Saturday, August 31, 2002


I was lying about the money. But I do hope you will go to my neonatal MT weblog this weekend.

I have posted a series of three images (Autumn Entomology) over at the new Fragments this weekend. Hope you'll swing by. The theme lately seems to be mushrooms and more insects. I'll have a long-winded grampa story, probably tomorrow. Oh joy!.

If things go well and a few more things get cleared up, I may plan to make the move, for good, next weekend. I'll let you know. Meanwhile...

FEEDBACK PLEASE re the new page....readability, colors, font size, anything! (Either here, or at FRAGMENTS (potential) NEW HOME.

Image copyright Fred First

Terrestrial Starfish

I am feeling fungal. Look out for 'shrooms pictures in the coming weeks, if we can only get some badly needed moisture in the ground. Those little spores are just lying down there waiting for a bath so they can, well, pop up like mushrooms on a wet lawn.

Meet the Earth Star fungus, Geaster. Looks a little bit like a starfish, don't you think?

Once, many years ago (notice how many of my little fables start in just this way?) I was hiking in some new place with some new friends. We happened upon a group of the Earthstars like you see here....quite a colony of them, and they looked as if they were preparing to march down to the creek at any minute. My friend, Jean, was amazed, having never seen anything like this before.

"What are they, Fred?"

And in my most professorial and authoritative voice, I said "These are quite rare. They are terrestrial Echinoderms: relatives of the starfish that have left their aquatic environment and become tolerant of land conditions. They remain dormant for many years in the moist soil of a very few remote locations. These have matured and will be heading down to the creek, where some will succeed in mating, sending their small spawn downstream, eventually to the sea." Or some such malarky. I used to be very good at spontaneous biological BS.

Jean was such a smart gal. After I heard that she had repeated my fairy tale to other students at the college, I confessed that I was full of Shitake and these were really mushrooms. I don't think she ever believed a word I said after that. And you probably don't either. Right?

Friday, August 30, 2002

Origins of the universe

There is a theory that states
that if ever anybody discovers exactly
what the universe is for and why it
is here, it will instantly disappear
and be replaced by something even more
bizarre and inexplicable. There is
another theory that states that
this has already happened.

Thanks Dr. Tim

Hey little kid. Wanna piece of candy?

Fragments is one step closer to its (potential) future new home with a new coat of paint. A few people have stopped by, bringing muffins and pies and such, the neighborly thing to do, you know. I would really like it if more of you dropped in to tell me if you like the way I have decorated, the color of paint in the sitting room, that sort of thing.

Keep in mind that this is, hopefully, not the final resting appearance of Fragments' new home...just a start. I have already heard that at least in some entries, the text appears centered, when it was written left-justified. If anything looks weird, let me know, and tell me what browser you use, screen resolution, that sort of thing. But be kind. (I already know that the color for linked text doesn't fit well with background colors brought over from blogger. Just squint a little, okay!?)

And if any of you MT types have suggestions on how I can make this a relatively painless transition without losing my place in search engines, disappearing from bookmark lists, that sort of thing...I'm all ears (well, probably mostly legs).

If you just insist on a housewarming gift (in advance, mind you, of my final move) I could really use the following: 1) advice on where and in what template to add script for GeoButton, SiteMeter and Extreme Tracking; 2) how do I customise the header to include an image, different script for the title; and 3) a Jaccuzzi big enough for 8 and a couple bottles of Boones Farm Tickled Pink.

If you would just go here, I have something for you over there. Come on. Piece of candy...come on. Just move that little mousey thing a little closer...that's it. Now click.

Then come back here and snoop around. There will be a yard sale soon at Blogspot Fragments. If you see anything you want, since you're a regular visitor: it's half price. And we may throw in a free cat.

UPDATE/Sat. 31 Aug: Comments so far: 1) prob with dark bkg and light text 2) text too small 3) archive text appears centered in all imported entries from blogger to MT.

Dark bkg is good for image appearance, as in blogger Fragments, I think, vs image against white bkg, so will try to find a work-around.

Prob 1 and 2 can be solved by using a one-cell table template, as I have done this morning with the Cat Godess entry. What do you think? Cell bkg color can be altered, as I have on Fragments/blogger, limited by light blue links font appearance.

Prob 3: May be corrected by changes made this morning to archiving method in MT. Or not. May be vestige of import oddities from blogger to MT and won't be a prob with entries created in MT. Or not. BTW, a whopping thanks to Fran of Northwest Notes for her persistance in helping me problem solve this particular problem. She, lucky girl, is going on an outting this weekend, so look for more great Northwest images soon.

Thanks for your help during this (possible) birthing process. I burn hot and cold. I wake up with night sweats. I have bad dreams. Bene Diction feels my pain. Right?

Thursday, August 29, 2002

Mushroom Magic

If it has been wetter where you live than around here, the fall mushrooms should be showing their heads above the leaf litter soon. Even with cool, drizzly weather of the past few days, we are way behind on rainfall, and I feel certain the soil will not be wet enough to trigger the amazingly fast growth spurt that sends mushrooms up from underground, overnight, as if 'by magic'. Mushrooms have a magic quality for this reason, and are prominent in the lore of many folk tales because they appear to pop up instantly, out of nowhere.

One August many years ago, I was out on a 'foray' by myself, out in the National Forest near Speedwell, Virginia. I could go back to the exact spot right now. I can't remember if I was looking for anything in particular...probably just scouting for a place to take a biology class on a field trip. There was nothing remarkable about the second growth forest along the creek, just open mixed hardwoods with a few large white pines that somehow got left in the last timbering 'harvest'.

Through the undergrowth, I spotted a cluster of unfamiliar mushrooms, and pushed my way through the huckleberry and fetterbush to get a better view. It was like pushing aside the curtains into a fantasy land, a Disneyesque storybook scene from Hansel and Gretel. Over at least an acre of forest floor there were growing stout, thick archtypical mushrooms...heavy-stemmed, with smooth yellow-brown and red-brown caps like buffed suede, like rounded loaves of magical bread. Thousands of them growing singly and in dense clusters like antlers, from the bases of trees, and out in the open...I half-expected to see them hanging from tree branches. It literally made the hair on my arms stand up, it was so eerie.

Needless to say, I took many photos, using my large Buck Folding Hunter knife for size comparison. And of course, I brought a few specimens back to identify. It was definitely a boletus of some of the pored mushrooms versus those with gills. It was easy to find in my field guide: Boletus edulis. Common names: porcini, cèpe, steinpilz, and king bolete. Prized and widely consumed in Europe. More common in the U.S. northwest, occasionally in the east. Edibility: CHOICE.

I turned around and headed back to the enchanted forest with a big washtub. I easily filled it, leaving many intact boletes behind to sporulate and hopefully establish new colonies in the area. Very few of the ones I collected were previously occupied: it is rare to find these mushrooms before the slugs, which feed off the outside and their little nibbles can be trimmed away, and the fly larvae (maggots) that eat their tunnels all through the stems and caps. Most of the ones I collected were in perfect condition: firm, white flesh, inch-thick stipes or stems, with pores underneath of a greenish or yellowish color.

We canned them. Big mistake. Second mistake: we left the porous part underneath the cap on when we canned them. In the end we had about 8 quarts of eel-slime. If we had it to do over again, we would have trimmed the pores off first, and strung the pieces of 'mushroom meat' on a string over the woodstove to dry, to make an outstanding mushroom soup base that regrettably, we have only read about. I understand it is to die for. Sigh.

I have seen only perhaps a dozen individual specimens of Boletus edulis since that first encounter with the teeming hordes of them twenty years ago. There may yet be some Honeycaps or Meadow Mushrooms in our woods during the next couple of months, if we finally get rain. But for sure, the enchanted encounter with King Bolete is my ultimate fungal fantasy fulfilled.

By the way, I returned to that same magic spot in the forest again at the same time of year for several years after that, and never saw a single boletus edulis growing there. All the more to make my one-time chance discovery seem the stuff of fairies and elves.

Image Source

Talking Heads

Yesterday, in my travels through the foggy wilderness, the radio was on constantly: to keep me awake, keep me company, and of course, to keep me fully and accurately informed as to what is happening in the world beyond Goose Creek. (I had almost forgotten that there was one).

I heard several U. S. authorities speaking on how we should take out every nation that threatens, or one day, years...decades down the road...might threaten us.

I heard an interviewer totally maul a well-spoken 'guest' (like the roast on our table tonight will be a guest) who believed we should weigh the evidence before launching a unilateral and globally-unsported war on Iraq. The poor man would begin to support his answer in a most reasonable and well-crafted answer. He was cut off, time and again, by the radio-host, whose owned the microphone, and whose point of view was very loudly and obnoxiously 180 degrees opposite the speaker. The rude 'moderator' made every effort to make the guest expert look like an idiot, with quite the opposite result. It was embarassing and disgusting.

