Humans tend to enjoy activities and tasks that they do well.  Engaged in a task on the roof of our side porch this week, I found myself, definitely not enjoying myself.  I was attempting to re-glaze a window and found the work very frustrating.  I’d only ever done this once before and had to watch a video for a quick refresher.  Now the memory of that first also frustrating time came back to me.  Glazing windows is more of an art than a chore, and I did not have the right finesse.  As I stood there applying and reapplying glazing compound to the wood, I tried to focus on the delightful warmth of the sun on my back.  The same sun I avoided in July and August because it drained my energy was now waking muscles already resigned to cold winter mornings.  I soon found myself hearing a squirrel in the tree above breaking open a walnut, and the sound became like a song stuck in my head.  Walnuts are plentiful on our property and no other nut would cause him to gnaw and scrape so incessantly, with so much determination.  Is that all I needed to get my task done?  Determination.  I thought to myself how I could just get someone else to do this task for me, but what about that squirrel?  What if he couldn’t crack that nut?

Of course in a broad sense, he’d starve.  Evolution selects for squirrels that can feed themselves.  But I got to thinking about other tasks in a squirrel’s life: nest building, food storage, predator avoidance, and I wondered if squirrels cooperate with each other.

We have three species of squirrels at Halcyon:  the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), and a flying squirrel (family Sciuridae – I have no idea if it is the northern or southern flying squirrel).  All three species of squirrels are native to Virginia.

The flying squirrel does not really fly; it glides with flaps of skin called patagium that stretch between its wrists and ankles.  The only time I’ve seen a flying squirrel was when I rescued one that had gotten in the house and barricaded itself in the baseboard electric heater to hide from our cats.  Luckily the heater was not on.  With a little perseverance and quick reflexes at the right moment, I managed to trap it in a large Tupperware bowl.  As I released it, I had a chance to brush against the softest animal fur I’ve ever touched.  I hope as I merge better with the rhythms of Halcyon, I see more of the flying squirrels that live here.

The gray and fox squirrel are much more ubiquitous, though I must admit I tend to think they are all gray squirrels.  I guess I haven’t taken the time to notice them, to notice details.  The details are important because they are hard to tell apart.  Both squirrels are grayish in color with black and red in their fur. The gray squirrel is smaller and spends more time in trees.  It has a white belly.  It is crepuscular in habit, being most active at dawn and dusk.

In contrast, the fox squirrel is larger, and has a reddish belly.  It spends more time on the ground and it is strictly diurnal.  Walnut trees are particularly favored.  That means Halcyon is practically paradise for the fox squirrel (If we wanted to change Halcyon’s name, a good replacement would be Walnut Acres).

I still admit to not being good at telling gray and fox squirrels apart.  Often the ones scampering about on the ground during the middle of the day (hence diurnal) have white bellies and are therefore, gray squirrels.  Apparently you can tell from their incisors, and while I’d like to become more observant, I have no real desire to get that close to a squirrel’s face.

So do squirrels cooperate with each other?  Squirrels will warn the whole neighborhood if there is a predator about and they share their nests, but the only other information I could find about cooperation came from a pest control website stating that gray squirrels will cooperate by sharing as many as 50 nest sites and by pelting dogs and cats with nuts.

The sentence about a single squirrel having access to as many as 50 nests intrigues me, but since I can’t find any other similar claims, I am also skeptical.  I am not an expert on squirrels or squirrels as pests.  Perhaps I should be since there is a squirrel that seeks shelter in the wall space behind my closet every winter.   However, I think that pest control companies tend to exaggerate, sometimes, the problems associated with wildlife as pests in order to make their living.  As for pelting a dog or cat with nuts, I must really be doing a poor job of observation on my property if I’ve never seen this at Halcyon.  We’ve two dogs who love to chase squirrels, three cats, and a lot of squirrels.  Besides, evolutionarily it does not make sense that squirrels would waste their food pelting an animal stuck on the ground barking or waiting for them.

Perhaps the squirrels’ method of caching food for future use allows for cooperation, at least as a side effect.  Studies have shown that an individual squirrel is capable of remembering its own cache sites and will preferentially find and eat its own food stores.  But that same individual will periodically take food from another squirrel’s cache also, and these caches are found by sense of smell.  I imagine a squirrel that is not too good at caching or remembering, could still survive using its sense of smell.  Of course, it still has to crack that nut.

So my question about cooperation remains unanswered.  In general species do cooperate, at least when resources are plenty, or the species might die out.  I was wondering about more specific cooperation, sharing of tasks one individual might just be miserable doing, like glazing windows.  We can’t be good at everything.  I think I’d rather put more practice time into observing nature than glazing windows.  Thankfully, I’ve only eight panes to go on the glazing, and hopefully, over 120 seasons of observing at Halcyon.


Preparing for Sandy

Winter has come early to Virginia thanks to Hurricane Sandy joining up with some low-pressure systems from the west and the north.  I love the hunkering down feeling of a storm coming.  I get excited planning for cozy fires, soul food, and even power outages.  Two days before Sandy made landfall, I noticed this same frenzy of preparations in other animals during my walk, and throughout the day.

A pair of Pileated woodpeckers was doing their concentric tree trunk hopping with more pep in their step, quickly searching for a few more insects to tide them over if the wind became too strong to hunt.  Overhead, flocks of red-winged black birds and grackles were heading somewhere more hospitable to their habitat needs, much as we head to the store to buy emergency supplies to add comfort to our habitats.  A box turtle appeared near the wall outside my kitchen window.  He was moving cautiously, already cold perhaps. It is about a quarter mile to the closest patch of woods, and I wondered if I should help him get there.  He needs to dig a burrow about 10 cm below the soil surface for the winter.  Perhaps he will just ride this storm out under some leaves and then get to his business of hibernating.

