Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Suburbs

I'm a bit uneasy living in the suburbs of Virginia. I'd much prefer to live in DC. I feel disconnected from everyone and everything. I looked up a trip on wmata.com and it said it'd take an hour to get from where I live to Alexandria. That's crazy. Of course, the feeling of being disconnected will improve once I get the bus system down and finish my dissertation so I can go out and interact with the world. There are some things that are making me feel more comfortable with my new location, namely the lighting bugs, the trees, and the cardinals. They're like little presents. This morning, there was a bright red cardinal on the branch outside my window this morning, chirping away. What a lovely sight for 7am. One of these days, I'm going to go park hunting. Until then, enjoying the view from my window.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Crossing Guard

Today I assisted two Banded Woolly Bear Caterpillars across the road. I was out for one of my two daily walks--designed to make sure I'm getting outside and fresh air while being cooped up finishing my dissertation--when I saw the first. Woolly Bear Caterpillars are pretty big. They're fuzzy and black with a brown stripe across their midsections. Old wives' tales say that the length of their brown middle is related to the harshness of the upcoming winter. I'm quite happy to report that their brown middles were quite small in comparison to their black ends. If the caterpillars can predict it, this winter won't be as nasty and full of snow as last. (Sorry, government employees, no paid week of work due to snow.)

I laid down a stick to get the first caterpillar up and into a flower bed. He curled up when I laid him down and I stood around for a minute making sure he uncurled and continued on his way. No sticks in sight when I happened upon the second caterpillar, so I used a semi-dried and two-days cut piece of weed. It still had leaves on it. That made it hard to pick the caterpillar up since it was more interested in eating the leaves. But that was interesting, too. I watched it devour about 5 of the leaves before rolling it on to the stem and moving it to the grass where there were tons of leaves for it to munch. Watching it eat was interesting because you can't see it eat, but rather quickly the leave just sort of stops being there.

If my identification is right, then these little guys, providing they make it, will turn into Isabella Tiger moths. They'll overwinter in their caterpillar stages and sometime next spring start their transformation. Hope you make it, guys!

Some info:

Monday, 23 August 2010

Do you hear what I hear?

Spotted: the creature making the cawing sound in the tree tops around the neighborhood. I've been looking out for a few days now for birds, big birds, like birds of prey, strange birds--anything bird, really that's the source of the noise. Turns out all that noise comes from a black squirrel. I stared in disbelief as a black squirrel was coming down a tree, and the noise seemed to be moving with it. Is it a mating call? A cry? Heat stroke? How strange and new and exciting. City wildlife!

The black squirrel is my favorite type of squirrel. Its fur looks so much silkier than that of the grey squirrel. Turns out they're one and the same, just a darker pigmented version. I also learned two greys can produce a black. A grey and a black and produce a half and half--looks kind of like one of the milk/dark chocolate pastilles that Droste makes.Yum.

Sing away, squirrels. I'll be listening.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Fairy rings . . . and mushroom randomness

Learning is exciting. The other day, I learned a new term: fairy ring. It's a circle of mushrooms. Mushrooms are the fruit of a fungus that grows beneath the surface of the ground.

The first one I saw was on the groups of the Apricot Centre. There was a near-complete circle of mushrooms at the edge of the orchard. The second one I saw was out my window in the Quays. It was less impressive: a few mushrooms and a dead spot. It was also a funky shape, much more amoeba like than circular.

It's mushroom time in DC, too. There are some really large ones around, thanks to the wet warm conditions. Last night, I saw what looked like the start of a fairy ring, but it was interrupted by cement.

I'd like to have the knowledge to go about picking wild mushrooms and not risk my health. I've been told that it used to be, at least in Europe, that you could take your pickings to the pharmacist who could sort out which was which and tell you the ones that were safe to eat.

Then, the other day, I heard about a guy who's growing mushrooms in his fridge. Not the throw-in-your-pasta sauce kind, but the magical variety. The lengths people go . . . . When I was at UEA, I used to hear stories about people who'd gone magic mushroom picking in the woods. Apparently, they grow naturally wild there. I suppose there are worse things one could do and at least it gets the kids outside.
I have mixed feelings about mushrooms. I suppose it all comes down to how they are prepared and how much mushroom there is. Portobello is too much mushroom. Diced and in a sauce? Sounds nice. Smothered in garlic and butter? I could do with a few. Button mushrooms raw? If it were served to me. Stuffed mushrooms? I want to like them, but I'm just not that into them. I prefer to see them growing, in the ground, in random places, all different varieties. Mushrooms are fascinating, especially when they clean up toxic waste and cure smallpox.

