Dancing with Nature

I was reading through some old North Carolina Wildlife magazines this past weekend and came across a personal story that resonated with me.  In it the author, who is severely allergic to wasps, tells of a summer watching bald-faced hornets build a nest from his kitchen window. He was unwilling initially to kill the fascinating life building it or later to destroy the nest itself.  Unfortunately the nest gets rather large and the author was stung, resulting in a hospital visit.  One could hardly begrudge him the act of murder he commits next, spraying the nest with a pyrethrin under the trademark name of the Enforcer.

He did not however experience a sweet revenge, but rather, “an unease that soon wore like a hollow victory.”  Eloquently he goes on . . .

“Each day from the kitchen window I looked upon the empty gray nest, silent and lifeless like a forgotten horn that no child ever blew.  I felt a certain sadness for all my established dominion.  After all, I was the intruder; in a scheme of things          grander than that which says a man must keep a tidy lawn, it was the bald-faced hornets that existed in the natural order.  They were only doing what a million years of instinct bid them.

So now a sense of loss replaced the fear I had when I stared out the kitchen window.  Having claimed such chemical sovereignty over my Raleigh abode, I felt a strange sort of detachment from the natural environment, a kink in a lifeline I had treasured and a relationship nurtured on a daily basis.  Was I so much high on the evolutionary ladder that I’d lost sight of the bottom rungs my own ancestors had climbed? “

I sense this very loss often when I read about loss of species habitat, endangered species, overfishing, and poisons in our air, water, and soil.  I wrestle with it emotionally when I flush a stinkbug down the toilet one minute and catch and release a spider to the outdoors in another.  It is why I write this blog.  It is my naïve hope that I will say something different than all the other ‘nature loss lamenters’ before me, and in doing so will change someone’s perspective from nature as separate, to nature as integral and essential.  It saddens me that many people who so quickly and easily destroy other life have no remorse and often feel that sweet revenge.

I had an epiphany reading Nickens’ words, mingling with all the articles I was clipping on natural diversity.  It struck me that life is a dance between all participants.  It occurs at the species level and at the individual level.  This is explained when we learn about food chains and food webs.  We exist because of a foundation of plant producers that supply most of the rest of life with food and oxygen.  Imbalances in food webs can screw up other species intricately tied to each other.  There is loss and renewal all the time.  It is a dance.  Or at least it was.  Humans have so altered natural systems and increasingly spend so much time separate from natural systems that I think we are losing something very important.  We are losing ourselves.  We are losing humility, compassion, and awe.

If we chose to merely watch from our window or destroy and isolate ourselves from the life around us, we are like spectators at the dance show.  We clap and admire perhaps.  Snap photos from afar.  This seems harmless, but we are outsiders.  We don’t know the dance.  We don’t feel the dance in our flesh as our muscles ebb and flow with those of another dancer’s.  We don’t understand that the dance is vital to our survival – much like I sense dancing is vital to the dancer’s wholeness.  Even worse, I sometimes feel as outsiders we expect more and more of the dancer: more energy, more acrobatics, and more stimulation for ‘me’ the outsider.  Why?  Because we’ve lost something.  Because we’re not participating.  For some of us, it may be something we don’t even understand we’ve lost.

How do we find it?  Start participating.  Start dancing.  Take walks outside.  Sit still and observe nature.  Lie on your stomach and watch what moves through the grass.  Plant a garden.  Spend time outside with children.  Let children show you the awesomeness of nature.  Don’t spray the hornets’ nest.

There is loss and renewal all the time.  Life is a dance.  Our time will come when we leave the scene, the web of life.  Perhaps we should dance while we are here instead of sitting on the inside looking out.


Nickens, T. Edward.  The Empty Nest.  Wildlife in North Carolina Magazine.  2007.

Scattered Thoughts on Gratitude

During the transition from an old year to a new year I like to reflect on what I’ve learned in the past year and plan for the next year. Doing so brings out gratitude for all I have, a gratefulness that I sometimes must drag out of myself other times of the year.  Sure, I know I have everything I need when pressed to think about it, but I do not think daily about it as evidenced in grumpy comments such as, “Ugh, look at all the dishes in the sink.”  Instead I should be happy to have a sink and water running from a tap – both of which I have lived without.  It is hard to wash dishes in a bathtub.  And then, of course, I need to be grateful for the bathtub, which also was lacking at Halcyon for a good four years, and which millions of people in the world do not have.

There are times when I feel my kitchen is too small; I have to move things to work.  On gratitude-filled days I am thankful for my beautiful soapstone countertop, which is, not surprisingly, much more beautiful and easier to clean than the plywood countertop we had for several years while renovating the kitchen.  On days when I am filled with experiential wisdom, I also know that a larger kitchen can suffer from the same problem of seeming too small.

Kitchens, or whatever the little things we grump about, pale in comparison to things that really matter: health, family, shelter, livelihood, and chances to learn and grow every day.  When I set New Year’s goals, I am much more in tune with all these aspects in my life for which I have gratitude.