Box turtle

I also saw two black snakes this week.  When reading about snake hibernation, I came across a site that said snakes never go in a crawlspace.  Ha!  They’ve never checked my crawlspace.  We have found shed snakeskin over the years in our crawlspace or any space a snake could crawl in our house (see my previous post on Elaphe obsoleta).  Both snakes were traveling in the opposite direction of the house though, presumably in search of a hibernaculum such as a rock crevice or rotting log.  Black rat snakes are known to hibernate in groups and even in mixed-species groups such as with timber rattlers, copperheads, and bull snakes (we do not have bull snakes in Virginia).   I’ve wondered about this arrangement given that black rat snakes will also eat copperheads. Definitely a case of strange bedfellows!

On the domestic front, my chickens spent a lot of time eating.  Somehow they too knew they might not want to venture downstairs once the storm started.  My dog Toc was very playful, leaping and twisting in the air, and then stopping in front of me, a clear indication that she wanted to play.  Does she feel the same quickening in her heart that I feel when the leaves go skipping wildly down the street, the same excitement that turned my walk into a run?

I got to thinking about how animals will complete their frenzied activities and actually settle down, either for this current storm or for the whole winter. Some will undergo a true hibernation with suspended metabolism like frogs, turtles, groundhogs, and snakes.   The wood frogs’ blood and body fluids actually freeze, but instead of its cells bursting from the ice crystals that form, the wood frog has a mechanism to increase glucose and urea, which act as antifreeze for its blood.

Some animals such as bears will just slow their metabolism and venture out if conditions periodically warm over the winter.  Black bears are capable of not urinating for months at a time – I’d settle for just a six-hour car ride – but such a feat would be toxic to us.  Bears can recycle the toxic urea into useful amino acids.  They also are capable of maintaining muscle and bone strength while inactive.  If we tried to sleep curled up for months without moving, we would have muscle atrophy and brittle bones.

Some animals, of course, will not hibernate at all.  Deer, turkey, squirrels, and rabbits will ride out the storm and then venture out to eat as soon as they can.  We are like these animals.  Except we tend to eat a lot.  Holiday parties and feasts seem more decadent in the winter than in the summer for us.  Deer, turkey, squirrels, and many songbirds will have to do with twigs and leftover greens or seeds they can find under the snow.

I find animal adaptations amazing, especially those adaptations that allow for survival in extreme weather and cold temperatures.  I am awed by how they know to get ready, how they know what to do, and how resilient they are.  I am not, however, envious.  I’d much rather haul in some wood, huddle by the fire, and even deal with power outages, than wait it out under the mud with antifreeze in my blood.  It would be so much harder to drink wine that way.

The dogs have adapted to the good life

Autumn olive

I have numerous invasive plant species on my property.  Of the woody species, there are two trees I literally hate, Ailanthus and Mulberry, and there is a particular shrub that I want to hate, but with which I have a love-hate relationship.  Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate) is a shrub that gets rather large and can spread in clumps, crowding out other plants, thereby reducing diversity.  Even bird diversity becomes reduced in areas where autumn olive takes over despite the fact that birds eat and spread the seeds initially.  It has several common names: Autumn olive, Elaeagnus, Oleaster, and Japanese Silverberry, but I’ve only ever heard people use Autumn olive in Virginia.

Have you ever seen those environmental brochures titled Do I have to mow all that?  They promote the benefits of habitat edges and riparian borders for both wildlife and stream health.  They discuss how not mowing all your lawn will save time and money, and reduce fossil fuel emissions.  I believe this, and erred in favor of the brochure’s wisdom when we moved to Halcyon.  The previous owners mowed clear to the stream bank.  They mowed all 6 surrounding fields or sections that are not what we call the yard proper – the areas immediately surrounding the house.  They mowed so much that some areas were just clay, a remnant from the hundred years that Halcyon had been a dairy farm.  I didn’t want to mow all that.

I didn’t have time to mow all that anyway.  Work, long summer vacations once I started teaching, and sabbaticals all insured that plants and trees could continue their slow and steady marches to claim land unhindered by any sort of regular clearing.   Areas that originally were bare clay are now brush habitat or beginning succession woods.  We have an abundance of rabbits, birds, squirrel, and deer.  We’ve seen turkey, fox, and bear sign, opossum, raccoon, beaver, and a mink at Halcyon over that last 10 years.  This is because the habitat for wildlife has improved.

Well, habitat quantity has improved.  I’m not so sure about quality.  It turns out that I do have to mow more than I’d like or we would be invaded by ailanthus, mulberry, honeysuckle, multiflora rose, garlic mustard, and yes, autumn olive.  The autumn olive seems to have exploded in numbers.  This is why I hate it.  So why do I love it?

It is an attractive shrub.  The undersides of the leaves are silvery, and look lovely when the wind is blowing.  The flowers are creamy white and lend a subtle fragrance to the air when in bloom.  All those blossoms become a small red fruit with one central pit – hence the name olive.  It is the fruit that causes my ambivalence with this invasive species.  When I first didn’t want to mow everything, or poison the invasives, I thought of other ways to keep them from spreading.  I found a website on invasive species called If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Eat ‘em.  I could make jam!  And so was born a new tradition for me that nurtures more than my material body.

