Thursday, December 26, 2013

LaBarque Conservation Area Doubles in Size

It was news to me that the 639-acre LaBarque Creek Natural Area, with its 3-mile trail, had three parcels added that make a total of 1,274 contiguous acres forming the LaBarque Creek Conservation Area. The Missouri Conservation Dept. says that a "natural area" is an area untouched by development, one that shows visitors native Missouri landscape; in this case the oak-and-hickory, creased and pitted Eastern Ozarks. By contrast, a "conservation area" might once have been farmed or otherwise used, but is now protected from further "development."

So when the hiking group went off-trail to explore the new acreage on a cloudy, cold Christmas Day, I went along. From the trail, down the rugged slopes we bushwhacked to the streambeds, some with icy water or pools (pictured) but mostly intermittent and full of stones, and bright-green moss. We found unexpected glades (already undergoing red-cedar removal), one impressive cliff, several small or narrow waterfalls, and much quiet woodland.

Don't bring your kids. It was heavy going -- one mile per hour. The new parcels link the Natural Area to the soon-to-be but not-yet-open Don Robinson State Park, for a total of more than 2,100 acres of new public land. I picked the right place to live, I did, because none of this was conservation land before I moved here. It's all about protecting our precious 6.1-mile creek, the mighty LaBarque, habitat of many wonderful Ozark-type creatures whom you have met on my pages, some of whom I've personally hosted in my house.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas 1958

My Christmas trees grow outdoors and birds are all the ornaments they need, so I don't decorate for Christmas, but cleaning out closets today I found my oldest personal possession: this Santa doll.

Mom said a Serb named Kuzman gave it to me. A family friend, Kuzman must have habitually brought gifts because there's a dated photo of him handing me a non-Santa-doll gift in our living room at Christmas 1958. (The film was processed in April 1959; at that time one took fewer photos than now, because developing and printing cost money, and if anyone had wasted film on "selfies" back then, the whole town would have been aghast.)

Our family was Eastern Orthodox, celebrating Christmas by the old calendar, on January 7. We had
"American Christmas" because everyone else did. At Christmas 1958, I, their eldest, at 23 months, was too young to have pestered my parents to put up a tree, so they did it voluntarily.

Daddy certainly took the photo. At Christmas 1958, Mom has a six-month-old and she will have a third baby by Christmas 1959. Wasn't any birth control for women in those days, at least not that Mom knew of.  Guests were always invited to settle in and stay a while, have a drink or coffee and talk, so Kuzman wearing his coat is unusual. His name is the Serbian version of "Cosmo," a 4th-century Christian martyr. As for my small self, I am already abashed or ashamed to receive gifts. I will, however, straighten out in about 20 years.

The skier in a glittering leotard and silver cap -- built like a snowman but with flesh and facial features -- ornamented our family Christmas tree as long as I can remember. At some point Mom gave it to me. I'm not one for tchotchkes, but I can't call these things clutter.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Levee High

The town of Kimmswick on the Mississippi River has suffered many floods but is still quaint, with 1840s houses, gift shops and craft shops, and my neighbor treated me to a hearty homemade lunch there at The Blue Owl, a historic country tearoom that grew into a gingham restaurant that never forgot it evolved from a bakery -- and to this day produces the Levee-High Apple Pie, which makes the "normal" pies surrounding it seem like rice cakes by comparison. The Christmas-cookie tray (not shown; it's too many calories to even look at) also had a major wow factor. The Blue Owl keeps country hours, closing at 3 (that's p.m.!) on weekdays and at 5 on Saturday and Sunday; closed Mondays. Currently it's got nice Christmas decorations. Order a slice of Levee-High Apple Pie and half a pound of sliced apples collapses onto your plate. Nowadays when they say "as American as apple pie," they mean this one.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Kingfisher

I saw him from a distance, short blunt body, boldly crested head, waterbird's long bill, and he was within a few yards of LaBarque Creek: The first kingfisher I'd seen here in ten years. The creek is shallow and slow but it must provide what the kingfisher likes to eat or it wouldn't be there.

Excited, I approached, listening for the kingfisher's distinctive "rattle" of a voice. Heard it. It saw me coming and flew to the top of an electrical pole, leaving me only its silhouette. Wouldn't let me get close even to that, flying away over the bridge into the woods, rattling. I savored its voice for a while, and thought the voice followed me for a bit, but then I continued my walk past the creek along Doc Sargent Road and heard it no more.

On my way back, same route, I listened but didn't hear any rattle. It made sense: LaBarque Creek is slow, shallow and currently frozen in places; there's better hunting in the larger river not far away. I stopped on the bridge over the creek to listen again . Heard nothing. I felt blessed by even this rare scrap of an encounter with a kingfisher, and, filled with divine love, I said to its afterglow, "I love you."