Believe it or not these thoughts led to my frequent ponderings on similarities and differences between human animals and other animals.  Can animals feel gratitude? I don’t remember when I first heard of or learned about evolution.  What I do remember is suddenly recalling every zoo trip I’d ever taken where I would stare at the gorillas and see humans.  I’d literally be reminded of, if not a particular person, at least the mannerisms and physical attributes that makes up the character of any one person.  It was easy for me to understand Darwin’s continuity theory.  Grossly simplified, continuity means that the differences between humans and other animals is one of degrees, not of kind.  We have since discovered animal intelligences, levels of consciousness, and similarities in the structure and functions of nervous systems in animals and humans – all in support of continuity.  So if we are more similar in structure and function with animals than we used to understand, what about gratitude?

Asking this question of course, begs the more general question of whether animals experience emotion.  There is much anecdotal evidence, but more importantly a growing body of scientific studies that show that some animals do indeed experience emotions.  Elephants and many other mammals show sadness at the loss of another member of their group.  Dogs certainly appear happy, fearful, or content in different situations.  While much of what animals do is instinctual, there are also enough observations of animal behavior to conclude there are emotions regulating some of their behavior.  I’ve included just a sampling of research found on the Internet at the end of this essay.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the generally accepted idea of a hierarchy of animals based on brain size and intelligence – an intelligence defined by human experience.  I’ve always had a gut feeling (which by the way is also not such a whimsical notion given recent studies on the gut being our ‘second brain’) that there may be different ways of reacting to stimuli, of communicating, and of thinking compared to how humans engage with their environment, and that we just don’t yet have the means to observe it.  I’ve always likened my we just can’t see it notion to how Carl Sagan wrote about his belief in the presence of alien life in space in Pale Blue Dot:  He told us to imagine if we were looking at Earth but our technologies only allowed us the precision to see things the size of automobiles.  We might perceive that life existed on the planet and that that life (cars) used wheels instead of legs and lived in large rectangular dwellings (garages).  In other words, our technology is not yet good enough for us to see/know/discover all possibilities in space.

The same is true with our understanding of animal communication and intelligence.  I often recall this metaphor when I am wondering about other life at Halcyon, and when I read studies of animal intelligence and emotion.  I often stare across the garden or a field and wonder what is happening in a sort of parallel universe sense that I cannot perceive with my senses.  I see, but I can’t know it all.  We can’t forget about plants either.  There are people studying the intelligence or sensory abilities of plants.  I thoroughly enjoyed the recent New Yorker article by Michael Pollen, The Intelligent Plant.  I felt a kid-like excitement when I read this parallel to Sagan’s metaphor which a plant researcher claims inspired him as a child: a Star Trek episode called Wink of an Eye which portrayed an alien species from a radically increased time dimension that thought humans were immobile and hence inert, and used them as they saw fit.  Can we loosen our human-centered world-view in order to ‘see’ other ways of being?

If we can accept Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences for humans (http://infed.org/mobi/howard-gardner-multiple-intelligences-and-education/), is it such a stretch to imagine intelligences in other life?  After all it would be a difference in kind which we are used to understanding in humans – chemical chatter of plants versus vocal chatter of humans versus sonic frequencies of animals – and in degrees when we compare true neuronal signaling behavior between animals.   Intelligence, behavior, reactions, and emotions, they seem interrelated to me and integral to all life.  It is simply a matter of degrees and kinds.  It is all very exciting to me.

There is clearly a lot to learn, a lot to study, and a lot of growing to do on our part, for example, to reconcile different definitions of intelligence and consciousness.  Given the discord in the plant science community about this new idea of plant neurobiology, some of these ideas about intelligence and emotion in other life may take a long time to be accepted as scientific truth – if current studies indicating such intelligence are indeed valid and repeatable.   This journey may be considerably long given the shocking statistic I heard on National Public Radio recently that only 50% of the population knows that there is DNA in a tomato.  Really?  What population was this?

Freezing rain started while I was drafting this post.  Ugh.  I will have to go thaw the chickens’ water because I don’t have their water heater set up yet.  Actually, that’s not what I am thinking or feeling.   What I am feeling is gratitude that I have some chickens to take care of, that I live at Halcyon, and for a husband who supports my endeavors.  I am also feeling gratitude toward all the scientists working to enhance our understanding of the life with which we share the earth.

What I am thinking is:  Will my chickens be grateful?





Chamovitz, Michael.  What a Plant Knows.  2012.  Scientific American/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York.

Sagan, Carl.  Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.  1994.  Random House.





Dreys, Ophidariums, and Formicaries, Oh My!

As winter’s creep slowly changed my landscape from encroaching jungle to naked trees and brown vistas I found myself staring at dreys.  They are everywhere.  Well, that’s not true.  They are only in treetops.  What I mean is they are numerous.

If I stand between my house and the studio and make a 360° turn, I can count 8 dreys.  Nine, if you include the one that fell through the chimney into my dining room last month.  Thankfully, it was abandoned.  I made note of at least 5 more on my last walk.  Dreys are squirrel nests or homes.  A tight, waterproof nest of leaves that tends to look like a jumbled mess hurriedly constructed and thrown into the uppermost branches of trees.  Actually dreys are meticulously constructed with a layering of materials – coarse leaves on the outside and ever finer materials on the inside.  An entrance hole is made in the bottom, which functions to keep out rain.

