Monday, September 30, 2013

For this house in the woods, 
it's the season 
when mice try to move in, 
and the cats enact 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Wild Mushroom Festival at DPNC


Every fall, at the end of September the Nature Center in Mystic puts on a Wild Mushroom Festival.  The local mycologists all bring their foraged samples to show off.  They spread them all out upon a long table -- poisonous or edible, from giant frills and volleyball sized puffballs to dainty parasols of orange, white brown or purple -- dozens of varieties of fungus that can be found in the local woods and pastures.  The experts and mushroom stalkers, many of them wearing their best fungus-themed sweatshirts and t-shirts, answer questions and compare notes with one another.

Restaurants bring their hotplates and chafing dishes to serve up samplings of wild mushroom dishes -- risotto,  sauces, canap├ęs, and soups.  One restaurant grilled traditional, flint corn johnnycakes with oily mushrooms dribbled upon them.  Another had concocted a bread pudding.  The Mystic Drawbridge ice cream makers brought ice cream made from candy cap mushrooms that tasted like maple syrup.  

A small band played sets of roots music (mycelium music?) under the eaves of the Nature Center building.  Monica was working in the drink tent, serving out wine, beer, cider and blackcurrant juice.  Nico hates any taste of mushrooms, so he munched on the bread that was meant to be soaked in gravy.  He warned his friends to not be fooled into eating any of that ice cream.

I had him lead me on a hike back through the woods of the nature center.  He knows them better than me from years of Monica working there and going to camp and outings there.

I've always wanted to know my way around the mushrooms better.  Around our house we get our handful of morels in the spring as the asparagus first sends its spears up.  Otherwise, we have stinkhorns, amanita, cups and puffballs, but nothing else edible.  One of the most sought after fungi locally is hen-of-the-woods.  It grows back in the woods beyond the stone wall, but I think savvy locals usually get to it first.  The neighbors have shared some with us in the past, fried up in butter with black pepper.  Maybe I'll go have a look tomorrow, just in case.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Tachinid Fly

Here's an ugly little ally for the garden, a bristly tachinid fly.  

There are over a thousand members of the family in North America alone.  Most of them plant their eggs in caterpillars, though I have no idea what species this might use as host.  It could also be making use of beetle or grasshopper larvae.  Tachinid species tend not to specialize, but be more opportunistic. 

Technically, the larva of this fly would be considered a "parasitoid" rather than a parasite, since they kill off their host by eating it from the inside out.

It's not easy being a caterpillar.  

And that put me in mind of Jack Handey's take on nature's miracles (via McSweeney's):
In the jungle you come to realize that death is a part of life. The bat eats the moth. Then the giant moth sucks the life out of the bat. Then the monkey eats the giant moth, pulling the wings off first, because he doesn’t like that part. Then the monkey gets a parasite from the moth that slowly eats his brain. It’s all part of the beautiful circle of life.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

364,000 Dead

According to the Guardian, since the September 11 terrorist attacks, about 20 Americans have been killed by terrorists.  During that same period about 364,000 Americans have been killed by privately owned firearms (including suicides).

The commentator wonders - only partly tongue-in-cheek - whether it's enough of a humanitarian crisis that the international community should intervene.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Constructing a Kid: Schooling and Playing

A friend of mine has been writing about her experience putting her free-spirited 5-year old into the local public school Kindergarten.  It's an anxious and heartbreaking time, made more difficult by the ways that schools have been changing.  School's entire purpose is to shape and mold our children, but where does that leaves us when we doubt that they are up to the task -- or even worse -- when we fear that the schools may be designed to shape them in malign or destructive ways?  Is elementary school really just designed to crush their spirits into something more tractable -- to create subjects for our hierarchies?  

School has never been a utopia of creative freedom of course, and Kindergarten has always been a kind of academic boot camp.  It is and has been the place where you learned to stand in line and wait your turn.  You learned that time is divided up into regimens of minutes and activities.  You learned to be a consumer of orders and knowledge delivered by authority, and so on.

Up until the recent past, however, the force of this potentially Goffmanesque institution was diminished in three very different ways.  