Underside of autumn olive leaves

Autumn olives are high in lycopene, a phytochemical found in tomatoes and some other red vegetables.  Lycopene is an antioxidant and is being studied as a potential agent for cancer prevention.  That is a good reason to eat the berries, but it would certainly be a lot easier to just eat more tomatoes.  I don’t make the jam merely because it is healthy.  I make it because it slows me down, puts me in the moment.  When I started doing this, I was still teaching and I desperately needed to slow my mind and be in the moment.  I needed to capture a fall day and fully live it because they were just flying by.

Nothing about making the jam is easy.  They are a pain to pick.  I usually collect in half hour increments between September and October, freeze them until I have enough, and then begin the cooking and canning process.  It is also an onerous process to get the juice from the berry.  I use a conical aluminum berry press and a lot of elbow grease.  Then there is the time spent cooking down to jell stage and canning.  Perhaps because it takes a lot of time is why I feel so singularly engaged while completing this task.  Added to this feeling is the (false) notion that I am reducing or using up an invasive species, and a sense of self-reliance that comes from doing something myself with a wild species that I’ve found.

Autumn olive in fruit

This year the autumn olives were ready early.  I was mowing in early August and was astonished to find bushes full of berries ready to pick – usually they are not ready until September, and I’ve picked as late as mid-October.  Have I just never noticed early berries before or did all our summer rain help with fruit production?  I looked forward to picking those berries.

For some reason, though I did not get to that task for several weeks and when I walked that field, basket in hand, I could not find a single autumn olive with any berries.  It seems the birds beat me to all of them.  Would I not be able to can and eat autumn olive jam this year?  I thought of naked pork roast or cheese and crackers without that dollop of deep burgundy jam and I was sad.

Luckily, there are more fields and more autumn olive.  It has not been great picking and I’ve collected less berries than other years, but there will be a canning day this year.  I’ll pick a chilly or rainy day, make a fire, roll up my sleeves and marvel how time slows down.

Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta

The black rat snake laid claim to Halcyon before we did.  We were unaware of this, of course, and bought the property “snake unseen.”  However, it is not possible to hide for long when your species is numerous and when individuals can reach 4-6 feet in length.  It is also not possible to hide for long when you like to enter homes in search (I hope) of mice.

Our first encounter occurred a few weeks after we arrived.  My daughter Mauri was outside on the rope swing, which was tied to an old, large black walnut tree.  I was inside painting the first of what would come to seem like an endless supply of painting jobs in our new home.  I heard her come in the front door and up the stairs.


“Hmmm,” I replied.

“Can snakes climb trees?”

“I’m pretty sure that they can,” I replied, remembering the small snakes that climbed the shrubs outside our Houston home, and even one that tried to climb the dining room wall because I was trying to remove it with a broom and a Rubbermaid bin.

“Well, then there is a large black snake climbing the swing tree, way up high.”

She said this in a matter of fact manner with no apprehension in her voice.  I went out with her to see, but it must have been very high up by then because we could not find it.  I can’t remember if Mauri continued to swing that day, but she certainly was not afraid of swinging in the days and years after that snake-climbing incident.  I’m glad for that.

The next sighting of the snake I came to call Mama – because she is so large and because we see numerous smaller snakes every year – occurred a few months into our new home.  My in-laws were visiting and my father-in-law opened the kitchen door, but did not go out.  He closed it, and then announced that a 5 foot black snake just went around the corner and under the house.  Again, there was no apprehension in his voice or any real reaction from all of us inside the house.  We knew it was a black rat snake and that they are good to have around.

Black rat snake

Over the years we have collected their shed skins because they are beautiful.  Chris would often bring me one with the same munificence in which he might bring me daisies.  The skins adorn a windowsill or a shelf for a while.  Later, I compost them in a cleaning fit stemming from the notion that my house should stop looking like a nature center display and more like a home.  We have found skins in the yard, in the crawlspace, in the barn rafters, and even in the ceiling of the downstairs bathroom when we remodeled.

I used to take the skins to school to show my students and to display in my science center.  Every year when the subject of snakes was raised, either because of a science lesson or because I brought in my son’s pet corn snake, the students would become instantly engaged, much like they might if they’d just surprised a snake in the grass.  Through the chorus of voices expressing their love or hate of snakes, there would always be one story of how a student’s father had killed a snake.  Usually these were without knowing what kind of snake it was or whether it was any real threat.  I hated these moments.

It is natural to be afraid of snakes.  Perhaps there is even an evolutionary reason for our fear.  What I hated about those stories from school was that fact that I could not probably change someone’s fears by just direct teaching in the classroom.  Oh, don’t worry; the changes of a black rat snake biting you are very slim.  It is not venomous.  Actually, it is very helpful and farmers are usually quite happy to have them around to control rodents.  Somehow this message is lost on a squirmy group of fourth graders, stuck in their chairs, and getting a lot of their fears from TV, other media, and from some grownups.

He’s wary of me too.

I’m not fear-free when it comes to snakes.  It is not a bite I am worried about.  I learned from a talk at a Texas State Park that we’d need to be three days from a hospital to be in danger of dying from a venomous bite.  It is the part about being surprised.  When I come across one, I am startled, and then wary.  I leave them alone or shoe them away from the foundation.  And I’m not happy about the location of the most recent skin I found.

Our house is in varying states of repair and one such space not yet finished is a small passageway between our bedroom and the front of the house.  There is a tiny “cousin-it” closet and a hacked together roofline from when the front of the house was added on to the original slaves’ quarters.  At least Halcyon has history and charm, if not class!  In this space you can see the metal roof – the acoustics are awesome during a rainstorm – and NOW you can also see a snakeskin.  It’s just hanging there.  Did its owner contemplate slithering down the wall into the bedroom to check things out?  I am now thankful that the bedroom is cold, probably as cold as that ceiling area that needs repaired, and the snake shed its skin and left.