I listened a Saudi representative convey the Saudi and consensus-world opinion regarding the US's threat to create reality to suit its needs and mete out its own 'justice'. The man came across as a gentleman and a statesman, and I am hearing few of those from our side, I regret to say.

And, per my usual, I listened to NOAA Weather Radio. Ah, the weather. Something real. Uncontrived. Practical. And read to me by a variety of male and female text-to-speech robots. You can never go wrong with The Weather.

Of all these radio voices, my favorite was the robot talking about the weather. Without guile, political bias, or greed. I would have appreciated a nicer forecast for today, thanks.

Everybody's talking about the weather
and no body's doing anything about it.

Everybody's wanting to do something about Iraq
without talking about it. I dunno.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Driving, Hopefully

You know my fondness for clouds and flowers and photography. Today, I had expected a close and joyous encounter with all of them. I would be driving for two hours on the Blue Ridge Parkway, during the gentle light of the morning hours, with the equivalent of 20 rolls of film, during the peak of the autumn bloom of goldenrod, Joe Pye Weed, Iron Weed, and the blue and yellow asters of Fall. How I have looked forward to this morning. And how it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

My objective, aside from bringing home photos, was to fetch home my son, Nathan, and Lori, his companion, from over a week on the Appalachian Trail. We had heard from them just once, from a campground, on an unscheduled side excursion to a grocery store that no longer existed. Once again in Nate's life, he was rescued by the kindness of strangers: an elderly gentleman who went out of his way to help two waifs along on their foolish journey through the woods in the midst of an August heat wave.

Plans for recovering the two hikers at the end of their trip was necessarily sketchy, since they only knew approximately where they would be on any given day. Finally the plan we came up with was that I was to pick them up south of the Thunderhill Shelter, where the Trail crosses the Parkway. They would be walking south on the Parkway, this side of the shelter. That way, no matter when I left home and they began walking from the shelter, we would find each other.

But, being a firm believer in Murphy's Laws, especially his laws of travel, anything that can go wrong, will, guessed it. Not that it was really anybody's fault...just one of the vagaries of foot travel and nature. As it turns out, for the first time in many weeks, there was enough moisture in the air today to produce not the rain we severely need, but fog. Boiling up out of the piedmont to meet the cooler air held aloft on the backbone of the Blue Ridge, the warm, wet air produced the cloud I was hoping to photograph, and all but obscured the road I was required to drive along to find Nate and Lori. If you have ever been on the Parkway in the fog, you understand that 70 miles of this a white-knucled experience.

I reached the milepost beyond which I expected at any moment to see the kids, a splash of color in the grayness on the side of the road, trudging south to meet me. But I could have driven past them, within 30 feet of them, and not seen them, the fog was that impenetrable; and by that time, there was enough moisture to produce rain, driven sideways by 30 mile winds. I passed the vicinity of the shelter, then 3 more miles, and no kids. I was a few minutes earlier than I had told them to expect me. Maybe they hadn't reached the road yet. Maybe I had passed them coming up the mountain. I had no idea which.

So I drove all the way back to Peaks of Otter Visitors Center, since this was our emergency post, where we would meet up or they would call if plans fell apart, which I always try to anticipate and plan for. Twelve miles back through the fog, a quick conversation with the lady in the Visitors center: tell them to stay here if they show up. I'll be back. And then back up the mountain, through the fog, and the wind, and the rain. By this time, my eyes were going squeeky with all the back and forth roadside scans for anything that looked like wet humans.

I began to catastrophize: what if one of them were injured a day or two back on the trail, without a phone, not near a road. There were not a lot of hikers out this time of year. Only knuckleheaded invincible college kids, and one of them was mine. What if Nate meant another shelter and used the wrong name? Of maybe I had somehow been lysdexic when I wrote all of this down the night of the surprise phonecall from the trail. What if...?

I approached parkway mile 75. If I didn't see them in the next mile, it was going to be a whole different day. Parkway rangers, phone calls home saying "Honey we lost the kids". My stomach tied in a knot. And where ever they were, even dressed for the wet, with this wind and cool temps, they could become hypothermic quickly. I did my best to control all the negatives. This was out of my hands. We had asked for 'big angels' for them in their travels; and now, if their angels could just manage to find a little Goretex...

At the moment just before despair, the apparition of human shapes appeared against a backdrop of dripping Rhododendrons and windswept hardwoods saying goodbye to their leaves. Beautiful sight, this. They had waited until the last minute to leave the shelter for the cold, wet road. Matter of fact, they said, "We saw you go by the first time. We were just 100 feet down the trail in the fog and saw you slow down. We waved like crazy, but we knew you could'nt see us. We knew you'd be back. Eventually".

And so, we are home, warm, dry, fed and happy. The house is strewn with damp memories of the past two weeks' walk. The kids have put on a movie: One Flew Over A Cuckoo's Nest. Indeed. One drove through it. Just today.

Do Dogs Have Souls?

Dave, I hope Mr. MacDonald is right.

Bad Backyard Baby Bewwies

It is curious, now, since becoming a weblogger, what kinds of things trigger the urge to write. What would have been an occasion only for a short, silent solioquy about a thing remembered, a sensation, an enlightened moment, now becomes an impulse to write, that the tree might not fall in the forest unheard. The joy of words that can be shared is greater than words unformed and spoken to me as the only listener. And so, this journal. There is joy in the writing, and that is enough. On the other hand: readers, well, caveat emptor.

Today while wandering over in the meadow, I found a familiar plant, a weed by most reckoning, that used to grow along our border fence when we lived in Wytheville and our daughter was maybe two years old. A beautiful plant, really, and a relative of its much more well known cousin, the tomato. It is a climbing vine, with star-shaped blue flowers that look like potato flowers, with dark green leaves and translucent crimson berries born in broad clusters. And I remembered the place of this plant in the lore of the First family.

Little Holli was rarely left unattended, but for a short while, we let her wander her way around our fenced yard that had pretty well been baby-proofed. We went about our chores inside, probably involved to the top of our hip waders in canning, as it was mid-August and the vegetable avalanche usually let loose about this time. After a bit, Holli appeared at the top step, carrying a long green bough of some plant she had found in the yard. I went to investigate.

"I eat da bewwies".

I took the plant from her, thinking at first it was a honeysuckle vine. Uh-oh. Blue flowers, red berries. Bitter nightshade. Also called Deadly Nightshade. Huston, we have a problem.

"Holli, did you eat the berries?"

She shook her head "NO". This called for maternal wisdom. Ann took a shot at it.

"Holli, did you eat the berries?"

"I eat da bewwies" she said, and now we were totally confused. Why would she have volunteered that she ate them if she didn't? But every other time we asked her, she denied it.

I wasn't sure how poisonous the bewwies were, but a plant doesn't get the epithet "deadly" as a joke. So, lacking the necessary emetic in the household medicine cabinet, and hesitant to have little Holli drink soapy water, or sticking our finger down her throat, I was off in the VW Beetle with the emergency lights flashing, off to the only drug store in town to get some syrup of Ipecac (Don't you love that name? I think it is onomatopoeia, imitating the sound of wretching, but that's just a theory).

Two spoonsful produced the desired effect. Poor Holli was clueless. The parental units spend most of their days scurrying around trying to protect her from things that would injure her or make her sick, and now they were feeding her Puke Potion, holding a plastic pail under her face, saying "Spit it up! Spit it up!" Which she obligingly did.

Grape Kool-aid, a few cheerios, and some fuzz from her favorite blanket. No bewwies.

Well, that was a learning experience. Next time, it won't be Solanum dulcamara fruits, I would see to that, and we will have the Wonder Potion on hand, because there will be a next time. I couldn't really blame Holli; it was probably my fault. Even at that age, I wondered how many times she had seen me drop to my knees along a trail or forest edge and crush-sniff-nibble some wild plant. She was just stalking the wild asparagus. Like father, like dau.

When I visited Holli in Wyoming back in the summer, I made sure that their fence was free of anything poisonous. I forgot to ask if they had Syrup of Ipecac in their medicine cabinet. I didn't want the granddaughter to eat anything that might make her sick. But there are some things a parent or grandparent just can't anticipate a child doing, you know what I mean?

Image source

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

The Long Way Home: A Puppydog Tale

I am almost serious when I tell folks that I would have rather left one of my children behind than my dog. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do and I will never, ever forget it. Telling the story will help me remember our first family dog, Zachary, and his incredible journey home. But before that, I'll have to put the tale in the context of another story, our Finding our Place on Goose Creek. Eventually, the long story will all get tied up in one bundle together, like a picnic lunch in a wicker basket, covered in a gingham table cloth. Or something like that.