The first was the fact that teachers were mostly craftspeople, who tended to see themselves not only as enforcers of a necessary discipline and focus, but also as nurturers of individual students with individual interests, skills and destinies.  Everyone remembers bad teachers, and for most of us they were the ones who focused only on the first, but not the second task of teaching.  Unfortunately, there has been a decades-long assault on the craft of teaching.  It's orchestrated from the top -- where federal and state mandates have consistently ordered schools to focus on rote, standardized fact-learning - mostly with a laser-like devotion on multiple-choice testing - and have doled out nothing but punishment for teachers and schools who devote too much time to nurturing students in other ways.  And it comes from the bottom where anti-tax rhetoric and the breakdown of communities has more and more resulted in underfunded schools with over-stressed, under-appreciated and demoralized teachers.

And so we are in the process of losing one of the great humanizing aspects of school -- or to put it in more critical-sociological terms --  we are losing one of the ways in which the state's desire (or the institution's desire) to create docile subjects has been thwarted.

A second, related way in which schools seem to grow less benign has to do with their changing place within a class system.  In Amy's description of discovering her son's Kindergarten, she steps into a different class milieu than the educated, middle class settings she was more comfortable in.  Our society has few qualms about imposing harsh discipline on the poor and working classes.  Schools and other institutions that contain them are not expected to nurture individuality, but rather to break poorly socialized kids of their bad habits, colorful distractions and ugly accents and transform them if possible to more appropriate citizens - for their own good, and our own good.  

As long as schools contained a full range social classes, they had to be more than just that kind of institution, however.  They also had to nurture full, well-rounded, creative and expressive human beings.  Well-educated, middle class citizens expected it and had enough influence to insist on it.   My question would be, as first the upper classes and then the middle classes have begun more and more to abandon the public schools, does this means schools devolve more fully toward the kinds of authoritarian, unsympathetic institutions that we are happy to inflict on the lower classes?  I suspect it does.

The third troubling trend doesn't have to do with changes in schools per se, but with the loss of the greatest counter-balance to the shaping power of the institution -- namely unstructured, peer-based play.  A recent article, The Play Deficit by Peter Gray, lays out in evolutionary terms how play with peers is absolutely central to the human process of learning and developing into culturally functional human beings.  He goes into detail about what we lose when kids are given less and less opportunity for play, (and the whole article is worth a read) but I wanted to note a couple of things.  He mentions that for older generations school wasn't as overwhelmingly important to kids lives.  It was one of several powerful socializing settings in which kids developed.  There's a sense among many parents that kids aren't getting what they need, but the response -- namely driving them around to lessons, events, sports practices, and other adult-regulated extra-curricular activities -- isn't actually what they need.  They need to be let alone to run and roam and negotiate games outside of the power of the adult world.  It's only through that that we grow up.

If our kids don't have that, then school is left standing as an increasingly powerful shaping force in our children's lives.  (Well, that and consumer culture, but that is grist for another post!)  The stakes are that much higher when our schools become dysfunctional.

I think there is tremendous dissatisfaction among parents and other community members about the state of our schools and communities, but the dynamic needs to be turned away from the current pattern of disappointment, criticism and abandonment and redirected toward a constructive revitalization of our commitment to our public schools and the communities they serve.  Amy is trying to elbow her way into her son's classroom to make it better.  She has very sharp elbows, and I hope she can make an impact.  It's one of my main regrets about our lives here in Rhode Island that we couldn't and didn't, but instead joined the outflow from the public school system.  An unfortunate side-effect of looking at the Big Picture is that the trends can look too powerful.  I've considered going to the school board meetings, but it felt like I would be going to do penance rather than out of any sense that I could change something.  But I think I should try.  Kids like Amy's little Ray deserve that.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Autumn Insects

A little wasp on the petal of a fading brown-eyed susan

A grasshopper regards me warily from a milkweed leaf

Greenbriar encroaches on the house
A katydid is too green for these dogwood leaves

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Autumn Nectar Flow

honeybee on goldenrod

After the summer dearth, when the heat and dryness slowed the nectar to a trickle, there comes an autumn nectar flow.

It is the time of goldenrod and asters, and the bees, who've been robbed of their surplus by their beekeepers will top off their combs with thin autumn honey.

Bad gardening

Sad, sad broccoli

I've mentioned that I haven't been a very good gardener this year.  

The squash plants withered (though this year so did most everyone else's) and the cucumbers were under constant assault.  

I got small potatoes because I let the blister beetles defoliate the plants in July.  

Deer ate off half of the sunflowers and the Jerusalem artichokes (which have since grown back).  

My greens mostly struggled, though I had plenty of tasty weeds.  

Thai peppers and nasturtium
I raised sugar snap peas for Monica, but it turned out she wanted snow peas, so they mostly went to waste.  Scarlet runner beans I planted had pretty flowers but didn't set a single bean.  