Black rat snakeskin

Or did he?  There is also a snakeskin hanging from the ceiling of the side porch (also in dire need of repair).  This ceiling is connected to the roofline of the passageway.   I’m guessing that he is living above that porch ceiling.  My point is that while I am not comfortable with the idea that a snake might slither across my bedroom floor, I would not have it killed or removed.

I appreciate our black rat snakes.  They help keep the mice down.  They have a role here at Halcyon.  By finding snakes over the years, and then stopping to watch them when I do encounter one, my fears have abated.  It helps that my son has a pet snake, a caramel corn snake named Blizzard.  I made myself hold Blizzard when he was little so that I would not be afraid of him later.  He is now almost 4 feet long, skinny still, but strong.  He is nice to hold.  I don’t recommend people go out and try to hold wild snakes, but I think more encounters might go a long way in helping mitigate our fears, rather than just having someone tell us that most snakes are harmless and we should not worry.

We are getting a woodstove insert at the end of the month, which means our bedroom will finally be warmer.  I think it is time to seal up that passageway ceiling before the snake decides he’d like some toastier quarters for the winter.


I drafted this post on Wednesday, and that evening I was enjoying a chat with friends in my knitting group when the conversation turned, quite serendipitously, to snakes.  One woman told how there was a small black snake living in her crawlspace.  She said she used to let her cats go down there to get mice, but now she won’t let them because she is afraid her cats might hurt the snake.  I had to clarify that she didn’t mean she was worried the snake would hurt her cats.  Nope, I heard her correctly.

Another woman told of holding her brother’s python when she was a teenager, and then more recently of regularly rescuing garter snakes from her cats.  One time she even picked up a whole squirmy pile of garter snakes she found in her garage, some in each hand, and marched them down to the woods to release them.

These stories warm my heart.

Did I Just Call Her Sweetie?

My garden has a golden orb-weaver. Her work is more amazing than anything I’ve ever woven.  She makes all her own tread; I have to buy mine.  She is very quiet and unobtrusive despite her large size and her vibrant yellow color.  She is a fantastic weaver.  Her radial web is eight inches in diameter and contains a stunning zipper of multiple treads down the middle.  She weaves to survive, while I just weave for fun.  She actually eats and rebuilds her web every night.  I wouldn’t dream of such a thing.

This amazing weaver chose to spin her web in a corner where a compost bin butts up against the fence.  There are a lot of grasshoppers in this side of the garden.  She must have known this.  The other day I witnessed a marvel of spider silk and spider skill, a feat I could never hope to copy with my knitting or weaving.  It happened in less than a minute, a minute that would have passed by unknown to my conscience if I had not turned around.

I was feeding a grasshopper to the chickens.  The chickens were out of their coop and congregating under a large asparagus plant.  They do not seem comfortable out of the coop yet and do not yet wander happily, snatching up bugs for me.  Either that or they’ve got me trained because I am still bringing them grasshoppers.   When I can catch one that is.  I opened my hand and the closest chicken grabbed for the grasshopper, but it jumped before she could get it.  This irked me – some days my reflexes are not that fast and I don’t appreciate waste.  So I turned to see where it jumped so that I could grab it again.

Argiope aurantia!  No, I’m not swearing.  This is the scientific name for the golden orb-weaver; also known as the golden garden spider, yellow garden orb-weaver, and writing spider.  As soon as that grasshopper hit the web, she put out a vertical zip line and descended from her perch at the top of her web.  With dizzying speed she proceeded to wrap over and over this meal that was struggling with all the hope left in its short life.  Argiope was done before the grasshopper’s hope ran out, and despite being bound tighter than a mummy and receiving a bite to the head, the grasshopper continued to struggle.  After maybe 20 seconds, he stopped and his abdomen throbbed back and forth.  I thought this was strange, not understanding it until he burst into action again, struggling in vain inside the spider’s handiwork.  I likened it to being wrapped tightly in saran wrap because I could see at least 6 threads coming from her abdomen at once. Each strand was separate, but so close together as to look like a narrow strip of tape.  The grasshopper struggled against this extraordinary substance for about 20 seconds.  Then he stopped.  Again, his abdomen throbbed.  Now I understood.  He was breathing hard!

Tightly bound grasshopper

I found another argiope with a small, inconspicuous web in my tomato patch.  I am assuming it was a male because of his smaller size and the web’s much simpler construction.   Would he be her mate?  His web was almost 12 feet away from her web, and I’m not sure if that is too great a distance to attract a mate in the spider world.  A male will construct a small web next to the female before mating.  While many male spiders die after mating because they are eaten by the female, the male argiope dies during mating – a strategy thought to prevent other males from also mating with the same female.  The male has two sperm containing organs called pedipalps.  When the second pedipalp is inserted into the female, it swells, and cannot be removed.  This also causes the male to die during the mating act.  After mating the female will remove the male, wrap him in silk, and save him for a snack.  How romantic.

Biting the grasshopper

Since I have not seen an egg sac yet, and the male has been MIA for two weeks, I guess he was not her mate.  I am waiting to see an egg sac.  The female will die with the first frost.  The spiderlings hatch in late fall and will overwinter in the egg sac.  They survive the tough conditions of winter by pausing their growth and development.  This is called diapause.