Far away, a rattle. I smiled and knew that I am truly blessed.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

. . .And I In My Cap

In winter, the Divine Cabin's log walls and concrete floor all radiate cold, and its bedroom, a non-log, non-insulated add-on circa 1969, is the worst place to be. Beneath its single-paned window, covered with plastic inside and out, is my pillow. Delightful in summer to hear there the sounds of night; it's like sleeping outside. But the same is true in winter, so over the years I've assembled an arsenal: portable electric heater, electric heating pad, flannel sheets, piles of blankets and a quilt, and, on very cold nights, sexy black bed socks that Demetrius used to make fun of, but he's dead and I'm not so I got the last laugh. Because I can't both cover my head and keep breathing, I sleep in this fleece helmet when it's exceedingly cold, like last night's 7 degrees. I like it so much ($5 at Wal-Mart) I bought three in different colors, plus matching gloves with finger pads that let the wearer use a smartphone. The hats and gloves are color-coded: red stays in the car, gray is for indoor wear, forest green is backup for the items that will be lost around the time of the January thaw. Sexy? You betcha!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Let It Snow

The first snow came, only an inch or two but enough so that I woke to the screaming demands of the local Pileated Woodpecker that I get up, shuffle out through the snow and replenish the suet because all of a sudden he can't find his own food. And for years I've tried to be a good backyard bird-feeder and give my year-round cardinals a balanced diet of millet mixed with sunflower seeds, but they always ate only the sunflower seeds. So, just a few days ago I gave in and now serve only sunflower seeds. My reward is more cardinals, males and females, in constant motion from tree branch to feeder to wire, like a mobile.

I 'm secretly delighted to be hosting and serving birds -- mine are the world's finest.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Bush Beater

On a glorious day took a walk in Engelmann Woods Natural Area, one of the few tracts of old-growth forest in Missouri:  regal oak, hickory and ash trees. Its lollipop loop trail of two miles is marked, but insufficiently; fallen leaves buried part of the trail, especially the low-lying areas, and huge fallen old-growth trees or their limbs blocked the way a few times, and circumventing one of them I saw no further path. But I did see a bluff I wanted to get to for the view, so leaving my hat on a branch as a marker, up I scrambled.

Got my view. Orienting myself using my hat, I then cautiously picked my way down the leaf-covered, rocky slope and retrieved it. Now to regain the trail and finish the hike--but not knowing where it was I consulted the app called Map My Walk. Using GPS it red-lines your journey on a Google map of the area. (On the map you can see where I went off the trail, around the 1-mile point.) It told me a straight line would get me there. Forward I plunged, calf-deep in thrashing fallen leaves that hid rocks and holes and silt; bare branches of understory whipped my face. Then I saw the trail marker. I finished the trail and went on home, but being lost was the fun part.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Perfect Polish Pottery

In Poland on an agritour in 2012 I admired whole shops full of traditional Polish pottery, now becoming fashionable in the U.S. and retailed by places like Williams-Sonoma because it's durable, poison-free, microwavable and oven-safe, each piece hand-painted with imaginative, folky, usually abstract designs (often in cobalt blue, and yellow and green) and, for ceramics, Polish pottery is cheap. I wanted it all, but since then I've been seeking a single ideal piece to remind me of the warmth of Poland, where I was very happy, and my Polish roots. Had to be useful, authentic and adorable. Then one day this came up on eBay. A ten-ounce cup circled with folk-style rabbits. Divine.
Polish pottery is called "Boleslawiec" pottery; Boleslawiec is Poland's "ceramics city," famed for natural clay used for ceramics production since the 14th century, and much farther back according to archaeological digs. Thriving factories, destroyed during World War II, were rebuilt and individual artists have their own studios; they are allowed to sign the pieces if they make them from from start to finish. Today's typical Boleslawiec piece, with a cream ground and patterns painted in recognizable colors and styles, is a design created in the last half of the 19th century. "Boleslawiec" is in southwestern Poland (I was in southeastern Poland) and is named for Duke Boleslaw the Tall, son of Wyladyslaw the Exile.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Here's the Beef

When I eat beef I want it organic, pesticide-free and hormone-free, so at a farmer's market on a September morn I approached a farmer seated at a table, just a table in the sun, taking orders for organic beef from her farm 10 miles up the road. I asked about buying a quarter of beef. Couldn't afford it; also it was too much meat for me. The farmer suggested I split a quarter with three friends.