Seeing these dreys in the naked trees, I realized that while I think of the other life forms at Halcyon, I don’t tend to think beyond the organism in a concrete manner.  Yes, I learn about their habits and niches.  And if I understand their niche, I clearly understand that they have a home.  My epiphany came when I realized that I never thought about all the homes that exist here at Halcyon.  I just think of my house.  I equate the word Halcyon with my home at the same time that I am happy to find other life about the property.

Thinking of all those dreys led me to wonder about all the homes needed to sustain life through the winter: soil burrows for rabbits, mice, and moles; mud burrows for frogs and turtles; ophidariums for snakes (I wonder how many are in my walls); formicaries for ants; hives for wasps and bees; tunnels for worms and beetles; nests for birds; brush for deer; lairs for fox; owlery for owls; and leaf litter for overwintering caterpillars.  Some terms are non-specific.  Others, like lair and den are used interchangeably.  All the terms are human constructs.  While many animals instinctively know when and what kind of home they need, we’ve no indication that they think of their homes with the same level of emotional connections in which humans do.  And I doubt they name them.

Ironically we tend to call animal shelters a home and people shelters a house, that is until the house becomes a home, and then we are referring to how we’ve made memories and enhanced our comfort within the walls of said house.  To us, a house is a structure to keep out wind and rain, and a home is so much more.  Dreys and lairs and dens are also structures designed for shelter, but I’ve only seen cozy chairs, tiny dishes, and fireplaces in animal dwellings in my childhood fantasies of animals and in depictions of animal homes in wonderful picture books.

But I digress from my epiphany, which was about numbers of homes, not their contents.  As I take my winter walks, I will take care to wonder and realize the number of dwellings at Halcyon.  Some are for a solitary organism, like a frog burrowed in the mud.  Others, like ant nests, hold hundreds or more individuals.  There is still a lot going on out there, in just a mere 14 acres, of which I am unaware.  What animals have built homes next to yours?

Three dreys
Three dreys


My chickens have been on strike since before the government shutdown and they’re still not back to work.  They’re not even willing to enter into negotiations; they want nothing to do with me right now.

They’re not upset about living conditions.  They’ve a lovely, two-story, maintenance-free condo with weekly changes of fresh bedding.  It’s not about the neighborhood.  They’ve got almost 1000 square feet (remember I’ve only three hens) to roam and find bugs and plants to add to their nutritionally-balanced meals and protein-rich treats.  I also do my best to keep predators out by having built a coop with two layers of fencing, closing their coop ramp every night, and installing an electric fence around the garden.  It can’t be about the hours either.  They get plenty of breaks to dust bathe.  They particularly love to rest under the raspberry canes.

So what’s their deal?  Why are they upset?  First you need to imagine being covered with feathers.  If you can do this, then imagine losing such feathers in large clumps, progressively, all over your body. Then imagine the pain or discomfort, not to mention the embarrassment, you might feel while those feathers are growing back. Wouldn’t you want nothing to do with your job for a while?  My girls are molting.

Pin feathers growing back on neck.
Pin feathers growing back on neck

Molting is an energy intensive process leaving no reserves, in the form of protein, to produce an egg.  Chickens undergo their first molt around 18 months of age and then yearly, usually beginning in late fall.  The natural process is stimulated by decreased length of day and subsequent light.  Some chickens undergo a milder molt – more like we shed our hair and skin –  and some continue to lay eggs, though not every day, and are back in production in three to four weeks.  Other birds go through a drastic molt, looking like a botched plucking job, which can take 12-16 weeks.  The Australorp breed is known to be good layers and so I hoped they might continue to produce sporadically while molting, but sadly this is not the case.

Molting, combined with shorter days, means many chickens may not lay an egg for a good four months.  Pretty good paid leave, until you remember that feeling of new feather production.  Feathers are 85% protein.  Chickens require a good diet to regrow them and to recharge the reproductive system.  Commercial operations with artificial lighting have a problem where chickens do not naturally molt.  In the absence of a molting period, chickens’ egg production and quality decline, and chickens become overweight.  Therefore many such operations in our country starve their chickens all at once in order to induce a simultaneous molt.  This practice is controversial and banned in the UK and most of Canada.  I see it as yet another case where operations of scale, though they might decrease costs and raise profits, have negative side effects that may not make sense.

Many chicken husbandry magazine articles encourage putting a light in the coop during the winter to stimulate the hobby farmer’s chickens to keep producing.  I think it best to let nature tell my girls when to lay and when to rest.

Notice no tail feathers on bird in back.  Bird in middle is farthest along in the molt process.
Notice no tail feathers on bird in back. Bird in middle is farthest along in the molt process.

Recently I cracked open a store-bought egg, my first since last January.  I caught myself wondering about the light in the coop idea.  That egg yolk was pale, bland, almost sickly looking.  I miss my eggs.  A lot.  Then I thought of the chickens that lay these store-bought eggs.  They are trapped indoors with no room to move, beaks often cut so they can’t hurt each other, and fed only an “all vegetarian” diet.  Chickens are omnivores.  I think that advertising is supposed to comfort me that no animal by-products have been added to these chickens’ feed, but the wording annoys me.  Plus, I’m pretty sure those chickens aren’t eating worms and grasshoppers.