We had plenty of herbs, especially cilantro and I gathered a jar of coriander when it went to seed.  Nasturtium and the Thai pepper plants are happy.  And we've got pesto in the freezer.

Not a bad crop of tomatoes, (at least before we went off to California for 3 weeks and the amaranth experiment collapsed on them).  

The beets look good although the blister beetles are still chewing on the leaves.  I should pull them up soon and pickle them.

Jerusalem artichoke, 12 feet tall
I'm fortunate I'm not depending on my gardening skills for my subsistence.

Fortunately the neighbors have been more diligent than I and they came by this evening with a bag of tomatoes and peppers.  I have some cilantro still going strong, (these were buried so deeply under the vetch that they didn't go to seed with the rest).  With this haul and the Thai peppers I'll make us a good, fresh pico de gallo.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Harvesting the Honey


Just robbed the bees of some of their honey.  The thievery went quite a bit smoother than last year, when I was on a very painful learning curve.  The key to not getting stung seems to be to use a smoker, bang the bees off each frame in front of the hive (by striking the corner of the frame sharply against a rock or something else solid), tidy up the last stragglers with a bee brush, and have a bee-proof container standing right by to place honey-filled frames into - in my case an ancient Coleman ice chest that I borrowed from my Dad and never gave back.  It may also have helped that I did one hive on Saturday and one on Sunday, so only one was riled up at a time.

This time no stings, and for the most part I was working in a cloud of confused, milling bees rather than angry, hostile bees.

The harvest seems about the same as last year -- maybe a bit lighter.  But still something over 50 pounds of honey taken from two first-year hives.  One of my hives never even filled the first super, so I let them be.

Tomorrow I'll put the wet comb back on top of the hives for them to clean up and depending on how heavy the remaining boxes feel (with their winter stores of honey), I'll start feeding them a bit and check for mites.
The task now is to help them get prepared to survive the winter . . .

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Blackcurrant liqueur


The blackcurrant liqueur experiment seems to have been a success.  I finally got around to squeezing the berry-vodka mix through a cheesecloth, and stirred in a couple spoonfuls of sugar.  (I prefer my liqueurs on the less sweet side.)  It's really very nice and Monica and I shared the bit that didn't fit into this antique bottle.

(As for the blackcurrant jam I also attempted back in July -- the flavor is wonderful, but the cooking wasn't long enough to break down the berries obviously, because they are still a little too sturdy to spread.  Still, I'll count that one a success as well.)

And as an extra bonus, the kimchi that had been fermenting in the cellar the whole time we were gone came out delicious as well - spicy and tender and alive - and I had to dig up potatoes to accompany it for dinner.

Time to set the next one into motion . . . 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Armstrong Redwoods


the curly bark of madrone 

dessicated moss 

Hiking in the Armstrong Redwoods -- a state nature preserve.

The great groves of the valley floor are crowded with walkers on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.  I've come once before, a few years ago at a time of year when all was soggy and drizzly and flooded.

Now all is parched and dusty.

bench graffiti
I take the East Ridge trail up and away from the crowds.  

Towering, ruler-straight coastal redwoods are mixed with California bay laurel and madrone.

I have no map, but strike up with a Brazilian woman and she guides me.  She hikes here often.  There are few people on the trail.  The breeze is languid and I am glad for the shade.  

The trail climbs more than a thousand feet in elevation.  Redwoods and laurel eventually give way to dry meadows with live oak and manzanita - until we can step out above the valleys and see for miles.

In hiking sandals my feet are streaked black with dust and sweat.

Buckeye butterfly
From the height you strike out across a saddle to the Gilliam Creek trailhead and down onto the Pool Ridge trail.  You make your winding descent along the deeply folded hillsides -- back among the redwoods and laurel.  These higher trees are not as vast as the giants upon the flat valley floor, but still magnificent.

Butterflies and grasshoppers are the main insects.

Acorn woodpeckers with clownish faces laugh their maniac laughs.  I look for a red-tailed hawk that is screaming - and finally spy the trickster Stellar's jay who is trying to disconcert me with perfect mimicry.

Wild turkeys
A flock of turkey crosses the trail in front of me -- 20 strong -- with reptilian eyes.  A squirrel barks somewhere.

Eventually I part from my guide and take the rest of a twisting trail down and down to the valley floor again, where thousand year old giants loom above the wreckage of the fallen.

Butterflies flicker in the spots of sunlight, and families stroll and marvel.