Something strange happened from watching this spider daily for weeks.  I can’t say it is a connection so much as a respect for her place in the world and even a bit of compassion.  Why I say this is because the last time I walked by her I had the crazy notion that I could catch a grasshopper for her.  This was not because she couldn’t, but just because I felt like doing something nice.  It’s a spider.  I know it is strange.  Even stranger though was when I couldn’t find one, and I walked past the spider to leave, saying, “Sorry sweetie, I didn’t find any.”  It came out naturally and I didn’t realize I’d even said it until I was out the gate.  I definitely surprised myself.  I just called her sweetie.

Argiope aurantia


On Becoming a Writer

One of my goals in this new adventure of quasi-homesteading at Halcyon is to write.  I enjoy writing as much as good reading.  Towards this endeavor, I received some great advice from an accomplished writer this summer at a party.  She told me that the best way to practice writing is to write 1000 words each day.  The amount of time that this takes does not matter and it is important to stick to around 1000 words because too much can burn you out for the next day.  Obviously, the practice part of practicing was crucial.  Maybe this is why I have trouble sticking to that exercise plan of mine.  Her advice sounded doable to me.  On our last sabbatical in Spain, I was able to create a writing rhythm for about three months where I wrote 500-1000 words each day to ‘complete’ a 38,000-word draft – my first attempt at fiction.

Her advice also excited me.  That night I found myself wide-awake at 3 am drafting in my head.  I do this all the time when mowing or walking or on a long drive by myself, but never in the middle of the night.  I am pretty practiced at sleeping.  So I woke up the next day ready to start.

There is only one problem to this wise advice.  I forgot to ask if this practice should occur before or after I’ve worked outside in the yard with 90-degree weather.  You see I’m also very practiced at yard work.  I am not sure what equivalent measure of yard work per day compares to 1000 words of writing per day, but I’m pretty sure I do reach whatever measure it is.  This summer I worked on the property from 8 am-12 noon and then often from 1-3 pm.  My plan was to write from 3pm-5 or 6 pm each day, and then switch roles to gourmet chef . . . or at least heat up some leftovers.  You can guess my problem.  I was pretty tired by 3pm.

I’ve kept a log since receiving this advice.  I love logging personal challenges because it helps me to keep at whatever goal I am attempting.  I also must have whatever gene Thomas Jefferson had that compelled him to record so much of his life.  I did really well the first two weeks, but Halcyon’s summer chores kept me busy.

Now it is fall.  My blog is a month old.  I’ve been able to write every week, but I’ve not been writing daily.  It seems the quasi-homesteading part of my endeavors take up a lot of time.  Since late August, my kitchen looks more like a workshop than a place to cook family meals.  I’ve cabbage and cucumbers fermenting in crocks and jars with notes about when I started and when I taste them.  I’ve got three different compost bins set up.  One is our regular compost, one is for coffee grounds and tea bags that get dumped on my blueberries, and one is for scraps the chickens might like.  I’ve canned tomato sauce, salsa, split pea soup, chicken soup, and cherries.  I built shelves in the room off the kitchen to store the canned goods and harvested garlic and winter squash, along with all the canning supplies.  I’ve started keeping notebooks for reference.   I’ve one for yard maintenance (a fancy term for weeding), for the vegetable garden, for the chickens, for native plants I find at Halcyon, and for monthly chores.  Jefferson would be proud.

Cabbage, cucumbers, and zucchini fermenting

But I’m worried about the writing. What if I can’t make it?  When I said that one of my goals in my new life adventure is to write, I neglected to say that this has been a dream since 1992   – the year I read Winter by Rick Bass.  While reading that book, I smiled, laughed out loud, cried, and wished for more when it was over.  It was the first time I ever thought, I want to make someone else feel that way.  But I was busy and I didn’t think of myself as a writer.  Eight years later I published my Masters in Environmental Studies thesis on muskrat disturbance in a fresh water tidal wetland.  It was a peer-review ecology journal and it was a big deal for me at the time.  I’m pretty sure it didn’t make anyone laugh or cry, except maybe me, and the laughs were maniacal as I struggled through the publishing processes.

Herbs frozen in butter to use in soups and stews

In 2003, I published a paper in Molecular Ecology Notes based on work I was doing at the time isolating microsatellites from red-backed salamanders.  The only way this work could make someone cry was if they were attempting unsuccessfully to duplicate the results for their own research.  Forget laughing; science writing of this kind is necessarily dry.

In 2004-2005, I was back in school to get a Masters in Teaching degree.  For our Foundations in Education class we were told the final would be a take home paper.  I thought this was great, until I got the assignment on the last day of class.  We were to read five papers and choose three to critique.  Each paper had to be 5-8 pages long.  Three 5-8-page papers due in a week!  I drove home angry and panicked; this was a seemingly impossible assignment.  In this panicked state I found myself at midnight reading the articles.  They were good, they got me fired-up, and I really enjoyed writing the essays.  The best part was when I got the papers back.  My professor wrote, “Wow, Lisa these are the best papers of the whole class.”  This is the first moment where I thought that maybe I could become a writer.

Of course, soon I was teaching elementary school and I was doing a lot of writing.  Lesson plans!  They consumed me for the first few years.  But I also wrote several grants and grant reports because of environmental education projects I was doing on our school’s outdoor trail and classroom.  My most favorite project involved students making podcasts for other students to learn about aspects of the trail.  The first year we studied trees and the second year, birds.  In 2011, I published a paper in National Science Teachers Association’s Science and Children journal on this project.