In a year of tough decisions, I had chosen to leave a very comfortable career teaching biology at a southwest Virginia community college, and do something else; anything else. As fate would have it, in one week in the spring of 1986, after having no choices for what seemed like forever, now there were two.

I had recently interviewed for a teaching position at Gainesville College (now University) in Georgia, north of Atlanta. At the same time, I had taken a tremendous and audacious leap of self-conceit by applying for acceptance to a Physical Therapy masters program. Not many programs, just one: University of Alabama at Birmingham, back in my home town. All my eggs were in one basket, and especially back then, many applied and few were accepted into a PT graduate program. I was waiting to hear if, by some miracle, I had been accepted.

On Wednesday, I got a call saying that I had been offered the teaching job. I was shocked! It would mean teaching at a larger institution, with a different set of roads, trails, and people...a new start, in a way. But in another way, this would be just another teaching job. I would be digging the same hole deeper, really. I was pretty sure that doing the same thing in a different place was enough of a change and we would probably be moving to Georgia. I told them I would let them know my answer in 48 hours.

On Thursday, I came from teaching a class and there was a note taped to my door. "Please call Marilyn Gossman". It took me a while to figure out who that was. When I saw the Alabama area code, it dawned on me that this was the Director of the PT Masters Program at UAB in Birmingham. I had been accepted to the program. New town, new friends, tremendous challenge, and a whole new hat to wear...this would be digging for treasure in a new hole. I knew immediately that it was what I ought to do. The decision would change everything, for all my family, for the rest of our lives.

The following week after the decision had been made, we began to sort through all of the giant steps it would take to make this transition in our lives: find a house in Birmingham, find work for Ann, schools for the kids. Sell the farm and sell or give away our country tools...wouldn't be needing a tiller in Birmingham. And...oh my gosh: what would we do with Zachary, our best friend Black Lab, our country dog for 6 years? The choice was between keeping him tied up or penned like a prisoner in our new suburban life, or finding someone near our country home where there would be kids and wide open spaces for him to roam, the freedom of the life he had always known. We began to ask around for a good family to adopt Zachary, and soon found them.

Zach's new family were strangers to us, friends of friends, and lived all the way across the county beyond Fort Chiswell. I called and got directions, and loaded ol' Zach into the cab of the truck. He was not a comfortable traveler, because the only place he ever road in the truck was to the vet, about three miles away. He trembled all the way across the county, while I pretended that I had convinced myself that I felt nothing. Just a dog. This was a business transaction, the right thing to do.

I made our introductions quickly to the new family, who briefly explained the layout of their farm and why this was a good place for a dog to live. I hurried back to the truck and retreated down their gravel drive like a man leaving the scene of a hit-and-run. I looked in the rear-view mirror to see Zachary sitting on the front porch, with children's arms around his neck, wagging his tail and watching me drive away. I rarely cry but I cried then, all the way back to the home that was ours no longer.

The next year was as hard on all of us as we had expected. I became what the kids called "the man downstairs", since they rarely saw me that I was not down there studying. It was much harder than I had imagined to be the student I needed to be, plus husband, father, home owner, son. The year was a barely tolerable blur. Somehow, we made it to the end of our second summer in Birmingham. The day before classes started, some thirteen months after leaving our country home, the phone rang. Ann took the call, and an odd expression took shape on her face as we watched the conversation. It was the people that had bought our farm back in Virginia. They told her "There's a strange dog showed up here a couple days ago. He's a big black dog, and he stays under the porch here. He's right thin and his paws don't look so good. He's okay, but he just seems sort of lost and confused". The neighbors down the road say they think he's your old dog.

Could it be? We called the neighbors down the road. "Yep, that's Zachary all right. He jumped out from behind the boxwoods when we rode the horses up the road today, just like he always did. It's him for sure". We were stunned, overjoyed, but confused and uncertain what to do.

"It's Zachary and he found his way home and he's looking for us and Fred, you have to go get him", Ann said through tears of joy and grief and the shock of our dog born again. I knew she was right, we had to go. But bringing Zachary here to Birmingham made no more sense now that it would have a year earlier. Even so, the next day, driven by forces well beyond reason, my daughter and I drove 10 hours to southwest Virginia to see if it was really our pup. And it was. Less of him than we left, and a bit confused when he first saw us. But he responded to all of the commands he used to obey, just like we had never been apart. He sure was bedraggled, and had some white hair among the black, prematurely old at six puppy years.

Of course we have yearned for this to be a world where dogs could talk. We have never stopped wondering how he made it 13 miles as the crow flies, across a mountain, a very busy interstate, and many, many busy roads through unfamiliar territory, to home. And then, when he finally arrived, we weren't there. What must he have thought and felt!

It was evident from the way he looked, his travels had taken him months. And yet he had persisted, driven by the need to find his pack, his tribe, his huggers and feeders and stick-throwers and ear scratchers; his family, not the substitute family of strangers that did these things and called him by his name, and it was not the same. To leave and find home must have been a driving need in his doggie mind from that first week in his adopted home, after waiting and waiting, then knowing I was not coming back for him and he would have to make the trip on his own. But of course, we would never know his thoughts and his experiences. All we knew was that Zachary was going to be part of our lives again, for better or for worse. And so, the next day, we sedated him, hauled his 100 pounds into the back of the Subaru, and took him to his new home in suburbia.

And so Zachary's life after his long trip home was anticlimax. Mostly. The story is not quite over. The old boy had fit in fine in the country, where he could roam the fields and woods at will, he spent the nights in the shed on a thick bed of straw, and if he barked, the closest neighbors was far enough not to be bothered by it. Life in suburbia was going to be different. Very different. What to do with him there in town we would have to put together as we went along. We really weren't prepared for this. For the time being, during the first week back with us, he would stay in the garage during the day when we were away at work and schools.

Friday of Zach's first week back, I drove up to the garage door after a long, long day, and hit the remote control to raise the door, so looking forward to the relative peace of a weekend. And before me, as the doors went up, the curtains were drawn on a disaster scene: the entire two car garage was covered with dust and splinters and yellow fiberglass insulation. There was a huge hole in the sheetrock wall that separated the garage from the house. Had there been a gas explosion? Were the kids alright?

I rushed up the front steps in a panic. The whole family greeted me at the door, anticipating my reaction to the explosion downstairs. They all spoke excitedly at once, and they were defending the dog. "It's not his fault. He didn't mean to!" What were they saying?

That day, there had been a thunderstorm. Zach never did like storms. Back in the country, he could get under the house, or in his shed, and seemed to weather them just fine. But a fierce storm when he was in a strange, unfamiliar place made him go berserk. When the kids got home from school, they found him in the closet under the stairs. He was covered with sheetrock dust and insulation, having eaten his way through the wall to get into the house. Holy Smokin'Cow!

A week later, he began limping. Something to do with his demolition work on the house? We never knew. What we did find out was that he had a torn ACL tendon in his knee, and to make a long story short, we ended up paying an astronomical amount to repair the painful knee, to avoid having to put him to sleep. We could hardly consider that, after all he, and we, had been through. So, it was an interesting period of puppy enculturation to life in the big city. It was not easy. We had made the right decision to leave him behind. But then Zachary had made his own decision, and of course, a dog's decision is always final.

Zach stayed with us through two more moves in North Carolina. Finally, at age 12, he was elderly, in dog years. He had become decrepit and uncomfortable and incontinent. He was not going to be with us much longer, and each day was a misery for him. We made the decision to send him out of this world painlessly. It was a tough thing to do. But I think, looking back, that euthanasia was an easier decision than to leave our good friend with strangers, thinking he would never see us again, and now knowing he would never rest until he found us.

Monday, August 26, 2002

The Peace Eagle

I have had second thoughts. Perhaps I painted the Turkey Vulture in too unkindly a light. I came to this conclusion after watching their graceful and exuberant performance riding the thermals over our pasture before an approaching storm yesterday. Magnificent, graceful, uplifting. My apologies for any slight to these birds in my entry the other day, and also for the mild taxonomic faux pas, for purists who eschew common names, in calling this creature a BUZZARD.

In common usage, they are called turkey buzzards, carrion crows, and red-necked buzzards. Buzzards, in correct usage, applies to some of the hawks of Europe, I believe. New World vultures, on the other hand, are classified in the same large bird group as storks and flamingos. This group also includes the California Condor, a larger bird with a better reputation than the lowly vulture only because of its rarity and its impressive size. The Turkey Vulture's scientific name is noteworthy: cathartes aura. Catharsis. Purification; cleansing. Ugly bird, nice name.

