and flounder that the campers caught from the shore on Thursday.

I am salivating at the thought of this as I type.  I tipped in at 230 pounds when I finally got around to visiting the gym yesterday - and that's a few pounds above my previous high.  So, it's time to start eating lightly - and spending some of my time hungry - which meant a peach, some plums and a few crackers with cheese at lunch.  I am famished and at Monica's mercy.

I don't think the rhubarb wine can sustain me much longer . . . .

Friday, August 9, 2013


It was a dark age for greens in 1970's Pennsylvania when I was growing up.  Iceberg lettuce was the standard.  It might be livened up with a dollop of miracle whip and a sprinkle of cheddar -- or maybe covered with a quivering slab of jello cross-hatched with shredded carrots and/or pears.  There were many other variations equally dismaying.  

We grew our own lettuce in the garden, but I didn't appreciate its extra flavor and would only eat it if my mother let me make a "lettuce roll," which entailed sprinkling sugar on the leaf and rolling it up like a green cigarillo.  My mother was a health major in college and had no illusions that this was somehow a pathway to healthy eating.  As a boy, I'd eat sweet corn, winter squash, raw carrots, and green beans, the last of which were after all usually cooked with bacon and cheese.  No lettuce or summer squash or spinach.  Kale, collards, chards, mustard greens and so on weren't part of the vocabulary then.  The only greens that I actually liked to eat were two garden weeds, lamb's quarter and redroot.  Lamb's quarter I now have as an edible weed in the garden (if I'm going to have to weed, it might as well double as harvesting, no?)

The other weed, which we called redroot is also known as pigweed or common amaranth (amaranthus retroflexus).  Like lamb's quarter, when cooked the young leaves make for a mild but hearty-tasting green.  As it matures it grows tough and if let grow too long the bracts on top scatter ten thousand little blacks seeds as you pull it out, ensuring that next years plot will be just as weedy.

I decided to plant a variety of the domesticated plant from Opopeo Mexico that FedCo seeds has available.  FedCo claims they are a good green for eating, but somehow I neglected to try it this year until after they had begun to flower.  I think I was thrown off by their red, bronzy color - since by the time the wild redroot gets reddish it's far past the eating stage.

So, my plan for growing it as a vigorous green having fallen through, it will have to be an experiment in grain - if I can manage to keep them standing until October when they are ready for harvesting.

Varieties of amaranth were a staple grain of the Aztecs, cultivated for 8,000 years, before the Spaniards forbade them to sow it.  (The Aztecs used to craft an idol from the grain mixed with honey, which they would then break, distribute and eat in a ceremony.  Even if that's the kind of thing that the Catholic Spaniards weren't going to tolerate, it seems a little extreme to ban a staple crop - but extreme they were.)  Amaranth nevertheless survived those banished centuries in the mountain valleys and now it is cultivated again around the world in India, China, Africa and Russia.  Commercial growers can produce 1,000 pounds of grain per acre -- at 600,000 seeds per pound - that's a lot of seeds, each one about a millimeter in diameter.  I've neither thinned my little plot nor fed it, so I'm expecting more of a little sample tasting crop.  Still, they say each plant can produce a half pound of seed, so we'll see.

Amaranth can be used like other cereals - cooked and added to dishes or popped like popcorn (which is my intent) - and mixed with honey or chocolate.  (In Mexico they call this alegria.)     It's high in protein (12-17%) and lysine, an essential amino acid, as well as calcium and iron, but no gluten, which is one reason it's a favorite in many health foods.

So far the plants seem to be thriving from neglect, which is one of the primary things I ask of a garden plant.  After all, the plants name comes from the Greek, amarantos, or the one that does not wither, but we'll see. Updates will follow . . . .

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Unwinding Progress


A dragonfly studies me from the clothesline

The conversation about Progress as a civil religion continues at the Archdruid Report.

In the spirit of his critique that Progress is falling, I'll no longer refer to Progress as a grand narrative, civil religion, or ideology.  Instead I'll start calling it a "tradition." As in, 

"traditions of progress are being increasingly called into question by young people, who want more practical and up to date ways of dealing with the world." 

"steeped in the time-worn traditions of Progress, nation-states were woefully unprepared to deal with a changing world."

There's something elegant about using a tradition’s own most insidious insinuations against it.

This week, the Archdruid continued his lecture about the difficulties of unwinding our traditions of Progress, making a target of scientists, who are arguably some of its high priests and beneficiaries.  As the broken promises about jetpacks and flying cars become an iconic refrain for an anxious population, he argues that big, institutional science is liable to go down with its church.

This was my rejoinder:

A couple of years ago I was research director for a project that looked into to how to build support for the arts as a public good. One of the striking findings was that the old narrative of the arts as central to “culture” (in its original sense of something that grows and progresses) had vanished from the public consciousness almost without a trace (in the Midwestern US in any case). This formerly widely held idea that arts could lead to a kind of moral or other kind of “elevation” survived only among a small stratum of the elite. For the rest, the arts might be interesting or entertaining or a chance for people to show off a skill, but it wasn’t a public matter and certainly not important to the “development” of your city or your nation. In effect, “Progress”, had died out in this realm practically without the public noticing.

In order to rebuild a sense of arts as a public good, we found that talking about the “ripple effect” of arts in a community brought people back on board. That is, art events – whether you cared to be there or not – made your community a better place to live, knit people together and enriched a shared conversation, and so on. It is a pivot that will warm an art booster’s heart, but it no longer has anything to do with Progress.

My point with this tangent, is that I strongly suspect that Progress is going to slip away from science as well, perhaps similarly unremarked by the public at large. And to the extent it persists, science, practical, useful science will be valued not as the heroic engine of Progress, but as a practice, and a method, and a toolkit that can make that community and that place that you value, better.

I’m a bad gardener, because I’m a bit too much of an experimenter, and tend to value a lesson learned more than a full basket of cucumbers -- but I’m sure if I had to buckle down I could use some science to create some more constructive ripples in my gardening community.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Great Golden Digger Wasp


Sphex ichneumoneus 

I was trying to clear back the weeds from our front walk and disturbed a Great Golden Digger wasp who was flying around with a katydid.

She probably has a lair in under the black-eyed-susans and was taking her paralyzed prey down to seal it in a chamber with an egg laid in its chest.

They are not shy and typical of solitary wasps they are not aggressive.  In fact they seem to be curious about people and pets, and often dig their burrows in high-traffic areas.

As a gardener, what's not to like?  They prey on grasshoppers and katydids, they aerate the soil with their burrowing, and they pollinate the flowers.