So I put the word out, and three people signed up with me in October, each paying a reservation fee of $25, and were told we could pick up our quarter from the processor in early December. The beef was ready on Nov. 21, we cleared our freezers, and today the four of us drove 25 miles to the processor, each paying $33 directly to the processor. Then we divided between us about 110 lbs of flash-frozen beef. To complete the transaction we will now pay $94 each to the farmer. That's $152 for about 27 lbs. of  local, organic 3/4" cut steaks (t-bone, sirloin, rib eye), roasts, and ground beef. The quarter included 50 lbs of ground beef but only four one-pound packages of stew beef. That cut was not popular so I asked for three of the four pounds of it for my famous slow-cooker beef burritos. Splitting a quarter of beef with three friends was a good idea. Some of my share is shown in the photo.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Fossicking a Brachiopod

As a gatherer in a month without mushrooms, vegetables, fruits or nuts, I am drawn to the LaBarque Creek streambed 50 yards away and entertained by fossils from the Ordovician Period -- 400 to 500 million years ago, when Missouri was underwater, specifically warm seawater. I found today the imprint of an ancient living creature, a simple clam-like bivalve called a brachiopod. As the first human being to lay eyes on it I never know what to say. It's an honor to meet this bookmark in time. Did it know it was beautiful?

"Fossicking" is a British-ism for "searching for gemstones among matrix rocks," but I like applying it to the enjoyable pursuit of fossil hunting. Have found fossils of marine plants and coral and creatures such as this brachiopod. Fossicking is made easier by the amazing fact that rocks with fossils and imprints usually lie on the ground fossil-side up.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Blind

Took a new path through the conservation area today -- a really new path, because I know the place well and that path was never there before or I'd have walked it -- and found a secret pond, connected to another larger secret pond. I am charmed by seeing a sudden shine of water between trees and discovering a water feature not on any maps. Here the path seemed to end. While searching the leafy floor of the woods for any further path, I raised my eyes and suddenly saw this blind which I hadn't noticed before. Gee, I wouldn't make a very good deer or rabbit!

A choice hunting spot this was, on a slope above the smaller of the two ponds, in a quiet area far from the road. Its design, placement, and camouflage of genuine oak branches were all the result of much thought by the wily hunters. Some yards away in the classic Missouri oak and hickory forest I also saw a tree stand. It's the season. And now I know how the new path got made.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

As the year ages like fine wine, I woke planning a hike at mid-morning today, then was deluged with messages and calls demanding instant action everywhere at once, and could have worked 16 hours and maybe get through it all, but then I thought about my ancestors who'd say "What foolishness," and after working all morning fixed a nice lunch and furthermore, sat down and ate it, and don't care who knows it. I settled for an afternoon walk at Glassberg Conservation Area, circling its three-acre lake I sometimes fish in. (I didn't fish even once this summer; too busy.) An odd little gem of an island in that lake, you see here.

November hikes must be short and planned. After 2 p.m. the shadows lengthen by the minute; after 3 p.m., about the time this photo was snapped, the hills begin swallowing the sun, and rocks and streambeds exhale icy breath; after 4 p.m., darkness unwraps its chilly lengths and nothing stops it. The bright side: Only five more weeks until the daylight begins lengthening.

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Tipi

This fine canvas tipi sits next to the prairieland at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, MO every autumn, and every year I enjoy a minute or two of rest in it, admiring it outside and in. The pointed shape supposedly concentrates spiritual energy (think of wizard's caps, or church steeples). I don't know if that's true, but there is indeed a quality about a tipi that takes one's mind off Twitter for a moment.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sweet and Fatty

Discoveries about the creamy pleated sweet-tasting acorn-sized wild hickory nuts that I have gathered 10 pounds of, the best harvest yet. Each day in the beautiful last hour of daylight, now rare and precious, I comb the lawn and woods and bring home the kernels. Each day the hickory trees and nuts teach me something.


1. If the thick-walled, blackish-green pod won't release the ivory-colored kernel, it's not good to eat anyway.
2. If moisture seeps in, the kernel gets moldy and so does the nut inside. So if the kernel is sprinkled with mold spots, it's not good.
3. If it has just rained and the kernels are only very recently and mildly wet, place them in the oven to dry for 12 minutes at 350 degrees. That will toast them, split the kernels slightly, and scent your whole house.
4. If the nut is spherical it's from a shagbark hickory tree. If it is ovoid it's a pignut hickory. If it resembles a walnut, it's a black hickory.  If it's got a green tight-fitting sheath that won't peel off, that's a bitternut hickory and that one is not edible.
5. Do not leave your basket of hickory nuts outside, because in the morning your trove will be depleted.


1. Place harvested hickory kernels in a cool place. Warmth will make them rancid. I keep 'em outside on the porch.
2. Air-dry the kernels for one week. This dries the shell and it's more likely to come off. I do this on a screen.
3. Before shelling, bring the kernels to room temperature. Chilly nuts are far harder to smash and shell.