Paul Stamets' Ted Talk

Friday, 20 August 2010

Organic confession

There are some foods I find myself more comfortable eating if they were conventionally grown. Conventionally grown means pesticides have been used on them. Why? I don't like to have bugs in my food.

This seems like a horrible thing to admit, but I admit it. After picking a season's worth of raspberries infested with larvae, I find myself reaching for the non-organic berries in the store. While some might find the presence of a wormy thing a comforting sight as it indicates the presence of organic growth or at low pesticide use, it turns my stomach. And that's one of my flaws; it doesn't take much to turn my stomach.

There were many berries I picked that didn't seem to have a hint of bug presence and many of them were gorgeous, great smelling, bright red berries. Still, one worm and I lost interested. No way were any of those going to make their way into my mouth. I tried. Several times. I'd get an awesome looking berry, near perfect, with no signs of worm or pest. The berry would look clean inside and out, no holes, no spots, just perfect. I still had a hard time eating it. I'd pop one in my mouth and my tongue would be searching for the presence of a worm. I'd rather not eat something delicious than possibly eat a worm.

Anyway, I'm working on over-coming this fear. I hope to go out and buy more locally grown, farmers-market sold, organic things and support the local agriculture. I think all I need is a big of encouragement and a little distraction.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

DC Delights

Today's walk around the neighborhood featured funky houses, a black squirrel, butterflies, lavender, and a not-so-healthy looking tree full of sparrows, blending in as leaves. Also, the background noise of airplanes. The one downside to the Palisades neighborhood is that, as it borders the Potomac, it's right in the line of flight for planes landing at Reagan Airport (aka DCA). In addition to thinking about the noise pollution, how despite the beauty of the neighborhood, I probably wouldn't really like living there, and about the air pollution. Silly, I know. On the upside, I saw huge hibiscus flowers that were deep red and walked down streets I'd never visited before. So much to explore.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Fireflies. Lightning bugs. Fire bugs. Awesome by any name. I'd almost forgotten about them and how magical they are to watch.

This time last year, I was camping with two of my best girlfriends. Our camp was on a rock bed, complete with fire pit. Just behind it there was a green patch that formed in the drainage ditch. Once the sun went down, the fireflies came to life. Never had any of us seen so many at once. It was like being at Disneyland with the fake fireflies set to go off at regular intervals. It was like a blanket of twinkling Christmas lights. It was amazing. Just when I was lamenting the loss of goldfinches, magpies, tits, and oystercatchers, the firefly came along and reminded me that there's wonderful nature in this neck of the woods, too. I only need to go outside and find it.

Wikipedia tells me there are over 2,000 species of firefly. I'm thinking that firefly spotting would be a fantastic way to travel around. Can you imagine? New places, long quiet evenings spent watching these creepy and amazing little bugs light up, the different colors you could see: yellow, green, red.

In an unrelated story, a friend posted a news piece about a group of researchers who went camping for a week to find that the brain functions differently when away from computers. No shit. But that's a great excuse to take a vacation masked as work. And another reminder to go outside!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Murder Mystery: The case of the cygnet killer

This weekend, 4 cygnets were shot dead on campus. Rumor has it, someone with an air rifle shot them in the head. Campus security found them on Saturday morning. It was kept hush hush, but reported in the Gazette. E-mails circulated around campus today asking for donations to the Essex wildlife trust in memory of the cygnets. Horrifying to think someone would shoot baby animals for sport. Sad to think the cygnets won't be around campus anymore. The bird life is one of the best parts of this campus--certainly the liveliest. Thoughts go out to the parents of the four young swans.

(Thanks to Andrew Spiller for the photo.)