Like the American Turkey, both Black and Turkey Vultures have heads free of feathers. This does little for appearance, but is a definite advantage in hygiene, since both vultures are primarily, although not exclusively, feeders from the carcasses of dead animals. (Up to 50% of their diet can come from grasses, leaves and seeds). They are exquisitely suited to their feeding methods, most notably in the fact that they can eat decaying meat that is foul-smelling and dense with bacteria and viruses, and suffer no ill effects. The disinfecting abilities of the their digestion is being studied, for instance, in possible ways to inactivate such organisms as the hanta virus. The droppings and regurgitated pellets from the carcasses they process are free of disease organisms. They further disinfect their own bodies by urinating on their featherless legs; this may also serve to cool them down in very hot conditions, which they tolerate rather well. Whatever, it is another negatively-endearing trait that ranks this bird at the very bottom of most peoples 'favorite birds' list. While some folks are rather fond of it.

We have both kinds of 'buzzards' over our valley for much of the year. Some notable differences separate them. The Turkey Vulture is larger, feeds more by smell, and tends to soar gracefully with few wing beats, sometimes for hours without rest. It is said that Turkey Vultures tend to circle over natural gas leaks, being able to smell the mercaptans that are added to the odorless gas, since this substance is also present in decaying flesh. Their ability to find even a small, hidden food source far below is remarkable. And once found by one, somehow this is communicated to many others, quickly. How, we do not know.

The soaring flight of the Turkey Vulture is perhaps its most redeeming esthetic quality, for those of you who are put off by close-up appearance and reprehensible choice of foods and feeding. From below, the outline of a soaring Turkey Vulture is that of a broad "W". Seen from behind or in front, black vulture wings are more or less straight across from wingtip to wingtip, while the Turkey Vulture's wings form a shallow "V", with the body of the bird at the low point of the V. I once sat up on a favorite high point, Monster Rock, in Wythe County, watching the sun go down. From overhead came a sound like a speeding bullet. I looked up just in time to see a Turkey Vulture pull up out of a steep and amazingly fast dive, which it repeated over and over. They do seem to fly for fun, and vicariously, I soar with them.

I was not aware that among those that migrate each year, they tend to return to the same summer roosting areas precisely on the vernal equinox. This year, I will be watching for them on that day. Pardon this long winded pean to an unappreciated bird that the Cherokee called the "Peace Eagle". I think maybe when it is time for me to teach the birds to my grandchildren, this is what we will call them.

Almost Not Quite

It looked at first as if the birthing process for the MT blog had gone well. All past entries imported properly, with the immense help of my benefactor (benefactress?) who did all the work. Then, I must have backed up into some switches or levers or something, and all my sidebar stuff is now at the very end of the log. I haven't the faintest idea how to fix it. If any of you Moveable Typers have any ideas, take a look here to see the problem. Maybe I should just put a bullet through its head and start all over again.

Color me discouraged. Getting there is only part of the battle. Even after correcting the current screw-up, I will need to tinker with the template/style sheet, and I don't know my elbow from my acetabulum about this. Ah, life at the bottom of the learning curve. Meanwhile, there is always Blogspot. Well, sometimes. Occasionally.

UPDATE 8/26/02: Sidebar issue was apparently due to having just slightly too little space in my browser window to allow the right frame to display properly. Duh. But what happens with folks with lower screen resolutions, larger fonts, etc. Won't that make the page look goofy?

Now, finding NO tutorials for MT other than in their HELP files, it is with fear and trembling I will begin to 'tweak' in MT to get a new look. I will attempt to dual-post for the coming weeks, so there will be some continuity when 'the big day' finally arrives. Next week, next month or next year. Meanwhile, hand-holding is in order. Anyone? Anyone? MT offers just a small couple of alternate templates/stylesheets. Where do folks come up with the snazzy ones I see out there among you higher organisms of the Blogoshere?

Copyright photo Fred First

The Apples of Love

We are reaching the peak of the onslaught in the vegetable wars. The Veggies are winning. Especially the tomatoes. As if the Romas, and the yellow and big red varieties were not enough, the 'tommy-toes'...cherry tomatoes...were almost too many to pick today. Then, once picked and filling the bowl, they were too pretty to just eat outright. So, here is a TommyToe family portrait.

It will be pleasant to look back through these summer images in December, when the cold, short days deny the colors and smells and motion of summer. I will recall from memory in winter the smell and taste of the pomme d'amour, the apple of love, fresh off the vine in a green garden flashing with red and gold.

Sunday, August 25, 2002

The Ways of Love

Having read the following, I feel better now about my anthropomorphic similes, analogies and metaphors. Can you guess what eeksy-peeksy is describing here?

To try this at home, the man might strip naked and use his feet to grip the woman, also naked, by her neck so that they form a long chain of nakedness. Vertically, he would be standing on her shoulders. She would then curl up to copulate with him (while he continues to hold her head by his feet) and then uncurl into the original position.

Now comes the tricky part. He grasps a tree branch growing above a natural body of water and hangs there with her suspended by her neck from his feet. The two would then swing as one (like tandem gymnasts on a bar) while her abdomen slaps repeatedly into the mud.

Saturday, August 24, 2002

Only That Day Dawns...

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

Henry David Thoreau

Friday, August 23, 2002

The Black Birds of Goose Creek

I had been sitting for some time with my back up against a large leaning white pine, up the valley there, where the Rhododendrons on the banks meet at their tops, forming a green tunnel that hides the riffles and pools of our nameless creek. I decided it was time to head home.

Maybe I had stood up too fast. I felt more than heard a rushing noise, so low frequency it seems to be coming from inside me, a visceral sensation somewhat familiar to me. It's not my heart racing, as I first suspected. This kind of thing happens in the spring, when the ruffed grouse are drumming: you feel the thudding of that mating display in your guts more than hear it through your ears; and more than once, I thought I was having tachycardia.

I felt this inside. It was a whirring, rushing sound; sounds, plural, like helicopter rotors, very soft ones, hundreds of them, and it reached consciousness that it was happening overhead. I looked up not knowing if the something was going up, or coming down on top of me. Boat-tail grackles, at least a hundred of them, had roosted for the night, and I must have startled them when I stood up. Startled me, too. But after putting the sound into context, I was able to appreciate that this was one of my cherished 'signs of Fall'...the blackbirds of Goose Creek becoming restless, congregating around their migratory maps, bickering about the best route and the best timing, and of course, who would lead and who would follow. Grackles and starlings, I am not unhappy to see them go.

Starlings, grackles, crows, ravens, buzzards: the black birds of Goose Creek, from smallest to largest. My personal favorite is, without question, the raven. Most ravens pass through our area over a month or two in the spring, and again in the Fall. A dozen or so hang around for the winter here and I love to see them soar and glide, with their distinctive fan-shaped tails. Despite their urban garbage-seeking behaviors in some places, in these parts, they are very reclusive and wary birds. More than once, I have watched as one approached from the far ridge, heading so as to pass overhead. From a quarter mile, I can tell it has just spotted me standing down there, a bare speck, as he wheels 90 degrees to make a wide circle around me before resuming his intended path. When I am in the woods, they pass overhead not seeing me, close enough that I can hear the hard-feathered stroke of their wings.

There is a nobility and intelligence about ravens that earns my respect. I was very near one only once, when out driving around the back roads with an older neighbor. We found it on the side of the road, injured, and brought it home to nurse back to health. My first impression was the amazing size of the thing...standing about 24 inches tall, with a heavy 4" beak and a regal bearing. This one looked me straight in the eye with intent, unlike anything I have ever known from a lesser creature than a dog. That was my only close encounter with ravens until one fogbound freezing winter day a few years back.

A dozen or more had flocked in a dense stand of mature trees not 100 feet from our cabin. This was not their usual rookery, but the fog probably made them bed down early and right where they found themselves late one afternoon, when the fog settled in so thick that you could barely see your hand at the end of your arm. I read in a National Geographic later that more than 50 raven calls, or vocalizations had been identified; not random squawks but meaningful messages indicating mood or purpose. Like many birds, ravens make different sounds from a roost than when single or in pairs, and marauding for food. That winter afternoon, I heard so many and varied and bizarre sounds from that accidental rookery...I won't even attempt to describe this...that I will never see or hear a raven again without remembering that incredible day.

When our ravens pass over the valley here, we hear only two calls. One is a hoarse rasping "RAUWK". I have a theory that the other name for the raven, "ROOK", is onomatopoeia, imitating this sound; I haven't been able to confirm that, so I preach it as gospel. The second call is my favorite, and I associate it with the pleasure of flight. It has been called their "TONK" call, described as a "metallic thunk". To me, it is more fluid, like a smooth pebble dropped down a deep well. I watched a raven last fall flying high over the pasture. Every little bit, it would make the 'water sound', then fold its wings and plummet like a stone, rise high and then repeat it. Pardon my anthropomorphic interpretation, but that call was saying "Life is good. Wings are wonderful. Watch this!"