I’ve decided I can wait for my girls’ natural rhythms to start producing eggs again.  There is something magical about finding an egg in the nest box that never became mundane despite it happening day after day.  A hiatus will just heighten the feeling.  The expectancy is a delicious feeling akin to childhood anticipations.  I’m looking forward to the magic starting once more.  I sure hope it’s soon!

Woolly Bear Predictions?

Fall is here.  My resident hummingbirds have vanished, preferring warmer parts where they can find nectar to sustain their high energy needs.  The leaves are dropping, carpeting my lawn, and providing a needed change to my exercise routine.  And, when I do still walk, the Woolly Bear caterpillar dots the roadways and trails, searching in earnest for places to hibernate for the winter.

Or so I thought.  The Woolly Bear caterpillar doesn’t actually hibernate.  It freezes solid!  Having been born in the fall, it’s not yet ready to pupate into an adult and complete its life cycle.  Somehow in its evolutionary journey, the process of cryoprotection was deemed more successful than, say, the monarch’s habit of flying hundreds of miles south to overwinter in a warmer climate as an adult butterfly.

All moth and butterfly species have evolved to survive the winter in one of the stages – egg, larva, pupa, or adult – of its life cycle.  The Eastern Tent caterpillar overwinters in the egg form.  The Monarch is a well-known example of a species that overwinters in the adult form.  The Woolly Bear has found success overwintering in its larval form.

It sounds like science fiction!  The Woolly Bear larva produces a cryoprotectant, which allows it to survive temperatures down to -90°F.  The little caterpillar’s heart stops beating, its guts and blood freeze solid, and then the rest of its body freezes. In the spring it warms up and continues its life cycle first eating some more, then pupating, emerging as an adult, mating, laying eggs and dying.  The busy adult stage only lasts a few days.

The Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella) lives all over North America.  In the Arctic, short summers mean not enough feeding time to pass through each instar – the stages between each molt while a larva.  In this case a Woolly Bear larva might freeze and thaw up to 14 times –that means 14 winters – until it is big enough to pupate into an adult!  This is incredible!  I don’t like to be cold, and I can’t imagine freezing and thawing (if I could even survive the process) without pain.

So the truth really is stranger than fiction!  As a child I loved the folklore stating that one could predict the severity of the coming winter based on the amount of red-brown or black hairs on the caterpillar in late fall.  The lore asserts that a bigger red-brown section forecasts a mild winter.  Conversely, more dark hairs mean a more severe winter.  It’s cute.  I love winter, even though I hate to be cold, and as a child, I delighted in sighting a caterpillar with more dark hairs on its ends.  There are even Woolly Bear festivals that are the fall cousin to the groundhog that, for fun at least, predict spring in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  But this ability to predict the weather, which I don’t believe has any scientific basis, pales in comparison to being able to survive freezing!

Woolly Bear larva
Woolly Bear larva

No one has been able to prove the folklore about predicting winter weather, and people have tried.  That doesn’t stop some people from still believing it.  I guess they conveniently forget about their predictions when the results don’t pan out.  Or perhaps, they rationalize one severe storm as proof of their prediction for a harsh winter.  I have never found a fall season where all the Woolly Bears I see have the same or similar amount of red-brown and black hairs, a feature that would have to exist if this little larva was capable of predicting the weather.

It turns out that the hair coloration of the larvae is actually evaluative of the summer just ending rather than predictive of the coming weather.  This is because the red-brown middle section grows larger as the caterpillar ages, measured as number of instars.  More red-brown hairs indicate that a caterpillar has had longer to feed before the fall weather arrives.  In other words, it means it is older.  After the first frost, the caterpillar seeks a place to ‘freeze up’ for the winter.

I can’t imagine heading south as a human or a butterfly to avoid winter, but I really can’t imagine curling up under some bark and freezing solid for months . . . waiting, yet not conscious of when or what was next.  I have a new admiration for what the Woolly Bear tells me:  not that it can predict the winter, but that there are so many amazing, stranger than fiction, feats to discover in the animal world.  Humans seem so boring sometimes.

Leopard moth larva - also overwinters in larval stage.  I'm not sure if it freezes also.
Leopard moth larva – overwinters in larval stage. I’m not sure if it also freezes.
Leopard moth adult
Leopard moth adult



Playin’ Possum

I first met Didelphis virginiana (the Virginia opossum) in New Jersey.  I met a mother and her babies in a cage where I volunteered at an animal rehab center on the weekends.  I don’t remember much – screech owls and bats were much more fun to care for – but I do remember the other staff stressing to be careful around a mother with her babies and I remember noting how ugly they were.  And then there were all those teeth in that long, skinny jaw.

I don’t recall seeing another possum until we moved to Halcyon.  One fall evening during our first year I heard a loud rustling outside the kitchen.  I hadn’t raked yet and that one possum lumbering over a pile of dead leaves was loud enough to increase my heartbeat as I peered out into the night, expecting to see a bear.  Again, though, I had no more encounters with possums until this year.