Last Day at the Apricot Centre

Today was my last day at the Apricot Centre. A bitter sweet day, but a great way to spend it. I turned up on the late side and found Aidan in the glasshouse. I stood around for a few minutes like a useless lump and watched him water before he recruited me to help move the chicken coop. The brambles had started to claim the coop and the ladies were roosting on the roof. They ran for the cover of the nettles and trees as soon as we came through the gate. Nice to see those girls again! (Still no sign of the little brown one.) Then we (mostly Aidan since I vowed not to get stung by nettles on my last day!) dislodged the coop from the things growing on/through it and we lifted it to a new spot.

Next job, onion harvesting. The tops had rotted off, which made pulling some of them up pretty slippery business, but the shovel and I managed. The plot was overgrown with weeds, nettles and thistle included. Tons of nettles, stinging and non-stinging. I have the stings from finger tip to elbow to prove it. And thistle is mean! Spikes all the way down to the roots. I managed to uncover two mini potatoes while I was down there and a ton of bugs and worms--the sign of happy soil.

I met two friendly faces today. Mark, Marina's partner, who is the reason I first came to the Centre; and a frog. It was great to chat with Mark, albiet briefly, as it was through my meeting him at a CSA event in Colchester last spring that I first learned of the Apricot Centre and suggested a visit. The other friendly face was that of a frog, sitting in a pond behind the centre. The pond seems to have sprung a leak and the water level has been going down these past few weeks, but the frog didn't seem to mind much. He was able to sit with his head above water, body hiden beneath the yellow-green algae. 

Wheat harvesting followed lunch. I pulled the wheat out from beneath the glasshouse raspberries, a fun and messy job. Vine weed is growing everywhere and complicates things. In another part of the glasshouse, vine weed has toppled a medium sized fennel plant. So a lot of vine weed was pulled as well as wheat. Other casualties included New Zealand spinach and fennel. The raspberries are still looking pretty good. All of the wheat was wheel-barrowed over to the chicken's area and thrown over the fence for them to enjoy. Poor girls; I kept scaring them off by pitching arms-full of wheat over the fence. Hope they enjoy the wheat feast.

My last project of the day, was to take a tray of seeds that Marina and I had sown a few weeks ago which were coming up as little sprouts and to separate them out into their own little compartments. The flowers with tiny seeds were just sprinkled over dirt. They've come up nicely, but pretty close together, so we've transplanted some of them to give them more space to grow. We managed to do about 5 trays of Love in a Mist--ridiculous name for a flower--which shared a pan with Sweet Williams. Shame I won't get to see them grow! And I'm missing out on plums and apples, too!

I've had a great time at the Apricot Centre and I know I've learned a lot. I will miss my trips there and working with Marina and Aidan. Many thanks to them for welcoming me onto the farm and allowing me the opportunity to learn and to get outside and do something real. It's been the perfect balance for the mental exercise of dissertation work.

Thursday, 5 August 2010


In addition to the normal picking (raspberries and blackberries), today's visit to the Apricot Centre involved a bit of 'demolition'. (Or so Aidan called it.) I pulled all the plants growing in a section of the polytunnel. It was mostly a flower bed but had plenty of nettles, fennel and deadly nightshade. Then I dug up a patch of land that had been a flower bed outside. I used the pitchfork to turn the soil, wind up dead goose grass and chop down some nettles. I (bravely) attempted the quick-grab technique with nettles. Having already earned a few stings today, I thought, it's worth a shot to try. It worked. I was surprised. Even though I did it several times, I didn't expect it to work each time. I've got nettle stings on the insides of my hands (which I got while wearing gloves), on the backs of my hands and on my forearms. But none of them were from using my newly adopted quick nettle pulling technique.

Another new experience at the farm today involved a chicken (or a chook) and a glasshouse. One of Marina's chickens has escaped. It can fly and so it flies over the fence that's been put there to keep the chickens in. Aidan's put her back once, but after he saw her fly on top of the grapes, he thought no point putting her back; she'll only fly out again. I met her in the glasshouse. She's a lovely one, very clucky, which made for good fake conversation. She was making herself a little nest in the open dirt between the courgettes (zucchinis) and whatever's growing at the round-table end of the glasshouse and giving herself a dirt bath in the process. I was quite happy getting to know her and then she disappeared. Not sure where she went off to but I do hope to see her again.