So I’ve three peer-reviewed science papers published.  This does feel good, but I’ve been itching to try fiction and essays.  Something different.  And that 38,000-word draft I wrote in the beginning of 2011?  I haven’t looked at it since we left Spain.  It seems teaching full-time and having 14 acres that needs at least minimal tending did not blend well with writing.  This is one reason I decided to leave teaching.  Now I am worried that writing and Halcyon maintenance might not blend well either.  I can only hope that the plants’ dormancy and mine are out-of-sync.  And oh, good news for today!  I’m at  . . . 1,165 words.  I sure hope that’s not a problem for tomorrow.

Homemade little pantry






Is Nature Cruel?

As children develop an awareness of the world, they often grapple with the question of whether or not nature is cruel.  Maybe as adults we still have occasion to wonder.  Plants and animals are meeting their survival needs, continually evolving as species in ways that ensure that survival.  Claws, poisons, sharp teeth, thorns, and other defense mechanisms can seem cruel or savage, especially when considered in human terms.  We can see that the wasp was just defending its home, but this is hard to explain to a child who has just been stung.

Humans are a part of nature.  Is violence among humans acceptable then?  Are we just doing what nature does?  I don’t think so.  Our higher developed conscience carries understandings that foster responsibilities toward other life on earth, be it our species or others.   Also, we are circumnavigating evolution in many ways with our health care advances and our ability to better protect ourselves from natural disasters.  We are setting ourselves apart from nature for better or worse.  Sometimes we seem incredibly advanced when I think of how much society and culture have changed over the last 10,000 years.  Then I think of all the war, poverty, and crime that still exist.  We don’t seem so advanced when I consider all the human rights violations that occur daily across our planet.  We can probably never fully consider the needs of other species if we continue to denigrate our own species.

This is a huge and heavy topic!  Yet, every summer I think about this subject when I find a parasitized tobacco hornworm in my garden.  My feelings when I see this small part of a food web in action do not make sense.  Before I had chickens, I would toss any hornworms over the fence, hoping they’d make it on their own, but figuring they probably wouldn’t.  At least the problem of them dying – of me killing them – wasn’t in my ‘backyard’ anymore.  Sometimes though, this callous act of mine would bother me enough to let one or two live, munching away on my prize tomatoes, because I love the beautiful Carolina Sphinx moth they become when they metamorphose.  Now I feed any hornworms I find to my chickens, relishing the omega-3 fatty acids that will end up in my eggs someday.   Isn’t a quick death more humane than starving to death on the other side of the fence?

The tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta, feeds on plants in the Solanaceae family.  Every year an adult female moth finds my tomato plants and lays her small green eggs on the underside of the leaves.  I marvel at the adaptations that allow a flying insect to find the exact host it needs for its eggs, especially when the species is host specific like the relationship between Monarchs and milkweeds.  Anyway, these little caterpillars grow fast and eat voraciously.  They are so well camouflaged that I usually don’t notice them until their frass gets big enough.  Frass is another name for poop, scientists’ way of sounding professional.  Yes, the caterpillar’s poop gives it away!  There are caterpillars that actually fling their frass away from the leaf, presumably to make it more difficult for predators to find them.  However, the hornworm species hasn’t ‘figured’ this out yet.

Tobacco Hornworm

Any garden plant we want to harvest is part of a very small food chain.  In the case of the tomato, its food chain consists of:  sun to plant to me!  The word to represent arrows which show the direction of the flow of energy.  Now, I wouldn’t get that tomato if a bee or other nectar-seeking insect didn’t pollinate the flowers, but that is a separate food chain connected to the food chain illustrated above.  Two, or more, food chains connected together denote a food web.  It would have a second arrow going from plant to bee (I’ve left out the decomposing part of these chains for simplicity’s sake).

We know that pollination has to happen for any plant in which we eat the fruit: tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, apples, etc.  So our simple food chain is already not so simple.  Enter the tobacco hornworm.  The caterpillar is a member of a third food chain we could add to this web, and he and I are in competition for that tomato.  It’s getting more complicated.  Then, if you’re unlucky, another creature joins the scene, the creature that inspired the topic of this post.  This creature just wants to insure the survival of its offspring.  Now this is where it gets gruesome, at least to me.

There is a parasitic braconid wasp that lays it eggs inside the body of the tobacco hornworm.  When the wasp larvae hatch, they feed on the juices of the caterpillar.  By the time I find the tobacco hornworm with small white egg-like projections on its body, it is way too late.  These white projections are not eggs; they are the cocoons of the wasp larvae, which migrated (bore their way to the outside of their host’s body) before beginning to pupate.  When metamorphosis is complete, they will fly away as adult wasps.

One would think I’d be thrilled.  I don’t have to kill these caterpillars myself, problem solved, tomatoes saved.  But I’m not thrilled.  I’m horrified.  I’ve studied ecology.  I know this is just nature’s way, but part of me thinks oh how cruel!  Something strange happens every time I stumble on a parasitized caterpillar.  Those same caterpillars that I usually curse and view as nasty voracious eaters.  When I see those cocoons and know what happened, I actually feel sorry for it.  I can’t really empathize, and I don’t want to know what it feels like to be eaten from the inside out while still alive, energy fading day by day, but I just feel sad seeing it languishing.  I leave it alone.  There is nothing I can do for it.