This fall we found that a possum had taken to visiting the cats on the side porch where we feed them.  Once Chris discovered that the possum actually knew how to open the cats’ food bin, we had to bring it inside.  I carefully measure the cat food every day and if it’s not eaten by evening, I bring the leftovers inside so as to not further encourage this possum.  Often enough to probably still be encouraging, I will realize I forgot to bring in any food at night as I lie in bed listening to the crunch of late-night snacking.  A hiss and a crash of glass confirms it was probably the ‘ol possum.  Not worth getting out of bed at this point.

I still didn’t really mind this.  Cardinals steal the cat food too and I figure I’m just sharing a little bit of protein for some hungry critters.  It helps too that I’ve been reading how important possums are in the diversity picture of an area.  More on that later, but understand that possums were endearing themselves to me and I didn’t mind that they were around.  That is, until I found one sleeping in the chicken coop the other day.

Be careful where you stick your hand!
Be careful where you stick your hand!

It is one thing to hang around and take some easy cat food.  It is another thing entirely to eat some eggs out of the chicken coop and then curl up in the straw and take a nice long nap in the nest box!  My ambivalence and growing endearment were mixed with anger suddenly at this new development.  How dare this little thing come and steal my eggs.  My girls and I work hard for those eggs.  I tried to poke it to make it leave, but it just opened its mouth to show me all those teeth and didn’t budge.  It clearly wasn’t playing dead, an involuntary reaction that leaves a possum in a near-coma state for two to three hours.  Maybe it is unsafe to be in a coma while actively digesting.  So I left the door open hoping that the bright afternoon sun would bother it enough to make it leave.

I went back to check an hour later.  I thought my plan had worked. I was just reaching in to push down all the straw when, whoa!  That little bugger was hunkered down, sleeping again!  I also noticed an egg on the ground near the coop.  I assume the possum pigged out on one or two eggs and then needed to nap.  One poor chicken that still needed to lay an egg apparently was not about to mess with the napping nabster upstairs and went about her business outside.  This possum had to go.  I don’t think my chickens are willing to share sleeping quarters and I am not willing to share eggs.

Look at those teeth!
Look at those teeth!

I prodded harder this time until it fell out of the nest box and tumbled onto the ground level of the coop.  That put us face to face where it could run right at me.  I went around to the long side of the coop and put the wire fencing of the coop between us and continued to prod it out of the coop completely.  It ran out the garden and straight up the nearest tree.  Now I had a real problem.

Possum in a panic
Possum in a panic

My problem was not that I couldn’t reach it or continue to scare it off.  My problem was not that it could easily come back anytime it wanted since it crawled right under the electric fence.  My problem was that the darned thing was cute.  And I’m not even a mama possum!  It was young and looked adorable making its getaway, and then peering down at me from a tree branch.  My problem is that suddenly I wasn’t mad at it, and for now I’m doing nothing about it.

Opossums are special.  Yes, they’re kind of ugly.  Sure, they can seem vicious.  But as the only marsupial in North America north of Mexico, I am proud to host them at Halcyon.  Baby possums are born helpless and the size of a honeybee! Good thing for the protective pouch.  You’ll notice I’ve used both the word possum and opossum in my writing.  Possum is a colloquial term for the original word opossum.  They have 50 teeth, which is more than any mammal in North America.  I am trying to imagine the human mouth with 18 more teeth – nine more on each side – and it’s not a pretty picture.

I am happy to have possums at Halcyon though because it increases the diversity of the wildlife.  Possums only live for about two years, so if I were a mama possum, I’d want my young to have a good two years (Possums have a REALLY small brain and therefore may not think much about other possums).  I am also happy to have possums here because their presence has been found to decrease the incidence of Lyme disease.  Possums may be ugly, but they are prodigious groomers and in the process of grooming eat and kill most of the ticks that took a ride hoping for a blood meal.  Not encountering ticks or the Lyme spirochete they carry is a real nice benefit to sharing some cat food and the very occasional egg.

Retreat to a tree
Retreat to a tree

Isn’t my ignoring the problem the same as playing dead?  After all, I just want the threat to go away.  Will it work as well as playing dead?  I guess that depends on how tasty those eggs were or how scary I was prodding and yelling at the poor little thing.  I am glad no one I know can comment on that second condition!  Obviously, if nondomestic members of Halcyon start eating my eggs, I will have to rethink my “do nothing for now” strategy.  I want the possums to stay.  If I relocate it, and others, I may lose the young generation that would stay and mate, and continue to eat ticks.  I am hoping I can “play possum” and keep my eggs.

Happy Anniversary!

Today is the first anniversary of my blog.  I had set a goal to keep it going for at least a year.  I have enjoyed learning about the species that live at Halcyon, sharing what I learn with you, and honing my writing skills.  I hope to keep it going, but I also hope to increase the time that I spend on other writing projects, so we’ll see how it goes.  Your feedback and encouragement have been a big help in keeping me inspired.  However, if you recall my first post (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2012/08/18/aldo-leopold-or-don-juan-de-marco/ ), I also wanted to accomplish something I called quasi-homesteading.  So I thought this anniversary post should detail some of the ways that I fed my pioneer spirit over the past year.