Monday's my last day at the farm. I'm quite sad about that. I really have enjoyed my time there and I've learned quite a bit. I'm grateful to Marina for letting me come and to Aidan for educating me on everything from picking to planting to digging.

More photos from the Apricot Centre

I think it's a Dahlia
Matching accessory
Opportunist: wheat growing in the raspberry patch
Going in
Vine weed
Edible flower: Nasturtiums

Monday, 2 August 2010

Revisiting the original idea

Last Thursday, I hit a wall in my dissertation. I found myself bored with it and asking a lot of questions. Why am I writing this? Why did I make this decision? What was the point? How does this information matter? Will this achieve the goal? What was the goal again?

I needed to go back to the beginning and remember, beyond the twenty second summary, why I wanted to write my dissertation on the Maldives and how it can be set forth as an example of climate change in a particular country and climate change as a human (rights) issue.

I'm not sure I have a handle on it yet. I'm feeling more bored with my dissertation than excited about it. I still have some thinking to do and reimagining, but I think I'm on the right track.

I chatted about it with a good friend of mine (thanks, Gabs) and thinking my reasoning is this:

The world is a huge place. It's largely anonymous. We need to be educated about something to care about it. My goal is to write about the Maldives as a place, a unique formation on this planet, to set it up as a beautiful place that's worth interest and worth caring about. In this, appealing to people's sense of beauty or their aspiration to visit amazing places or scuba dive. Then to talk about the country, the people, the history. Talking about the history beyond Islam's arrival is to set it up as one of the ancient civilizations of the world where people have deep roots. Not just a new place that's had people for a few centuries, but there are 'indigenous' people and these islands are important to world history. Today, there are real people, being affected. Telling stories about the tsunami, about people needing to move islands, is to appeal to people's sense of empathy, to get them to put themselves into other people's shoes. After the earthquake in Haiti, after the Boxing Day Tsunami, there was a huge outpouring of monies and support. I'm suggesting that a country disappearing under rising seas is a tragedy that is similar, but on a more extreme and permanent scale, in the hope that people can start to think about it in terms of human beings, and not some anonymous island they've never heard of.

Will this be successful? Stay tuned.

Hampshire Walking

This past weekend, I had the great pleasure of being a guest at Ashe Park, just outside of Steventon in Hampshire. My friend, Laura, from the BB2B walk, has been inviting me to visit since November, and I've been rather slow about getting around to it, but I am so glad I finally did. I enjoyed visiting with Laura and her family and the house and grounds are amazing. I was able to accompany them on several walks. Two around the grounds of Ashe Park, which included visits to the pond, a copse, and some sheep. They've been letting the grass grow a bit longer--much to the chagrin of the gardeners who think it looks untidy--to encourage insect life. I think it's working. We saw many butterflies, including some common blue, bees, flies, grasshoppers, and moths. They also have a ton of mini frogs, soon to grow to be toads. The toads make their way to the pond at the right time of year to lay eggs. Then come summer, these adorable, finger-nail sized, little frogs leave the pond and spread across the grounds in all directions. There are so many and they are so small that one has to be careful where one steps. Laura said the gardener hates mowing the lawn this time of year.

Laura, who just finished a biking trip in France, is gearing up for another big walk: 3 1/2 days around the Isle of Wight. They do training walks a few days a week. Sundays are the big walks. We went out for two hours, starting from Ashe Park, to White Hill. Park of the walk went along the Wayfarers Walk. We were accompanied by 3 dogs, a westie, a lab, and a great dane, who added a bit of entertainment to the walk. Some sites seem to say that the book Watership Down was based on this area. It was really beautiful. There were several parts that felt like you were really out in the country. No roads, no buildings in sight. We passed through fields of linseed, barley, and oats. Some golden fields, some recently cut, some green. It was good weather--overcast, but warm--and stunning scenery. On one track, one of the other walkers informed us that we were on the old main road to Winchester, which was at one point the capitol of England.

Steventon was the home of Jane Austen. She visited Ashe Park in her time--which she probably wouldn't recognize now--and wrote letters to her sister from there. Laura also took me to Winchester--a beautiful town with a ton of old, timber frame buildings and site of the oldest bar in England--where Jane Austen is buried.

Really great, relaxing weekend with excellent company and long walks. Thanks, Laura!