I’m not sure I can say plants and animals are cruel despite my horror at the thought of dissolving from the inside out.  Humans, however, are known to be cruel to each other and to other species.  I am guilty – stinkbugs in my house get squished or flushed or squished and flushed.  How can we practice more compassion for other life forms?  Plant more trees, let a snake slither away, slow down on the roads, help a turtle cross the street, and, remember from last week’s post, don’t litter!  Next time you see a spider in the house you could consider a capture and release – something my daughter and I do.  These are small simple steps, but I think they matter.   And next year, I’ll plant a few more tomato plants and I won’t feed all the hornworms to my chickens.

Elusive Neighbors

The call came during dinner with friends on the porch, as dusk was blanketing us.  Do you hear that?   It spooks some people at first, but I love it.  I delight in being able to share this night mystery.  Sometimes the call comes as I’m reading before bed. It floats into the room, mixing with the story I’m reading, a new character begging to be heard.  I am always enchanted.  I don’t just smile; I feel like a kid again.  Something stirs inside me, a vestigial of childhood questions reminding my soul there are still wonders to discover.  Who’s calling?  Megascops asio, the Eastern Screech Owl.

I think of a screech as an unpleasant sound.  A tire squeals and we cringe, expecting a crash of metal.  Fingernails scraping on a chalkboard make us shiver reflexively.  I’ve never heard our screech owls screech.  They most commonly make a trill sound that reminds me of a sad horse whinny.  I don’t know if horses can sound sad, but this is what comes to my mind.  You can hear screech owl sounds on this Cornell Lab of Ornithology link:

It makes sense that the owl got its name for a reason and most likely a screech sound is an alarm call.   The bottom of the following link has more vocalizations, including one labeled as a screech.  It is screech-like, though I’d call it more of a wail.

Screech owls are small birds.  Adults are only 6-9 inches tall, and this is when they stand tall, all stretched out.  They are nocturnal and crepuscular in habit – I often hear them in the morning around 7 am.  These traits make them hard to notice; I only know they live at Halcyon because of their calls.  I have seen screech owls up close, and fed them, when I volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center in New Jersey.  They are incredibly cute, yet are reported to be fierce hunters.  They were the most common bird of prey visitor at the wildlife center because, when hunting along roadsides, cars frequently hit them.  Mice have learned that trash, often containing food leftovers, can be found alongside roads.  In turn, owls have learned that roadsides are a good place to hunt.  That is, until a car approaches.  Owls whose eyesight is damaged or who are unable to fly again cannot be released back into the wild.  I am reminded of those owls living the rest of their days in a cage whenever I see litter, and I’ve taught my kids that even something as benign as an apple should not be thrown out car windows.

Tossing an apple to the side of the road seems harmless.  It is easy to not anticipate all the ramifications of a single action.  I wonder how many species I harm inadvertently in my daily actions at Halcyon – I know I harm the grasshoppers I feed to the chickens, but this is purposeful – and I wonder how many species I might help instead.  I understand my actions can be both harmful and helpful in general, but I’d like to recognize the chain of events that follow a single act.  I suppose these events are not scripted any more than our lives are scripted, and there isn’t one constant chain of events that happens for any one action.  There have been several grasshoppers this week that just happened to be at the right place at the wrong time.

My family cleans up a mile-long stretch of our road every year for our county’s annual trash pick-up day.  I quietly curse the nature of a person who can litter with no compunctions.  I wouldn’t come to their house and leave a mess. I assume they don’t think about mice or screech owls when they litter any more than they think about the person who owns the property they’ve just ‘trashed’.  I assume they just think about themselves, or worse, they don’t think at all.  I however, don’t just think about how the road looks prettier for me as I clean it up.  I think about how it is safer for owls and other small animals, and how I’ve helped mitigate my daily harm to the environment, one small act at a time.  I eagerly await the call of my small, elusive neighbors each night.

Eastern Screech Owl – photo taken from Tennessee Aquarium website:


A Little Help from a Friend

Motivation is something teachers and parents think about often.  We struggle for ways to instill intrinsic rather than extrinsic factors that motivate children to work harder, read more, show kindness, and in general, reach their potential.

Sometimes though, I think a little extrinsic push helps.  I don’t need candy or stickers to go weed the garden, but some cool and dry fall weather sure would help.  Instead, I woke Thursday to a downpour.  Again.  It rained five times in the first six days of September and I’m starting to feel a little moldy.  I let a funk slide over me as I sat down to rearrange my plans for the day.  As I was moping and, not to be completely lazy, writing a letter to my daughter, I got a text from a friend.  In essence she said how lucky I was to be able to enjoy the rain.  Her words jolted me; they were just what I needed.  She was right.  I am lucky.  I shouldn’t be moping about a little rain.  Within minutes I finished my letter, donned jeans and boots, and headed out to the garden.

It certainly needed my attention.  Volunteer squash plants that delighted me in July were almost scary.  And while we have enjoyed some weird looking, but tasty cucumbers, the other squash forms maturing did not look appetizing.  I pulled them all out.  Their stalks were as thick as my forearm and made wet pops as I bent them, sounding like the beginning of a song played on PVC pipes.

Next, came the butternut squash I did plant.  This is the first year I’ve succeeded in keeping the squash bugs at bay.  I’ve been admiring seven butternut squash as they’ve grown from the size of my pinky to the size of my 9 x 9 baking dish, cut in half and decorated with butter and brown sugar of course.  The plant has been dying back for several weeks, but I was not sure when to harvest the fruit.  Given all the rain and the discovery of some black mold colonies forming, I decided it was time.  I washed off the mold and they are curing in the kitchen.