1. Place four to ten room-temperature kernels in a plastic zip-lock bag. Airborne shrapnel is therefore contained. Zip the bag 99 percent shut.
2. Smash each kernel with rubber mallet. Using a hammer will pulverize them, so a rubber kitchen mallet is the preferred tool.
3. Open the bag, reach in, grab and save the largest nut pieces.
4. When the largest pieces are out of the bag, take out the smashed shells and use a dental tool to pick out the remaining meat. You decide how much picking you want to do. Then empty the bag of shell fragments and start over.
5. Get in a rhythm and you can extract maybe three ounces of nutmeats per hour.
6. Nobody wants shells in their hickory nuts so be careful that what you're keeping is nutmeats only.
7. Keep one bag that you are positive is only large choice nutmeats without a shred of hard kernel, and give this bag to a good friend.
8. Dumping the shelled nutmeats in water to separate them from any hard shell pieces does not work, at least for me.
9. Microwaving does not help the kernels open. Two minutes of microwaving reduces the nice sweet fatty nutmeat to bitter charcoal.


1. Keep hickory nutmeats refrigerated or frozen in their own small plastic bag or clean glass jar with a lid. And eat them. Great in oatmeal, cookies, muffins, stuffing, on ice cream, or just to savor.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The End of Solitude

For many reasons I've spent most of my time alone, and I don't mean "unmarried"; I mean in solitude. As an over-50 solo hiker I began limiting myself, because what if I got lost on 4000 acres, or slipped and fell? And always I wished to share my delight in migrating birds or puffball mushrooms or other things I saw on hikes. One year ago I discovered and joined You can find in your locale people coming together to enjoy an shared interest or event they might not attend or enjoy alone. These include wine tasters, paleo-foods enthusiasts, ballroom dancers, history buffs, kayakers, stargazers, playgoers, creative writers, you name it. Joining and meeting are free. My favorite group "Let's Hike" hosts every weekend at least four hiking events to choose from, anywhere between 4 and 35 people on each hike.

"Let's Hike" led me to Missouri conservation areas and parks and trails I didn't know existed; on hikes too rocky, lengthy, or distant or spooky, like Howell Island, to hike alone--and awesome sights such as the Pink Rocks near Fredericktown. Some people are out for exercise, others to see nature; we all chat. November offers perfect hiking: no snow, bugs, heatstroke or below-zero temps, and yes to gorgeous autumn scenery. It's only because of Let's Hike that a photo exists of me the hiker with hiking poles--great for ascents, descents, and rocky paths. Fellow hikers recommended them. Solitude is fine, but I sure do learn a lot from other people.

Friday, November 1, 2013

It's Deer Hunting Season

The first Missouri deer-hunting firearms Youth Weekend begins tomorrow, Nov. 2-3.

Regular November firearms deer season is Nov. 16-26. (Out near here it'll be "bang, bang, bang!" all day.)

Antlerless deer firearms season: Nov. 27-Dec. 8, in selected areas. In my area, hunters can take only one antlerless deer.

Alternative deer-hunting methods: Dec. 21-31. This includes deer-baiting and hunting on food plots.

The second youth deer-hunting firearms weekend: Jan 4-5. (Hey, kids, you can take only one deer.)

Information from I liked the T-shirt.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Slice of Heaven Bakery

While passing by I saw this bakery in Valley Park, MO, and thought, "Why pass it by?" So I went in and it was the old-fashioned kind of bakery that doesn't serve $8 paninis. Decades had passed since I was last in a normal pastry bakery like this one. They had St. Louis Cardinals cookies (I guess we're in the World Series), kolaches, danishes, cakes, brownies, cupcakes, turnovers, doughnuts, and chocolate-covered Oreos, to name a few. I could have only one slice of heaven so selected a cannoli, a dessert I can't make in my own kitchen. They gave it to me in a small white box with a cellophane insert, just like a piece of jewelry in a presentation box. I am so glad I did not simply pass by.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Recipe Box Collection

 Housekeeper Debbie and I spent two days cleaning and winterizing the Divine Cabin, now 85 years old with cracks in the foundation big enough to stick my hand in, and to fix them I emptied my cobwebbiest closet of boxes packed during my move here 12 years ago, unsealed the boxes to see what to throw out, and found, carefully wrapped in Taste of Home Magazine pages from 2001, my cherished recipe-box collection, mostly of tin and manufactured between 1950 and the 1970s, many of them by Ohio Art Company of Bryan, Ohio, maker also of tin toys.