The crows are good for mobbing hawks and owls. You can often see a dark shape silhouetted against the sky up on the ridge, sitting there in disgust while 40 crows swoop and caw, passing in rapid arcs down in front of the raptor, purely out of a stong need to harrass. They do the same thing in flight, and seeing a redtailed hawk wheel over so its talons face the approaching crow is always worth craning your neck to see.

And Buzzards: you can most always see two or three making lazy circles high overhead, riding the thermals that boil up out of the valley. Unlike the ravens, the black and turkey buzzards do not speak to me of intelligence. They are carrion-feeding opportunists, and necessary in the economy of nature, but I am content to watch them from a great distance, so they appear graceful and merely black. Up close, well, some things you just want to leave to your imagination.

Writers Block Party. Nobody Home at Fragments

Well, well. Let's see. I don't really have anything prepared to tell you this morning. How odd. Usually I have a subject just waiting to be painted in words (I usually use a 9" roller)...a folksy veggie tale, a platitude about country life, slides from our summer vacation...something. Today: nada. Between finishing up the painting on the steps (YAY!)and putting in the Fall garden yesterday, my hands were so occupied that the word-generator shut down. Temporarily. That's a threat, or a promise, you decide.

I don't quite understand how I can be in a writing slump, what with all the excitement around here this week. (Not!) As you regular readers know, I am presently a house husband, 15 miles from town, a mile from our nearest neighbor (who wishes she was 15 miles from her nearest neighbor)...just me and the dog here most days. You'd wonder I find anything to fill the pages of Fragments at all, much less multiple entries most days. Not a lot happens here in a typical day, but there are the occasional 'events'.

This week, I could have written about our getting a new refrigerator... an episode not without its comedy. But then, the humor would mostly be at the expense of the wife, who insisted that we must thoroughly clean the entire house because 'we don't want those movers to think we live like pigs'. Yes, Ann: large hairy stevadors from West Virginia are known for their White-Glove inspections and high standards of cleanliness in the homes they visit in the delivery of large appliances. On the other hand, she might have had a point.

I was glad she was not the one to see what lurked under the old refrigerator when I moved it out of the way for the new one. Even though I pride myself on my taxonomic skills generally, I could not even identify the organic matter under our refrigerator to KINGDOM. Taking a stab at it: mycological, Kingdom Fungi. I wondered, perhaps, if the large gray wooly mass could be harvested and processed, converted perhaps to a source of nutrition, like Quorn...the meatlike substance made from mold that has been enjoyed in Europe for years, now available (and right there in front of me in the dustpan) in the United States. Nah. I won't write about that.

We are in that in-between season, neither fish nor fowl, with summer dying and autumn not yet born. I am sure when the cool weather comes in earnest, this heat-induced lethargy will fall away, the drought-dust will settle when the hurricane bands spread some real rains up our way. The writing juices will drip, then trickle and flow, and I will look back and remember the brief spell when the words wouldn't come.

In the blog-introspection department: Fragments seems to have reached some sort of steady state, for the time being. There are enough visitors to keep it from echoing like an empty house. More visitors are coming from bookmarks, fewer from referrer's pages. Numbers are up a bit, visit length and page views falling. The average visit is now 2 minutes 5 seconds and headed downward. The comments ratio is about 1 comment per 30 visitors and email about the same. Geobutton has been a valuable tool now, after my first two weeks of use, with guests from Kuala Lampur, Singapore, Belarus, and many other places ...I am relearning my geography by looking up each new country that signs the guest book. I get more visits from the Northwest than the South in the US, which surprises me. Thanks to those who have read the longer pieces and seem to enjoy them. Non gustibus disputandum, don't ya reckon?

Bear with me in the POSSIBLE but not-yet certain and certainly not completed process of moving Fragments to a Moveable Type location. I am going to try importing the blogspot template into a "test" MT blog this weekend, when I am here alone. If I scream, weep, wimper or drool, just pat me on the head, pretend to be sympathetic to me, and especially be nice to Ann during this time of crisis. You know, I think she sort of breathes a sigh of relief as she drives off to work each morning, knowing she doesn't have to listen to me shriek like a banshee when Blogger goes down, or the computer crashes and I lose my award-winning story on the sex-lives of the mushrooms. Dang, that one woulda been a prize winner.

Ya'll have a good weekend. Thanks for sticking with me through this writers' block party this morning. I think I am unstuck, and will commence to write about grackles, crows and ravens. And you know I'm not kidding. Have a good weekend, Mrs. Calabash, where ever you are.

Thursday, August 22, 2002

In the Shadow of the Buffalo

It shows up as a gentle wave on the horizon here. You can see it from just about any place in the county. Although it is not quite 4000 feet in elevation, it appears prominently above the uplifted land that is Floyd County, Virginia. It is known locally, simply as "The Buffalo".

Buffalo Mountain has quite a history. Less than a lifetime ago, it was a cultural holdout, a relict community of lawless Appalachian moonshiners who mistrusted everyone and lived a primative exisitence in self-imposed isolation. It is said that one man moved this mountain. He did it by acting on a call to minister to the spiritual needs of a hardscrabble community that did not readily accept his help. He eventually won them over, and they in turn helped him construct six fieldstone churches that dot the countryside today. Bob Childress is remembered fondly by the oldest generation of Floyd County residents as the man who brought churches, roads, bridges and schools to the Buffalo.

Today, the Virginia Natural Heritage program protects 1000 acres of the mountain. "Widely recognized as one of Virginia's greatest natural heritage treasures, Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve is like no other place in the state. A variety of unusual conditions combine to make the preserve home to 14 plant species, three invertebrate species and six natural communities that are rare in Virginia."

There is a road to the base of the mountain, and a short, steep trail to the top. It is about time for us to take a hike up to the top. Want to go? Always room for one more.

The Terrible Vegetable Debacle: A Summer Song

It is canning time on Goose Creek. Too much of a good thing all at once. Makes me think about a song written by my good buddy, Dennis Stamper. (Of all the wonderful, tender and beautiful songs he has written, this goofy one is perhaps one of his most requested among some circles). Those for whom English is not your native tongue, watch out for lots of 'corny' puns.

Well a week ago last Tuesday, I came home from my job.
I went out to the back porch and fed my old dog Bob.
I walked out in the back yard, out behind the garden shed
And what I saw there nearly made me drop dead.

You see, way back in the springtime (you must understand)
The thought of some sweet yellow corn sounded grand.
Green beans, New potatos, some okra and such...
I'd have sold my own mother for a 'mater sandwuch.

I think that I'll plant me a garden, I said.
I'll plant a little extra, just in case some drops dead.
I'll plant some for my neighbors and the ladies at work,
And I'll plant some for my family so they won't think I'm a jerk.

All through the summer I tended it good.
The rains fell and the sun shown (just like it should)
The bugs stayed away. Everything went just fine.
But now everything's coming in at one time.

There's green beans on the table and taters in the sink
And the melons on the back porch are starting to stink.
And this kamikaze zucchini has really got to go.
One just flew off the dryer and tried to squash my toe.

The tomatoes on the window sill are pushing out the screen.
They're calling up an army, and some are mean and green.
They're jumping on the counter and they're rolling on the floor
And they just held a briefing in my underwear drawer.

My neighbors and family won't take this stuff.
They say that they grow for themselves just enough.
When I see all these potatoes, my eyes fill to the rim.
When I see all this lettuce, my head starts to swim.

I've got corn out my ears that I really must put up,
And I'll can all those tomatoes if I ever ketchup.

Well, it's a terrible battle but I think that I might win.
I got out my vegomatic and I plugged that sucker in.
Now the radishes are blushing and I saw the onions cry,
And the cabbage all surrendered when I slaw the head guy.

"I think that I'll plant me a garden" I cried.
"Enough to feed an army". And not a danged thing died.
Now my neighbors and my family and the ladies at the plant..
They all know that I ain't got the sense God gave an ant.

Now friends won't you listen to this lesson that I teach.
All that you sew you will someday have to reap.
But there's still one thing I wonder, oh my Lord, oh my gosh!
What made me think I'd need twenty hills of squash.

Words and music
Copyright L Dennis Stamper

Lifetime Warranty, Small Comfort

You may have discerned from the nooks and crannies of Fragments that I am the kind of person who likes to hold on to a good thing. I find something that fits me, works well and becomes smooth with age, more the better.

Yesterday, I had a debate with Ann in the choice of paying $3.00 or $10.00 for some hardware store item.

"The $10 one is built a whole lot better. I know it's more expensive, but I would rather pay $10 and get something that will last a lifetime", I argued.

She replied, "You are forgetting how old we are. Three dollars might be all you need to spend for a lifetime's worth of use".