Do-it-yourself (DIY) is a misnomer in my humble opinion.  I have had to acquire (doing my part to help the economy) quite a number of tools and gadgets in order to do things myself.  I have also needed help whether it came in the form of advice from friends, old wisdom from a book, reinvented wisdom from the Internet, or many-hands strength from my husband and children.  For example, I cannot move the DIY chicken coop by myself, I could not eat homemade soups – we have almost eliminated canned goods – without the help of my amazing All American Pressure Cooker/Canner, and I will not get much food from my garden without the help of our $660.00 investment in an electric fence.  I remember reading a book about farming life in the early 1900s and being amazed at all the tools they needed to survive their homesteading life.

Oh, wait! I don’t need to do this to survive.  I am, by accident of birth and through decisions I’ve made for myself and with my husband, thriving as a middle class American.  I can drive to stores, farmer’s markets, shop on the Internet and get 2-day free delivery. I have worked in much less physically demanding jobs, and could do so again.  So why am I grunting, groaning, and nursing sore muscles and pulled tendons?  Why am I fighting the elements, the deer, the voles, and the toxic juglone exuding from our plethora of walnuts?  This is not easy to answer.  It’s true I have a pioneer spirit that needs nurturing.  It’s true that I want to eat healthier and not give my dollars to big agribusinesses that don’t care about our health or the environment.  But I think there are reasons less tangible, even to me right now, but related to the cliché of feeling most satisfied with a life of hard work and playing in the dirt.  Another reason has to do with just wanting to know if I can live this way.

My chickens were a year old August 1st!  I am happy to say they are alive and thriving.  Well, mostly (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2013/01/06/chicken-matters/).  I might get a few more at some point, but I’m not keen on building another coop right now.  Perhaps just two or three more could all fit nice and snuggly.

Besides the large-scale projects like chickens and the garden, I have enjoyed dabbling with many smaller projects.  I am dry curing a ham in order to try to capture some memories of Spain.  I’ve done this before and though this pig did not eat acorns in the forest, I think the Jamón Serrano will indeed bring back the flavors and good times we had in Spain.

I am curing bacon now.  It is fantastic.  The only drawback being that we are finding it very hard to eat store-bought bacon now.

I’ve made a demi-glaze following the instructions in December 2008 issue of Saveur Magazine.  I froze it in ice cube trays to have ready-to-use portions.  It is wonderful to add to soups or stews, and to make gravy.

Demi-glaze frozen in cubes
Demi-glaze frozen in cubes

I’ve eaten dandelion greens and made dandelion wine.  The wine was surprisingly tolerable, maybe even good.  It was also easy to make.  However, I only make two bottles and since I still have some left, I suspect that it is not quite good enough to spend time doing every year.

Dandelion wine
Dandelion wine

We love to eat soup in the winter.  I have made canned chicken soup, split pea soup, and black bean soup.  I have also canned chick peas (so they are ready to use and not from a can), peach jam, autumn olive jam (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2012/10/21/autumn-olive/ ), cherries, peaches, applesauce, plum preserves, tomato sauce, salsa, and homemade baked beans.  These are all worth it.  It does take time, but I know what ingredients I am eating.  It is all real food.

Our bounty
Our summer preserved for winter

I have fermented pickles and cabbage.  This is also easy, tastes good, and works 75% of the time.  The rest of the time I get molds that I am not willing to rinse off.  I cultured too many bad things from foodstuff back in college.  I guess my gut is not as much of a pioneer wannabe as my spirit. Then there’s that notion that I don’t need to eat this food to survive like families did in the past, so I just end up composting it, mold and all, when this happens.

A plethora of pickles
A plethora of pickles

I have played with being able to make a good loaf of bread.  I know I have succeeded because my husband likes it!  I am using wheat berries and grinding them myself.  I am continuing to experiment with other breads now too.

I made my own vanilla with fresh vanilla beans and vodka.  This is much cheaper than buying the little vials in the store.  I made cranberry liquor for Christmas gifts this year.  They were a big hit.  Ever have homemade tonic?  After being frustrated from a quest to find tonic without high fructose corn syrup – this is possible, but very expensive – I decided to make it myself.  I know, why do I worry about the corn syrup and still drink the gin?  I don’t have a good answer for that either, but I am enjoying my gin and tonics.  You can find recipes on the Internet, but I’d be happy to share my trials and errors with anyone interested.

So I want to keep doing most of what I’ve tried.  I want to learn more about past techniques and balance such knowledge with present day science and technology.  I have a lot to learn.   The cycling of seasons gives me ample chances to learn from my mistakes and to try again.  I am thankful for my husband who is supportive of these endeavors.  One day all the tomatoes I can will come from my garden and not farmer’s markets.  One day I’ll have okra to add to my soups, and beans to put up, and lots of other things that the deer took this year (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2013/07/29/dear-deer/ ).  I want to figure out how to easily process all the black walnuts we have on our property because I fondly remember the walnut sauce we put on ice cream when we were kids.  And I am dreaming, just maybe, of goats.  Or bees.  Or both.

I’m spending a day next week helping a friend who really is homesteading.  She raises goats for milk and meat and enough chickens to not need to buy them from the grocery.  She loves and respects her animals.  She gardens and cans and makes bread and cheese.  I suspect she works a lot harder than I do every day.  I also suspect she goes to bed each night filled with a lot of that personal satisfaction of a job well done.  I’m looking forward to how a day working with her will inspire me.