If bought at yard sales or on eBay a box might yet be crammed with some homemaker's recipe cards, newspaper clippings and notes, telling an intimate story of her household and her kitchen, heart of the home. And the heart of the kitchen is--it must be--the recipe box! I have made some of their recipes, such as Orange Chiffon Pie. Many recipes, reflecting their era, require canned soups. My mother owned the same box as the red one pictured, and I laid out for you a sample of the unknown former owner's recipes: a clipping on how to make Arthur Treacher-style fish and chips; a handwritten recipe for 24-Hr. Salad, on its reverse a handwritten recipe for "Chicken Cha Cha," a dish credited to Della Reese, the singer; and a note saying "Calgon & water - mix to remove wallpaper." Just visible inside the box: "Potato Chip Cookies."

My brain's pleasure center lights up seeing their colors and imagining their stories, and I welcome the recipe boxes (the only items I have ever actively collected) back wholeheartedly into my daily life.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Pumpkins for Cheap

Pumpkins in the grocery stores are usually high-priced at around $5 for a cuddly little (and in my kitchen, doomed) pie pumpkin and around $20 for a tubby ol' future jack-o'-lantern, and I'm sure the markup is all transportation costs for these big dense heavy vegetables, so I try to buy them from open-air markets or farm stands like this one. Cost of transportation from field to retail shelf is low, without middlemen or overhead; the farmer simply goes to his field, loads them on a wooden trailer, and pulls the trailer about 200 feet to the stand where he prices and and arranges. The farmer preferred that I not identify him personally, but I wanted to show him at work with the plump and glowing fruits of his labor. "By their fruits you shall know them."

Monday, October 14, 2013


My mushroom classes and forays with the mushroom society have taught me to recognize several common mushrooms, but one is always seeking the edible ones, and here I found one in a ground-level hole in a tree, a few "petals" of Chicken of the Woods or Sulfur Shelf (Laetiporus sulphureus), so called because of its bright-yellow underside. This isn't Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa), which looks like an actual hen with gray feathers and no head; years ago I found a glorious 24-ounce Hen in my woods, which I kept for a while out of sheer delight with it, and now I know that one was edible too. The Sulfur Shelf should perhaps be called "Chicken Breast of the Woods," because it has lovely dense white meat, divinely scented like canned mushroom soup.
The pieces you can break off from the shelf-like whole are fresh enough to eat, and I broke off about three ounces, leaving the remainder. Having checked it with my mushroom-identification manuals, and having seen slides and real-life samples in a course and actually obtained some recipes for Chicken of the Woods (always cook wild mushrooms), I was sure this was the choice edible, but was too chicken to take even a sliver, saute it and bite. I left it for wildlife to enjoy.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Rattler at My Door

At dusk I fetched my mail, and when opening the screen door to get back into the house nearly stepped on a young snake right on the concrete threshold. (Between door and threshhold is a gap of half an inch). "Oh!" I cried. "Excuse me!" It stayed put and I saw this was not offspring of my house blacksnake, or a garter or milk snake. It stayed in striking position, head raised, the entire time, so I used the zoom feature to get closer, but then the photos turned grainy. I kept shooting while its tail -- very thin at the tip -- vibrated like a needle of a gauge that has reached its upper limit, and knew it was a rattler. So when it finally struck out I backed away and shut the screen door carefully so as not to pinch it and annoy it further, and hoped it would then travel away from the house rather than come in. I don't fear snakes--I respect them--but this was my first photo session in the house with a venomous snake, a Pygmy Rattler (Sistrurus miliarius streckeri Gloyd --try to say THAT after three beers). No one is known to have died from a Pygmy Rattler bite, says the fine manual The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri. That manual says it's a southern Missouri snake and it is not recorded to have appeared in Jefferson County, but I'm tellin' ya, it was here. This was a baby 5 or 6 inches long. I hope it doesn't go summon its 20-inch mom and bring her back to scold me.

Sunday, October 6, 2013


One bright autumn morning back in the old days when kids walked to school, at the corner of Marquette Street and Washington Avenue a tree I had never noticed before stood chrome-yellow and sunlit and beneath it on the leaf-covered sidewalk were glowing dark warm chocolate-brown nuts or pods, glossy like Hershey bars and finely oiled. Marveling, I lost track of time. It was my first experience of wonder. At last I pocketed one, crossed Washington Avenue, and half a block from school the bell rang and I ran so as not to be late to my first-grade class, because nobody then was late for school. All day I felt and gazed at this marvel I now know as a horse chestnut or a "buckeye," not edible but beautiful. The glossiness faded, but the wonder of that discovery is still with me and is part of why I live here today.