I keep her around, so as to maintain my perspective. But I bought the $10 one anyway.

Diamonds Are a Girl'a Best Friends. Or They May Be Her Siblings. Or her parents.

It is now possible to attain immortality. You heard it here first. LifeGems R Us.

When your loved one (including pets, of course, provided they are large enough to contain adequate carbon; Chihuahuas need not apply) breathes their last breath, be sure that the Long Black StationWagon is destined for a Life Gem Certified Mortuary, to assure the highest quality product from their earthly remains.

That's right, ladies and gentlemen. You can have old Uncle Mort specially processed, his carbon extracted, compacted, polished and precision-cut, and wear him on your pinkie as a LifeGem. In fact, you may reap over 100 certified, high quality LifeGems from the old curmudgeon as memorials for each family member, the guys down at the lodge, and the mail man, with a few left over as party favors.

Next time a family member tells you that have a "twinkle in your eye", or that "you are just a jewel", watch out! They may be thinking you would look great in a pair of diamond earrings.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

The Joys of Home Moanership (or "House" is a Verb)

Being available, in addition to being the only painter we could afford, I have undertaken to hire me to complete at least one of the dozens of indoor projects that have suffered from taskus interruptus. At the end of a long sequence of steps that started months ago with stripping pink, burgundy and blue paint off the old pine stair treads, today I was looking forward to completing the painting of the risers and trim and finally being done with at least one major inside job.

I found the paint, after considerable reshuffling of boxes with labels like "NATHAN'S EMPTY TAPE CASSETTE COLLECTION", and "RANDOM STUFF FROM UNDER THE STEPS 1989" (still sealed with 1989 tape). We stored the paint cans on their tops, as in upside-down, like the painter told us to, back in farthest recesses of the immensely jam-packed Fibber McGhee store room upstairs.

I guess Ann must have 'closed' the can on the trim paint last year when she finished painting the bedroom. I guess she just sort of gave a little tappy-tap and plunked it upside down. You guessed it. What a wonderful, perplexing surprise, just before the climax of my Big Job.

What we have here is a gallon of Williamsburgish-green paint upside down, with a little moat of dried, very hard paint all around the rim. Option 1) leave it in place forever, and put a memorial plaque on it, commemorating one woman's slap-dash get-it-done paint clean-up history; 2) carefully try to hammer a putty knife under the lid to free it from the floor and hope that it will remain sealed by the same dry paint to the can; and 3) just kick the sucker over and deal with the consequences.

I started with choice 2 which quickly transitioned to choice 3 when the lid remained a permanent part of the floor, the can came up, and 3/4 of a gallon of paint did what liquids do. A slow, pseudopodic puddle of green paint began seeking its own level. I am alone, but I call for help anyway. Maybe Buster has some ideas, 'cause I'm blank, barefoot and in my boxer shorts. I wonder if it's too late to go back to bed. Or, when in doubt, have a beer.

No, no. It is always better to do SOMETHING, even if it is not the RIGHT thing. So I stop at the back door to quickly slip into my knee-high black rubber books (which coordinate nicely with my gold and black silk boxers) and run out to the shed, grab a bucket of ramdom tools, and streak back to the house in a mild but escalating panic. Find tool, fix problem, find tool fix problem. Think brain think brain think! I think I ran upstairs the first time with a nail punch and a hand auger. This definitely was not the RIGHT thing. Meanwhile, the Green Sea is spreading like an outbreak of lentil soup.

I will spare you all the intermediate steps before I came up the both the idea and the actual finding of the tools to end this nightmare: a wide bladed putty knife, a plastic dust pan and a plastic bucket. When it was all over, I had scraped about a half gallon of paint into the bucket. A partial success. There is still a place for the memorial plaque, since the lid, covered with about 1/2 inch of rock-hard paint, is now a permanent part of the floor.

It is now the next day. The nightmares last night were upsetting: thick green paint rising like flood waters, knee deep, while I ran around trying to find my pants. Horrible. But more disabling toward the task of finishing this cursed job today, I seem to have a mild stress fracture in my 2nd metatarsal from stepping up-down-up-down off the bench yesterday while trying to use up the spilt paint out of a open-top pail without a lid. And I notice too in the first light of dawn that the instep of my right foot is an otherworldly Williamsburgish green. Maybe I'm coming down with something.

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Do I mean FISHING?

Would someone please bring an slow learner up to date? I keep running into the term fisking, and I just read over it like, yeah, yeah, I sort of get the context of what that means. But frankly, I have become morbidly curious. Google is no help.

It asks "Do you mean Fishing?" tells me there were a couple of folks with the last name FISK, but I cannot make their histories into an everyday term.

Is it a nice-i-fied version of the F-word? An inside joke among a certain small circle of bloggers who I just happen to run across, over and over again? There is a Fisk University, all black, I think. Is fisking a racial slur of some sort? Maybe a jabberwockish nonsense word?

I have been left out of the loop (so, what's new?) and hope there is someone out there who can enlighten a sheltered bumpkin. Or should I just go FISKING?

Blog Pluribus Unum

How does it make you feel, dear blogger, that a new weblog is added, drip-drop to the sea of Blogs once every 40 seconds? Consequently, there may be some 490,000-plus Weblogs that few people see: they make up the vast dark matter of the Blog-osphere, and portend a future where blogs behave like such previous breakthroughs as desktop publishing, presentation software and instant messaging, and become a nonremarkable part of our lives.

While its sort of nice to be on the leading edge of a new web phenom, relatively speaking, I do get the sense of being first one in 100,000; then 1 in 250,000; next year, 1 in 10 million. The dilution factor takes on homeopathic proportions. As a Dark Matter Blogger, I may be one out of what-ever-denominator. But I am 1 out of 1, 100% of Fragments from Floyd.

There may be a flooding ocean of words, but only those from my weblog are mine. To a small group of 'friends' those words matter. Is that any different than in the flesh and bones world...a few who know of my existance and care, and the dark matter masses of the rest of the world for whom I am 1 in 6.2 billion fellow creatures?

Don't lose heart, brother and sisters that compose the bulk of the blogosphere. There is comfort in the number: ONE.

Pathos of Gardening

Goodness is a large, often a prospective word; like harvest, which at one stage when we talk of it lies all underground, with an indeterminate future: is the germ prospering in the darkness? at another, it has put forth delicate green blades, and by-and-by the trembling blossoms are ready to be dashed off by an hour of rough wind or rain. Each stage has its peculiar blight, and may have the healthy life choked out of it by a particular action of the foul land which rears or neighbours it, or by damage brought from foulness afar.

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
Link via Redwood Dragon

Jewels of August

The seasons of spring, summer and early fall at my house are measured as much in flowers as they are in numbers on the calendar. Like old friends who always visit at the same time every year and take their places in the same seats at the table....wet stream borders, pasture margins, deep woods. Over the years, wildflowers have become good friends; I love to see them come, and hate to see them go.

The Spotted Jewel Weed, seen three weeks ago singly, here and there, is now popping up in every moist depression, like the rest of us, happy for what little rain we have finally seen here in the last week. Although the flower itself could account for this particular common name, it is, in fact, the way that water beads up on the leaves like jewels that accounts for this name. Where it grows it typically grows in profusion and finding a dense stand on a moist early morning is like stumbling across a gossamer gown adorned with thousands of round mirrored sequins.

The flower's shape is what botanists call 'strongly zygomorphic', meaning that there is only one plane that can pass through the flower to create mirror images, rather than 4, 5 or more seen in many flowers. This, coupled with the bright orange-red color, makes me suspect (if I didn't already know) that this flower is hummingbird pollinated, though moths and butterflies, with their long curled sipping mouthparts, can also get at the nectar housed deep in the spurred part of the flower. It hangs on the merest thread from the plant, and in the least wind, the whole plant oscillates with orange spangles.

In practical terms, the Jewel Weed, Impatiens capensis, is handy to have around. Especially early in its growth, the stem is succulent, meaning it is mostly water, and consequently, almost clear. We pick a few soft early stems and put them in the freezer for later in the summer, when we most certainly will come in contact with poison ivy, yellow jackets, and stinging nettle. It grows in exactly the same places as nettle, and when rubbed on these skin irritations, goes a long way to take the sting and itch out. Unfortunately, it does not do much good on the terrible sting I got last week from the Saddleback Caterpillers, where the stinging hairs become embedded in the skin.

A third common name for the plant is worth paying attention to: Touch Me Not. It is not so named because it is in any way irritating or poisonous, but because of the behavior of its seedpods. The elongated corn-ear-shaped seed pods grow up to more than an inch long. Each consists of four long flaps that come together to make up the pod. As the pods dries and the seeds inside begin to mature, pressure builds up in the flaps, more so on the outside that the inside of each flap. Consequently, then the pods are touched by an animal (or a small child encouraged to do so by a tricky adult who knows what to expect), the pod opens explosively, ejecting its seeds a few feet away from the parent plant, thus propagating itself into new soil.