More of summer
More of summer


A Cop, A Vulture, and a Misunderstanding

I had just been telling some friends recently how I needed to get my hearing checked.  I keep mishearing phrases on the radio or things my husband says.  Well, an incident on my walk soon after proved my point and probably made me appear quite strange.

I was walking on our road with my daughter Mauri, and I had stopped to take a picture of an immature turkey vulture perched on a dead branch above us – looking just like a Disney caricature.  As I was taking the photo, a car slowed behind me and I assumed the driver was wondering what I was doing.  I started explaining before completely turning and registering the driver.  It was a local county police officer.

“Yeah, it’s a vulture all right.  Don’t get too close or he’ll fill up on you.”

Huh?  Was this guy serious or pulling my leg?  So I said something eloquent and profound in response.  “But I’m not dead.”

“Don’t matter.  If you get too close they’ll fill up on you.”

Oh man, this is some tall tale spreading around the county. What a poor, misinformed soul, I thought.  This time I came back with the equally profound, “Really?”

vultureIMG_1531He pulled away continuing his admonishment, “Be careful; don’t get too close.”

This seemed totally absurd to me.  A turkey vulture, though large and intimidating, would not swoop down, attack me, and eat me.  If this were true, the population of humans in our county would be decreasing at an alarming rate.  We have a lot of vultures.  Vultures are detritivores, preferring dead flesh.  Maybe they’d changed, got a taste of fresh blood, and I’d not heard about it yet.  I doubted all this and turned my confused expression to Mauri, who had been quiet throughout the whole interchange.

“Can you believe he thinks it would eat me?”

It was Mauri’s turn to say, “Huh?”

She continued with, “He said it would throw up on you if you get too close?”

Really?  Oh, boy do I need to get my ears checked!  This first thought was quickly subdued by my ever skeptic nature and I started to wonder if this vomit proclamation was even true.

So I spent the next few days learning about vultures.  By the way, the police officer was correct, vultures are known to throw up (not fill up) on you.  It is a defense mechanism used to ward off a predator.  Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are the more aggressive of our two local species of vultures and are more likely to use the tactic.  However, they will also come at you hissing and biting, so it may not be necessary to also try the projectile-vomiting technique.  Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are more passive and while they are capable of and will use projectile vomiting, they will also try playing dead – a little ironic don’t you think?  While my skepticism was placated, this fact was not what I found most fascinating from my readings.  And I’m not really worried about being targeted while walking or even while photographing a vulture.

The genus for turkey vulture, Cathartes, is Greek for purifier, and used to portray its ecological niche.  While all vultures purify, or clean up decomposing animal bodies, they have different genus designations because of evolving in different parts of the world from different ancestors.  There are only three species in the genus Cathartes: the Turkey Vulture, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus) and the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes melanbrotus).  The latter two are tropical species.

Vultures have featherless heads to facilitate easier clean up after eating rotting flesh because they often have to stick their heads deep into a carcass.  Their feet and toes are not strong like raptors and therefore vultures cannot take food back to a roost or fly off with it to eat elsewhere.  They must eat at the site of the carcass and the feet serve to hold it in place while they feed.  Vulture comes from the Latin word vellere, which means to tear.

The turkey vulture has a keen sense of smell – not common in birds – and can smell a rotting carcass from up to 200 feet in the air.  The tropical vultures also have this keen sense of smell, allowing them to find food despite the dense canopy.  Black vultures do not have this keen sense of smell and find carcasses by noting where turkey vultures are hunting.

I learned a new word while learning about vultures.  They have an arguably gross way of cooling off called urohidrosis – literally, sweating with urine.  This means they defecate on their feet and are then cooled as the fluids evaporate.  The waste contains uric acid, which is antibiotic, perhaps also helping vultures to fill their niche without getting an infection from their culinary habits.  Storks also utilize urohidrosis and can accumulate enough fluid on their legs to turn them white.

If after reading this, you don’t have some positive fascination, respect, or even endearment for the homely turkey vulture, then slow down and drive with more care.  Our ever-expanding highway system and increased speeds have provided a readily available source of road kill and have contributed greatly to their growing populations.  I have gained some endearment for turkey vultures, but I have also learned a valuable lesson from the encounter on the road that day.  It appears that while I do not necessarily believe everything I hear or read – a good trait to have – it also appears that I cannot trust everything I hear – a problematic condition to have.



Dear Deer

Dear Deer,

Are you familiar with the moralistic tale of the mother hen who makes bread for her family?  No one helped her with the planting, the harvesting, the milling, or the baking of the bread.  However, once the bread was ready to eat, they all wanted a piece.  Would you agree that they did not deserve to share the bread?

I have been caretaker of Halcyon now for twelve years.  In that time, I have not only shared many of the natural resources found at Halcyon with other nonhuman life forms, I have actually increased available habitat and food resources for them.  I feel I have been very kind in sharing, and in general I have only minor complaints (well, except for that hawk http://www.halcyonnature.com/2013/01/06/chicken-matters/) from any conflict of interest between my needs and that of the needs of others living at Halcyon.

You deer have crossed the line.  Or, I should say more literally, the fence.  It was bad enough when you ate most of the lily blooms we’d been anxiously waiting to see. We have hundreds of lily fans; you could have saved some for us.