Well, today after too much work and no fun I came home and noticed that last night's little rainstorm had knocked some nuts and branches out of the shagbark hickory next to the house. I'd picked some nuts back in August, but now their outer shells had darkened and dried enough to fall to earth, split open and show, or fling to the winds, the ivory-shelled seed shaped like an acorn with pleats and no cap, containing the prized wild hickory nut.

So I began to gather them, and, getting my basket, poked around beneath the other shagbark hickories in my yard, gleaning dozens and then a couple of hundred hickory nuts, some still in their tailored casings. This was the most fun I had all day, and early tomorrow I'm off to the Divine woods with my basket to see if I can't gather a couple more pounds of wild hickory nuts to dry and then crack and eat, or stir into chocolate fudge, and to give away at Christmas, as the trees have given them to any creature who will stop and notice the bountiful earth beneath their feet.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Lust for Lunch and Fall Colors

A certain aura surrounds lunch; it is like no other meal, a civilized refreshment in the meat-grinder of the workday, twice so if you can consume it outdoors. I packed a picnic lunch of ham and cheddar on a seeded bun, a dill pickle and a bottle of well water, drove to Babler State Park (2300 acres), had my lunch there and have never had a happier meal. The woods are still green, and that made me happy, but I lusted too after the orange and chocolaty tones suddenly so satisfying at this time of year. On my lustful lunch hour I bushwhacked until I found some. I'm attending courses to learn my Missouri mushrooms but am not set to eat any. I do know one must cook all edible wild mushrooms; never eat them raw. The bright orange mushroom is Cinnabar Polypore (Pycnoporus cinnabarinus); the striped one, fresh Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor). Both are pretty. Neither is edible.

Monday, September 23, 2013

My Love Life

Toads aren't often seen in broad daylight, especially just outside the gym, which is in a strip mall, so I figured this toad was looking and waiting specifically for me because he was an enchanted toad who with a kiss would turn into a handsome prince just my age, with no baggage, who shares my interests. I was game, why not, and bent down and said "Hello, little guy," and put my hand out so he could hop into it, but he hopped away, saying nothing. I tried a second time. He hopped again, toward the puddle of water in the parking lot. I pursued him with the camera. Finally he turned to me and said, "I'm a girl." She's a Bufo americanus americanus Holbrook, an Eastern American toad, found in every county in Missouri.

Oh, I said, disappointed.

That was Friday. On Saturday, clinging to the siding just outside my kitchen door making his annual appeal (often sticking to the kitchen screen door for several days), the Walking Stick appeared, trim and debonair as always, this time matching himself to the paint trim. Every year I politely refuse his proposal, telling him he's very attractive and a great guy but we are not a match.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Pickin' Up Paw Paws, and Eating Them

Paw paw fruits, a real treat right off the tree, are in season, and you can't buy them in stores; you'll find them--if the wildlife haven't got to them first--in short-ish trees in the forest understory. They look like pears but act like bananas and their sweet custardy centers taste like banana cream. If you get hard green ones, put 'em in a paper sack until they blush yellow, just like bananas; the blackened ones will be very very sweet. The pulp can be separated from the seeds, and made into pie, but more simply, cut them in half spoon up the flesh. They're Midwestern -- one of their nicknames is "Indiana Banana". A gatherer brought them to an outdoor lunch and then gave me three whole ones to take home. I did indeed have pockets full of paw paws, just as the song says.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Three Kinds of Prairie Blue

Nature news from the Shaw Nature Reserve, where I took a morning walk yesterday with a group called Wednesday Walkers, a self-selected group of people with time for about a two-mile walk, led by a nature instructor, along one of the many paths in the Reserve's 2800 acres of mixed prairie, forest, wetlands, rocky cliffs and glades. We chatted and asked questions as we walked. I heard that 2013 had been an excellent year for bluebirds. Volunteers maintain the Reserve's many birdhouses (pictured: Apartment #74) and count the eggs and babies. In 2013, exactly 203 chicks were hatched in the Reserve's bluebird boxes; 180 of them were bluebirds. "What were the rest?" I asked. "Finches and sparrows," was the answer.

As we walked, sun beating down on a shadeless path cut through stiffly waving five-foot native prairie grasses, someone asked, "What kind of grass is this?"

"Bluestem. If you look way down the stem, toward the ground, the stems are blue." Wow! (Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is, by the way, the state grass of Missouri.)