I weeded other areas too.  I picked beans that are still producing.  They give us enough for a vegetable serving every few days.  I picked my first radish and was so excited that I planted another row right away.  They’ll be ready in just 30 days.  In between all this weeding, I had a little fun.  I took any slug or caterpillar I found eating my vegies, and any grasshopper I could catch, to the chickens.  I quickly learned the mine, mine call they make when one chick deems an offering tasty and snatches it, running from the others.  The caterpillars on my chard were refused, while grasshoppers caused quite a scrabble.

I stayed outside for about two hours, weeding and listening to my chicks.  By this time my jeans had wicked water from the grass almost to my knees, and the mosquitos had not only found me, but also notified the whole neighborhood that there was fresh blood out and about.  I came in happy though.  My intrinsic motivation was restored with a few extrinsic words and some hard work.  Thanks LA.



Moving Day

We finished the coop yesterday and the girls are ready to move.  I am more than ready for this move since they are getting too big to have inside.  They love to come out of their cage when we come to visit, but are starting to fly to the couch, or if one spooks the rest causing a tangle of wings, feet, and beaks, a surprised bird finds herself on my head or farther in the room than she’s ever ventured.  No more calm little chickies walking around, they need a space of their own.

Coop is ready for some chickens!

The run portion of the coop is 32 square feet and the coop area is 16 square feet.  From what I’ve read this means I could raise between 4 and 8 birds depending on size and how often we move the coop for fresh foraging.  I opted to start small.  Right now the run looks spacious, but the girls are not even half grown.  Eight square feet per bird though does seem sufficient.

I took a good look at the coop this morning before initiating the transfer from indoor cage to outdoor coop.  I knew the coop would never look this nice again, just as a brand new house with fresh paint looks before a toddler with a need for creative outlet crafts Picasso-like, one-of-a-kind art on the walls.  The elements and seasons would weather the outside, and the chickens would decorate the inside, daily, with copious amounts of art best suited for my compost.

The coop cost about $200.00 to build.  This is considerably less than any coop I found online, all of which needed assembling anyway, or were too heavy to deliver to a residential address.  This cost does not include factoring in our labor.  It took 24 combined man, woman, and kid-hours to complete.  As I’ve found with our own house, though, the satisfaction from a do-it-yourself job is a hard thing to measure, and mystically seems to offset the time, sweat equity, and sometimes the frustration involved.  I’m pretty sure the girls will appreciate our efforts.

Finally it was time to introduce the chickens to their home.  I opened their cage and placed it, facing inward, at one of the side doors. They were definitely interested and excited, as noted by their chirping sounds, but no one ventured into the big open space right away.  After a few minutes, Darky entered the coop and the other girls followed.  I put my camera down so I could shut the door quickly because Pirate, our dog, was outside with us.  By the time I did, all four girls were back in the comforts of their cage.  This was not going to be easy.  They love being outside in the grass and dirt, but all the previous times I brought them out, I just tilted their cage into a penned in enclosure.  Tilting would not work this time.

Transferring chicks to new home

Finally I resorted to placing them in the coop.  This became a mini-exercise in juggling because, as I was reaching in to get a second bird out of the cage, the first one was coming out of the coop.  I had one hand blocking the bird trying to exit, one hand on the bird I wanted to add to the coop, and one eye on Pirate.  By the time there were three birds in the coop it got easier.  There is comfort in numbers, they say.  As soon as all four birds were in, they started enjoying the green carpet, eating some leaves, finding and eating ants on the wood frame, and scratching and preening.  I sat down to watch.  Which reminds me, the coop did have another cost.  I wanted a bench in the garden so I could sit and watch the chickens when we let them out in the evenings.  I figure all gardens need a good bench anyway.  I sat down to watch and suddenly I was filled with beginner questions.  How would I get them to go upstairs to roost tonight?  Will they understand what to do with the nest boxes when it is time to use them, months from now?  Did we really make it as predator-proof as possible?  How long will it take until they are not afraid of noises from planes or storms or crows?  Crows?  I realized there were several crows calling and the girls were silent and huddled.  One chick was making a low guttural sound very different from their chatty let’s-look-for-bugs-in-the-grass chirps.  Maybe all birdcalls are a cause for caution or maybe chickens can’t discern a hawk call from a crow call.

Turns out the chickens are smarter than I about the crows.  Well, I’d feel better to say their instincts are better honed.  Crows are apparently not only yet another of the many chicken predators at large, but crafty at their role.  They are known to observe the goings on at poultry farms, noting the movements of chicks, and attacking at times most advantageous to success.  The poetic phrase for a group of these small black birds – a murder of crows – insidiously crept into my thoughts as I watched my chickens warily listening to the caws. And now as I write, it seems the crows are very active today.  Their caws are frequent and ominous and their sentries fly off from the trees surrounding the garden each time I check on the girls.

I knew I would worry about the chickens the first few nights, but I hadn’t counted on crafty murderers, on critters working in pairs or groups, or even on anything noticing the chickens so fast.  My imagination was not helping to calm my worries so I went to vacuum the room the chickens had been raised in, protected from marauding crows.  As I worked, small light-gray downy feathers took flight on the air expelled by the vacuum.  I felt sad.  These lone feathers, unattached to a bird made the move to an outdoor coop seem more serious.  It reminded me of finding socks or some other remnant of my daughter’s while vacuuming her room.  She’s left the nest too, flown off to college, exploring a world far vaster than chickens have to face.  I don’t know just how much I have imprinted on the chickens, but they sure have made a big impression on me.  It’s not just about fresh eggs anymore.  There is something less tangible about our relationship.  I shut off the vacuum, heard more crows calling, and wondered if it is going to rain tonight.  I might have to camp outside.

Home Sweet Home