Good neighbors honor fence lines.  You have not been a good neighbor.  I have 14 acres to share with you.  In fact, I think I have been exceedingly generous.  Of those 14 acres, I’ve only fenced in 3500 square feet of land that I don’t wish to share.  This is more than fair.  I’ve left you with 606, 340 square feet from which to browse, rest, sleep, find cover and whatever else it is you do in your summer feeding areas.  Perhaps this is not quite enough space for your typical one-half to three square miles of territory, but there is plenty of land adjacent to Halcyon, and Halcyon offers a variety of valuable food sources and water.  I feel I’ve exclusive rights to my mere 3500 square feet.

It is not just space allocation rights that I am arguing here.  Recall the mother hen story.  Did you help me move rocks this past winter and spring to build my beds?  Did you help me haul soil up from the floodplain to fill my beds?  Did you help me plant my seedlings and watch over them anxiously for those first precious cotyledons to appear?  Did you help me set my seedlings outside and water carefully and protect them from late spring frosts?  And weeding!  My word, did you help me weed and haul mulch to protect my plants from competition?  Do you see where I’m going with this?

So imagine my frustration when I return from vacation to find my garden eaten.  By you!  You ate the beans down to one inch of stem, and half of each tomato plant.  You ate the pumpkin leaves and broccoli.  You ate the kiwi leaves and raspberry leaves.  Given your lack of help in producing these plants, I feel you’ve no right to eat them.

I know you want to eat well and feed your lovely young.  I want the same for my family.  Given your lack of responsibility regarding the existence of those desirable plants inside the fence, I must insist that you go elsewhere.  Since the stinky deer repellent did not work, I see only two options:  I get better fencing or I learn how to hunt.  After careful consideration, I’d like you to beware that I will be installing an electric fence.

In closing, I’d like to add that I have not included in this letter any of the expletives I normally use to address you.  I am trying to exercise neighborly restraint.  However, I’m only human and if you don’t take your “only deer” fence-hopping, garden-browsing tendencies elsewhere I will be forced to take drastic measures.  I may not hunt, but I have friends that do.


Caretaker of Halcyon

This bean trellis should be full of biomass by now.
This bean trellis should be full of biomass by now.
Deer-browsed broccoli
Deer-browsed broccoli


From Devil to King in a Year

I could see it from my seat on the mower and from about five feet away.  It was huge and turquoise and wicked looking.  I jumped off the mower for a closer look.  It was a devil of a caterpillar all right.  So, I ran to get my camera.

The hickory horned devil (Citheronia regalis), when in its fifth instar and ready to pupate, is probably the largest caterpillar in our area.  The larva can reach almost six inches in length and the one I saw was definitely that big.  What was it doing crawling along the ground, conspicuously visible?  It was ready to pupate, which they do by crawling down from their host tree and, once finding a suitable spot, burrow six inches underground and overwinter in an earthen burrow. They do not make a cocoon as many moths do.

Something akin to magic happens during its time spent in its earthen burrow. It will emerge the next spring (sometimes the spring after) having shed all similarities to a scary devil.  Well, not shed exactly, but metamorphosed into its adult form, the royal walnut moth.  As a regal member of our native wildlife, it sports a coat of greenish-gray with bright velvet-orange stripes.  There are some light gold spots upon this coat.  Its head is crowned in orange velvet with stripes of the same light gold color.  It is a stunning display, well suited to our naming it a royal moth.

Its peristalsis-like movement so transfixed me that I took a short video.  How will it pick the right spot to burrow underground?  Does it sense me peering over it?  This one day, this part of this one day in its life is critical to the success of the individual and the species (if predation while seeking its burrow outweighed successful maturation).  For weeks, it had feasted relatively protected among the leaves of a black walnut tree.  Feeding alone and at night also helps protect it.  And once underground it will be protected from most harm while it transforms.  But all could be lost in this brazen hike from treetop to underground burrow, a hike discovered to be successful through years and years of evolution.  Genetically programmed to partake in each step of its development, the hickory horned devil hasn’t much choice in the matter.   Nonetheless, it seemed intent on its quest, perhaps counting strongly on its grotesque, scary appearance to keep it safe.  My only regret is not sticking around long enough to watch it safely reach its destination.

As an adult, Citheronia regalis does not eat.  It lives only about a week.  Its sole purpose at this time is to mate and lay eggs.  Imagine spending nine to 22 months underground, for all we know oblivious to the great changes taking place in your body, only to have a week to explore the world with your new body, to mate, and to die.  Just a week to show off those beautiful new wings, surely seems unfair.  But that is because I am using a human point-of-view to see the situation.  Perhaps the regal walnut moth, with nothing more to do but mate and die, has a glorious time flying about, even if it’s only for a week.  Perhaps a glorious life and having fun is not in its schemata.

We humans, on the other hand, spend many years growing before we reach puberty.  We are (mostly) more aware of the changes that take place in puberty and get excited, often quite literally, for our adult stage, a stage we get to enjoy for up to 70 years if we are healthy and lucky.  It is funny how often we say we are so busy, when we have so much time in comparison to other creatures’ life cycles.  If you ever have the luck of circumstance to run into a hickory horned devil, please let it continue on its way undisturbed.  It’s a very busy caterpillar.