"And what are these?" I asked when I saw strange but somehow familiar black walnut-sized pods among the five-foot prairie grasses.
"Wild indigo." Snapping the stem when the wild indigo is young yields blue juice that can be used to dye cloth, a discovery the Indians shared with the European settlers. The seed pods aren't really black; they're dark blue, and they look familiar because florists use them in autumn arrangements and wreaths.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Memory Lane

One day I walked a little farther and turned onto a one-lane road I hadn't walked before although I've lived in the area 12 years, and was steamrolled by almost prehistoric memories: It looks like Ashland County, WI as it was more than 50 years ago, the place where my love for the country began, on trips to my uncle's dairy farm where I slept in a room that got very cold in the morning. Stony fields no good for crops, only cows and hay; the electrical poles, mere logs set upright into the ground, holding up a single wire to perfection; second-growth timber, and chicory weeds, all very quiet, and every half-mile a fire hydrant at the roadside, cast-iron thickly painted red; here, with lettering: CHATTA TENN 1963.

Simply hadn't seen the turnoff to this road, a memory lane, or maybe it magically appeared, a new road just when I needed it, and I walked thinking how we always visited my uncle in August, and August in northern WI is like mid-September here: breezes tepid and then cold, dealt out edgewise like playing cards; dry grass; woodpiles; understated sunlight. An excellent fitness walk because of its hills, rising 283 feet total from the starting point to its highest. Three miles into it I hadn't reached the end, and turned around, but next time I'll walk farther and see what's at the end of Memory Lane.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Cool Country Mailboxes

Now, that's bass!
A mailbox is to a house what a vanity plate is to a car; a fun enhancement and form of self-expression. What do you love enough to put out in front of your house? But having a cool mailbox, either be watchful or live on a remote rural road, because you aren't country until your beloved roadside mailbox, even a plain one, has been bludgeoned by a carful of teenagers with baseball bats. This senseless and meaningless act happened to me years ago. The mailboxes of my neighbor and I are black, plain, just ordinary; they didn't even used to have numbers until a carrier complained; I stuck orange reflective tape on them, that's all. After the vandalism, the handyman, Angelo, cleverly built out of two-by-fours a protective frame for our mailboxes, and Angelo's design made such attacks impossible.

I love mailboxes; they're about hope. Everyone hopes for good mail. When I can safely stop the car on rural roads I get out and photograph creative boxes like these that make me smile.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Sunrise Like a Moonrise

Last night had a nightmare, very rare for me. This morning woke up in light of a glassy moonstone grey as I hadn't seen in a while, and suddenly my chemistry changed. From the kitchen, which faces east, I saw the sun struggling upward though shrouds of purple and gunmetal gray, looking more like a moonrise, and for a moment I was disoriented: day or night? No; it's summer becoming fall, heading toward the one equinox I could do without. No one hangs onto the final days of summer as I do, begging them, please do not take my basil and hummingbirds and "honor" vegetable stands. But the morning didn't listen and whisked me along as the earth shifts on its axis, tilts away from the sun, giving me no choice except acceptance. It does, however, provide coffee to lift one's spirits.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

On a Mission

Every morning this week I have said "Good morning" to this Three-Toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) hangin' out beneath the bird feeder enjoying scattered birdseed. They prefer juicy food, like flies and cantaloupes, but our month-long drought left her world devoid of fruits and flying bugs, so she ate what was available. Early one morning I saw her crossing the lane toward the deep woods that cover the south-facing slope, her color matching some of the leaves already fallen, and I understood that she was fattening herself for a long sleep through the cold weather in a south-facing burrow she's now selecting or decorating. We humans do much the same, calling it football season, or good baking weather, or Oktoberfest. In case we aren't fat enough, we crawl out again in late November and call it Thanksgiving.

Friday, September 6, 2013

What City People Eat

Today I went to an urban business lunch, a buffet serving grilled chicken breast halves (about 6 ounces each), pasta with vegetables (pretty good), salad, and rolls. My table seated 8, seven women and one man, and I surveyed their plates and saw:
  1. Chicken, pasta, salad, roll.
  2. Only chicken.
  3. Only salad.
  4. Only chicken.
  5. Nothing but a nutrition bar she unwrapped and cut with a knife and fork and ate like it was a meal.
  6. Chicken, salad.
  7. Only salad.
  8. Chicken, pasta, salad, and, going home in the car, still hungry (because no one takes seconds) a package of peanut butter crackers, and at home, blackberry pudding.
Guess which one I am. Made me wonder, where is this country going?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Twenty Years and Tattered

Finally this afternoon the business of a too-busy summer was said and done, and for the first time this calendar year I had time and energy to set up my tent, because in summer I like spending a few nights a week sleeping in it, enjoying the cool earth and looking up through the netting at the fireflies and stars, and waking in the dawn amid mists and freshness. Having folded my tent carefully last fall, I unrolled it-- a six-sided, two-person dome tent--took the poles and stakes from the carry bag, and as I worked the tent poles through the sleeves for maybe the 200th time, remembering adventures in the Ozarks, in an Iowa county park, on a stony island in Wisconsin, and so on--heard: rip--rip. Shredding gave way to more shredding. The netting that formed the dome was kaput.