A final note: the ejected seeds when mature and brown are very good to eat, tasting like tiny nuts. Our children always enjoyed being 'startled' by the exploding seeds, while catching as many of the seeds as they could, to nibble on. One time they had the idea that maybe these little mock-seeds would be good in cookies. So, we baked some cookies and substituted Jewel-nuts instead of pecans. Eaten right out of the oven, they were delicious. We gave some to our neighbor across the street. A few days later, she commented "Those cookies were mighty good, but what were those little pebbles you put in them?" Discovery: when the mock-nuts dry out again, they are hard as rocks. Ah well. At least as we can add Jewel-weed cookies now to our list of 'wild foods'.

There are over 400 species world-wide in the genus Impatiens. Only two of them are indigenous to the US, and both of them grow here in the east. Jewel Weed or Touch-me-Not: by either name, it is a welcomed visitor each year. When we see it beginning to flower in profusion as it is this week, we know that it will only be another month until we will have to fire up the woodstove a time or two on a cold, early fall morning, when August wildflowers will be nothing more than a colorful memory.

Monday, August 19, 2002

If blogger ever gives me back my archives, I will add links to first parts of the Goose Creek saga.

Rat Head Stew

So, I would not be bringing in a paycheck off my commision from sales of fire alarms to the poor parents of the potentially charred remains of little Bobby and little Susie. Even so, we are really very interested in moving out of my mother's basement to a place of our own (ultimately, a squalid apartment on southside Birmingham) and it would be very helpful if Fred had a job here.

Once again, I let my fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages, and got a bite from the University Medical Center. Some place called the Department of Comparative Medicine. Whatever. I took the job as research technician and would be working with several Veterinarian PhD's on various projects that used animal models for human disease. Kewl!

What it actually meant was that, faithful to the footsteps of those who had preceded me in my chosen field of Vertebrate Zoology, my Masters Degree qualified me to handle various kinds of animal poop while knowing the Latin name for the animal producing the deposit. Also the higher degree somehow instilled a willingness to tolerate inordinately high levels of inhaled ammonia, a by-product the breakdown of stale urine. Got to where is sorta smelled good...a true sign that I had 'made it' as a zoologist. Like the folks who live near and work at papermills say of that awful stench: Smells like money to me!. And all those nay-sayers who told me all I could do with a Masters in Zoology was shovel poop behind the elephants at the zoo were dead wrong! Much smaller poop. No heavy lifting!

My chief responsibility would be with a study of trace element effects on dental caries ('cavities') prevention. Rat mommas were fed various low to high sugar diets while nursing new litters of rat pups. New born rat pups are bright pink, half the size of your thumb, and look like writhing little plugs of old-fashioned pink bubble gum. The rat pups received various trace minerals by intubation (now that is another story) to see what effect boron, strontium and so on might have on tooth developement.

So, I mixed diets, cleaned cages, formulated and administered treatment doses, and generally tried to keep all the rat mommas and babies happy and properly fed or dosed toward the objective of the study, which was to determine how the trace minerals had impacted tooth developement while nursing on a high sugar diet of momma's milk. And so, when the rat pups were 40 days old, tooth development had reached the desired degree of maturity.

Oops. I guess I hadn't really thought about the next step. Somehow, little rat chums, we sort of need your teeth for assay, if you don't mind. Now baby rats are cute in the way that all mammal-babies are: big-eyed, trusting, playful and innocent. I have to confess, after handling each of these little white-furry critters many times each day since birth, I was not comfortable during my instruction on the use of the Murine Cephalic Clevage Device. Yep, that's right: a guillotine. I will spare you the details.

So, now I have 120 tiny rat heads, with the teeth we need to extract for the P-32 study. That requires extracting the tiny little rat molar teeth. Extraction requires heating. So, I put 120 little foil-wrapped rat heads in the autoclave, a glorified pressure cooker, for 30 minutes. Opening that autoclave when the task was done is the one thing that stands out in my mind of the 14 months I worked at this job.

I opened the autoclave slowly, to let the pressure escape gradually, and out pours a cloud of rat-head-scented steam filling the room...a vapor of all my little chums I had nurtured for 40 days, until I became their executioner. Was it too late to consider a career change, I wondered? Not a good day, folks. I was never so relieved when the job came to a stopping place and I could go home where there were no rats...heads, teeth or otherwise. I began the 2 mile walk home, trying to think about anything other than the details of my day.

Ah, finally, our apartment door appears. Ann has been home today and I am looking forward to a home-cooked meal. I will never forget opening the door and being overcome by the smell of hot, cooked meat. Ham, if I recall. It was overpowering, too much like the rat head stew I had just left; I almost chucked my cookies. I apologized from outside the door and without explaining other than to say "I'm sorry. We have to eat out tonight. Don't ask. I will tell you about it. Some day. Maybe. Let's go get a salad".

So, I had my job. I was bringing home $7000 a year. Plenty. Soon after the rat head episode, our first child was born, and we knew we were destined to leave Birmingham for a place to the north, rural and beautiful, but without a clue as how to go about finding this place we dreamed of. Reading maps and Mother Earth News were fine for dreaming, but we were too conventional to just buy a VW bus and start driving, like many were doing in those days. We had to have a plan, a destination, and jobs would be nice.

It seemed like it was going to take a miracle to deliver me from a life of perpetual animal poop. So far, all roads had ended in a cul-de-sac. Ann could find work anywhere, and I could find it nowhere. Finally, in the Fall of 1974, our angel called from Virginia, and we never looked back. We felt like we had finally arrived, when, looking back, we had only taken our first steps toward ending up here at Goose Creek.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

The Night of the Killer Gnats!

We are fortunate in that we are not bothered by mosquitos here on Goose Creek. We have pretty cold winters down here in the valley that kill them off, if they manage to breed in the first place, which is unlikely. The water in the creeks is cold, moving, and full of small skeeter-wriggler-eating fish, crawdads, and salamanders. Mosquitos tend to prefer still, warm water without shallow ponds and stagnant pools, old tires and buckets and what-not.

What we do have here is gnats. (The one pictured here has a pin through it...that's the best kind of gnat). Gnats prefer running water for their life cycle. It takes very little running water, and that is exactly how much we have had during this parched summer. Just enough moisture for an outstanding great crop of gnats. Gnats don't sting or bite. They don't carry disease. They were born merely to aggravate, and they fill that particular niche quite well.

They are weak flyers, rising and falling with the air currents. I can see them out there in the morning sun, waiting patiently for me to come out to garden every morning. With an uncanny knack for knowing when both of your hands are occupied, wet or covered with garden dirt or bean dust, these marvelously obnoxious micro-demons find exactly THAT opportunity to do their work, and their workday has begun.

Goose Creek gnats have obviously been trained from birth to know the episode of Star Wars where the TIE Fighters find and enter the tiny opening of the Death Star. Fighter-gnats innately know how to make their way into their favorite orifice: the human ear. Their two-part buzz is perhaps their most aggravating feature, and they are fond of performing it from deep inside the Death Star...just far enough into the ear that a muddy finger-thrust only chases them down into the deadly Earwax Zone. Those that are assigned to battle stations outside the ear walk expertly with their tiny-tickly track shoes in such a way as to create an excruciating itch, especially, as mentioned, when hands and fingers are covered in bean dust or other gardening gradoo.

Three years ago, we were working on the old house here, having the metal roof painted silver, like most of the older homes in Floyd County. It was about this time of year, as a matter of fact. The painting took a couple of days, and it really looked great, especially compared to the faded green it had been when we first saw it. I walked out to admire it one late August morning. Instead of shiny silver, the roof was dull matt gray, almost black! And fuzzy-looking, like it was covered in suede! At first I blamed the painter...a Baptist minister and part-time roof painter. I swear, you can't trust anybody to do things the right way these days!

I pulled out the extension ladder and crawled up to inspect the bizarre thing that had become of our expensive paint job. What I discovered was that the roof was coated in a thick blanket of gnats! At night when the metal cools, condensation forms. When gnat babies hatch from the creek over a 2-3 day period, they do so in untold millions. At least one of those millions ended up stuck to the wet roof, unable to unstick themselves before the sun came up and baked them in place. Even a heavy rain did little to unstick gnat corpses from the roof. I had to climb up the extension ladder and wash them off with the hose sprayer... so many that they filled up the gutters, and I had to literally scoop the gnat-cadavers out into a five-gallon bucket with a garden trowel.