My first thought was to buy new netting of just the right kind, cut it hexagonally and machine-sew it myself across the tent top: good as new. But, impossible. The tent is 20 years old.  It cost precisely $20 at Grandpa Pidgeon's, a chain store defunct in 1999. The twin zippers haven't worked for seven or eight years. One of the poles is a replacement, and six inches too short. It is time for a new tent.

Was it really time? I asked myself. And answered: Yes; what perfect, perfect timing! Tomorrow, day after Labor Day, tents will be on sale everywhere and you will find the next love of your camping life.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fifty Shades Freed

Sat down with early-morning tea and saw tiny young hatchling (because his tail is blue) five-lined skink trapped in a web spun beneath the picnic table, and its spider approaching to suck his blood. Skink was so tightly wrapped and limp that I thought him dead already, and turned away because I didn't want to watch, but then I saw him wiggle. Breaking the web, I carried the skink outside and urged him to run and hide, but spiderwebbing had bound his back legs to his body, and the same with his tail, depriving him of his rudder and best weapon. He didn't move. I thought him dead again and was sorry I had interfered with the spider's meal. He was still so pretty I wanted to take his photo. Then he struggled: Alive!

Using a round toothpick I picked apart the webbing, cotton-candy sticky. I plucked it off his shivering whip of a body, and he ran. And he will never stay out past curfew again!

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Nectar-Lapping Raccoon, See It Here

I wasn't kidding four days ago when I posted about my disappearing nectar and nectar feeders. There's a young raccoon and an older one, now both so bold as to steal from my feeders in mid-afternoon. They tilt the feeder and lap at the sweet juice that runs out. This of course ruins it for the hummingbirds, and I must now cook up nectar daily so I can keep my hummers. I watch the feeders all day, holler and throw rocks and potsherds at the thieves and if they are too close for that I play the Siren app, which makes them run.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I'm Warty But I'm Not a Toad

I'm a Blanchard's Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans blanchardi Harper); you can tell by the garters around my thighs. Although I'm warty and tiny (never more than 1.5 inches long), I am a frog, not a toad. Between my back toes is webbing, and my skin is more slick than dry. I am beautifully painted and camouflaged, and today I modeled for a large ungainly land animal who spent 15 minutes sitting uncomfortably on rocks at the edge of LaBarque Creek and pointing a pink thing at me.

Me and my homies sing in chorus on spring and summer nights. The warmer it is, the more we sing. When approached, we jump into the water, but our favorite place is the shore, where we eat crawling insects. What else do you want to know?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Hard Up, Are Ya?

When it got dark I heard heavy thuds and thunks on my roof. My hair stood on end. I locked the doors, hunkered down, and prepared to murder somebody.

In the morning I go outside and find a hummingbird feeder has been knocked off its hook. It's glass and fortunately hasn't broken. So I cook up new nectar, refill it and hang it.

After dark again, thud, thunk--sounding just like a man wearing heavy boots, walking on my roof. He will be sorry he did that, I vow. Just let him show his face.

Next morning one of my hummingbird feeders is missing. I look everywhere. It's bright red; it shouldn't be hard to find. But it's nowhere to be found! Those things are expensive! And the others are askew and empty! I filled them only yesterday!

In the early evening, while there's enough light to see, I'm on my porch and hear thunk, thunk, and to my surprise I see not five feet from my face the upside-down top half of a raccoon curled over my gutter, batting at and molesting one of the two remaining hummingbird feeders. So greedy it will try to steal 4:1 diluted sugar water? That's hard up! I grab the broom and chase it while saying bad words, and take the feeders into the house.

Next morning I walk to the mailbox in my pajamas and walking uphill I see a red object on my roof. It's my missing nectar feeder! Upright no less! Now to find a monitor who will watch me while I go up on a ladder and get it.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Strange Harvest

The lone pear tree on the property, planted by idealistic former tenants, every year raises not only my hopes but excites the opossums, squirrels, maggots, birds and bugs around here. Enraptured by the spring blossoms, we watch amazed as they form green pears that gain weight all summer. Then the animals get them all. Except this year they left them for me. It's a plentiful harvest, but they're all bizarre and deformed like these:

The problem could be 1) Leafroller worms chewing on the buds back in spring, creating oddly-shaped pears and bronze-colored scabbing. 2) Another kind of worm, and we had a plague of army worms in May. 3) Fruit fungus (thus the brownish-black patch on the middle pear). 4) Fukushima. A photo of a pear grown this year near Fukushima, Japan, found online, looks a lot like these.