This will be our third Hatching of the Gnats, an event that is becoming an annual celebration here on Goose Creek. I reckon I should be happy about the roof thing, and think about it as a giant Gnat Death Star that beckons millions to a timely buzzing death. If those million gnats weren't up there dead, they would all be standing in line, waiting for a shot at my ears, out in the garden, when my hands are covered in mud.

Leaving Home to Find It

Ann, Nate and I made a 'spontaneous' overnight trip on Friday. Seems like we were gone for a week. Being in another world, even if it is only three hours away, does something to reset your internal frame of reference, including the cerebral timing machinery. Being in someone else's world is always unsettling to me, usually in a positive way.

To hang out with a friend's friends, to travel among my former neighborhoods and the ghosts of past lives, to compare and contrast all of this against where I live and who I am now is a bit like standing the kids up against the kitchen wall to see how much they have grown since some former time, marked in pencil on the door jamb.

So, on Friday, we traveled some beautiful miles to Boone, North Carolina, to attend a performance by "Dennis Stamper and Friends". Dennis and family are True Friends. He and I have known each other through some wonderful and terrible times. Music is one thing that brought us together. When he found out we were coming this weekend, he requested that Nathan be among his performing "friends" (the 'regulars' are a multi-instrumented beer-making forensic toxicologist and a spritely deep-fried southern-drawling lady lawyer).

So, Friday evening, at Dennis' request, and after forgetting his lyrics twice and making an amazingly graceful recovery, Nathan sang one of our favorite songs of the many he has written. I thought it might be worthwhile to share the lyrics with you.

Over Your Shoulder
Lyrics and Music by Nathan First
Copyright 2001

When the sunrise and sunset lie both in the east
When it don't really matter what matters the least
When you're dining a'lonely and you long for a feast
No, don't look over your shoulder, I'll be at your feet.

When the world gets so angry the sea fights the land
When it grows so divided that no one can stand
When all you can do is dig holes in the sand
No, don't look over the ocean, I'll be in your hand.

When the tools of destruction run brave and run free
When you don't even know who's the known enemy
When you're being the best lost and blind you can be
No, don't look over the desert, I'll be at your knee.

When you only have inches and must give a mile
When the devil's the jury and brings you to trial
When you know that your only defense is denial
No, don't look all the world over, I'll be in your smile.

Friday, August 16, 2002

Typing Whilst Moving

I am in the midst of a possible metamorphosis from Blogger to Moveable Type. Literally 'out of heaven' Shelagh of BlogOn somehow heard my desparate plea for server space and the chance to try Moveable Type with Training Wheels, before committing to relocating Fragments to MT. So far, so good, I guess.

I have a young MT blog up and running, with some repeats from Fragments/blogger and some stuff only posted there. Soon I will be attempting to import my Fragments/blogger template into Moveable Type. Any words from the wise among you who have made this transition? I am open for any suggestions or warnings you might offer.

BTW...I just posted TWO 'new' images over at the MT blog this morning. Sorry, Bene, no color over there yet. Our technical staff is working on it. Thanks for the help, Shelagh!

Other Voices

I am not above snipping and posting. I generally don't. Today we are traveling out of town, and my mind is more occupied with finding socks than with finding (what loosely passes for) the right words here at Fragments. And, as seems to be the cycle, I am looking back over the last week's postings. My responses, looking at them with the eye of an 'outsider' varies from "Oh, that was worth saying, if not said very well" to "this guy should be locked up" or "can we put this weblog on SpamGuard?"

It has been a crazy week. For those who expressed their concerns after all the 'cloud poodle' stuff this week, I am back on my medications (wink). Here are a few odds and ends from places I have been lately.

From A Small Victory
[...] I miss that stuff. I miss seeing the ice cream man as a huge treat rather than a huge burden on my wallet. I miss seeing the pool as an escape from the heat rather than a danger to every small child in the yard. I miss the yells of "tag, you're it!" and the days we would spend on our bicycles making lefts and rights and rights and lefts, trying hard to see if we could get lost in our own neighborhood [...]

From Northwest Notes:
[...] I left the sandals at the very edge of the water and waded in. It was shaded by trees and overgrown shrubs and was just slightly cool. I can hardly remember the last time I was in the water before today. Timidly, I swam out a short distance, into the sun. I couldn’t see the bottom—only the tall, hairy weeds that neared the surface. So I didn’t know how quickly the water would get deep. When I couldn’t touch bottom, I swam back and started over. Once I got used to the weeds touching me, they didn’t bother me [...]

From, reached via Rebecca's Pocket:
[...] Energy has always been the basis of cultural complexity and it always will be. … the past clarifies potential paths to the future. One often-discussed path is cultural and economic simplicity and lower energy costs. This could come about through the "crash" that many fear -- a genuine collapse over a period of one or two generations, with much violence, starvation, and loss of population. The alternative is the "soft landing" that many people hope for - a voluntary change to solar energy and green fuels, energy-conserving technologies, and less overall consumption. This is a utopian alternative that, as suggested above, will come about only if severe, prolonged hardship in industrial nations makes it attractive, and if economic growth and consumerism can be removed from the realm of ideology. -– Joseph A. Tainter
And from Redwood Dragon:
[...] Citing teachings dating back to the Second Vatican Council, and statements by Pope John Paul II throughout his papacy, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared unequivocally that the biblical covenant between Jews and God is valid and therefore Jews do not need to be saved through faith in Jesus.[...]

Thursday, August 15, 2002

Pain Hurts

It's a case of 'physician heal thyself'. A physical therapist shouldn't admit that he has back pain, I suppose. Now, there is back pain and there is back pain. I have had both. What I have right now is the lesser of the two: myofascial pain. Not life threatening or severly debilitating. Just a pure-dee aggravation, is all.

Most any time I twist at the trunk while leaning, (as in hoeing in the garden this morning...bad body mechanics! you ought to know better!) or use my arms in an awkward posture (like today, sitting side-saddle on a step, reaching up to use the sander on the riser two steps higher, until all the steps were sanded), I get a ropy, knotty, painful trigger point in a muscle. This one tonight is under my shoulder blade. Some of you probably get the same results from too much hunkering behind the computer screen. Faulty posture is a frequent cause for myofascial pain.

The reason I mention this is to tell you about a neat tool that helps inactivate active muscle trigger points, the point-tender sore places that almost everybody experiences. It is so simple and I can't say how many times I have given myself a good dope-slap for not inventing this thing myself.

It is called a TheraCane. Basically, it just provides a way to administer deep pressure to a trigger point. This compression can inactive the point and keep the pain condition from escalating. Many trigger points are in the upper and lower back. The curved cane lets you reach those spots and apply firm pressure to the painful areas. It is very effective, not expensive, unbreakable and safe to use.

Pain hurts. I try to avoid it whenever possible. There are some good physical methods for treating muscle pain that don't require medications. The TheraCane is one of them. I will be keeping mine close by for a while.

Showers of Blessing

This morning I trudged around in the garden, as if walking in a cemetery. The corn like standing brown and curled sarcophagous scarecrows made rustling noises of November leaves in the dry winds. Half-ripe Hubbards shaped like rounded sand-colored cellos lay shrowed by squash leaves drooped and lifeless. The squash were not quite ripe enough to pick but so close it seemed cruel to pull them up, even though the vines would die in one or two more days of this unending drought.

It is time to plant fall greens...kale, collards, turnip and mustard greens. But hoeing a row just made a dust devil that chased me around for a while, as I walked about, reading the tombstones of one vegetable, then the next. The remaining water in buckets and barrels, filled from the last of the creek water from the deep hole near the barn, I poured around the Buttercrunch that should be transplanted soon, but why bother. Today, the last of the isolated pools in the creek dried up, and the shiners and darters, the beautiful Northern Red Bellied Dace...all are lifeless pale flotsam on a grave of mud.

The clouds spoke of rain since mid-morning, but only in a distant whisper, and in jest. Nothing at all appeared on the weather radar that I watch like an ancient shaman watches bird entrails for signs of what might be. Once again, we were taunted with the hope of rain. Oh how those first drops would seem miraculous, the ordinary become extraordinary, sacred and hallowed, if only they would come. Soon.

And then they came. Three large, fat drops on the pavers outside the porch door. Then nothing, only a high hot wind. I lay down on the walk and watched the clouds form demons and cherubs, but a gray, flat, featureless raincloud would have been the most beautiful cloud of all. So intent on the vision overhead, I had not heard the first hints of rustling down our valley to the south. Wind? Rain? Both?

Sudden, sustained and smelling of dust and ozone, the blessed rains swept in sheets down the valley. It is raining still. This afternoon, we have walked in it, waded in it, rejoiced in it. How frail we are in that the cellular seas within us, plant and animal alike, are filled by rains and rivers that we do not own and cannot invoke by a word or a law. We live on a Water Planet, but it is all too easy to take this miraculous liquid for granted. I hope that I never will again.