Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hickory nut holiday

This Thanksgiving, many traditions went by the wayside in service of trying to keep the holiday low-stress. At my parents' house, mom served sweet potatoes, rolls, snap peas, cranberries, and tenderloin; I think our holiday meal with Brian's family was pizza, topped off for me with a Blue Moon beer. We had plenty of family meals, but none of them involving a turkey.

However, the tradition we didn't ditch is actually my favorite: the family hike. I've historically thought of this hike as the one where I either walk off the meal, or, as during grad school, the one where we walk off the all-day drinking we did while we were cooking and before the bird is ready. This year, the only association between the hike and the food was incidental.

But the hike ended up being all about food, anyway. We set off on a trail near Boston, Kentucky, up a half mile from the Bluegrass Parkway to a 2.5 mile loop. We like this hike (this was our 3rd time), because it seems to have it all: woods, a hill with good views, a stream, and fossils. In August, the wildflowers were excellent. We have yet to see another hiker on it, which is an extra appeal. The length is just right for us - enough to be pleasantly tiring, but not long enough to have any drudgery to it. I'd packed snacks.

We noticed lots of lovely moss, including one patch which I thought had an old washer on it, but actually featured a crinoid stem (fossil) instead. Both girls found geodes. We found the views to be all that winter hiking has to offer. And Emily found her own food.

I'd kept wondering why Emily wasn't asking for the packed snacks. Instead, she had picked up a bunch of hickory nuts, which must have just fallen, as they were perfectly sweet and fresh. She found a couple of stones, and cracked them for all of us (see above), and still she carried home more.

If I'd served hickory nuts at the Thanksgiving table, I have no doubt she would have refused. If I'd made pecan pie, she would have turned up her nose at it. But Emily made her own meal, found food outdoors, for herself, in a season none of us expected it. We topped it off with a few fallen wild grapes. Who needs turkey, or even a table? Emily found what the harvest season had to offer, and enthusiastically gathered and prepared food for the rest of us, for Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cloudy with a chance of bright spots

The loss of afternoon daylight hits hard for us, with all of us getting home right around dusk from afterschool and work. Emily, in particular, hates that walk home in the dark, and I am struggling these days to remember a flashlight or lantern for her for the route home. I am glad to still be woken up by sunlight, and am trying to be mindful of it because I know soon I'll be waking up in the dark again, as the days continue to get shorter. The chickens don't seem to mind too much, but they tell us about the short days in other ways; lately we get an egg a day at best. I'll put up a light for them soon, but for now I confess I'm enjoying the respite from our summer's egg-based diet.

So our mornings are literally a bright spot. Brian recently went out one morning and took some photos of our frosted lawn. Foggy mornings aren't quite as cheerful, but have the advantage of not being quite so nippy. On more leisurely mornings, frosty or foggy, I let the chickens out for a while, and they forage while I work upstairs in our brightest room, the office.

This week, we have one other bright spot in the house, too. Back in February, 1996, Brian brought home a blooming plant to celebrate a new job I'd gotten, coinciding also with Valentine's Day. He's tended Miss Clivia and now her daughter (he helped her self-pollinate and raised babies) ever since, and though in some windows she bloomed yearly at best, her current home seems to be her favorite so far. Anyway, she's blooming again now, and I can't think of a better time of year to have a little spot of sunshine in the house.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Front yard chickens, yeehaw!

I find it hard to believe we've now only had these chickens in their coop, outdoors, for a year, as it feels like our lives here have always included chickens. However, a year it is. This Halloween, the hens feasted on pumpkin guts, dug nests in our new mulch, and seem to have truly, finally discovered the front yard.

I only let them out when I'm home (or making a run over to the community center), so they don't have time to go exploring widely through the neighborhood. During grape season (our downhill neighbor grows grapes along our boundary with her), in early October, they seemed determined to wander into the "bad neighbor" yard (see December 2009 and January 2010 postings, if you're new to the blog, to see why we call it that); I don't know if they were trained away from that behavior by my hose sprayings or by the end of grape harvest, but they don't do that now, mercifully. They wander a bit uphill - into friendlier neighbor territory, though I do try to discourage them. They wander down toward the pool, but seem content to search for bugs in the woods, rather than trying to head across the parking lot for farther pastures. They wander a bit in the side yard, but so far, they have explored very little in front.

I have been glad of this, generally, because I am enjoying having the chickens so much, and I don't want to cause trouble by having them be public (somehow, the blog doesn't feel public, don't ask why!). I've been slow to come out of the proverbial chicken-keeper closet, at least in some contexts. But lately, it is almost as if the fear and anxiety about getting a variance (which was awarded last January!) have finally abated. The coop is still in the backyard, but I've stopped trying to keep them out of sight from the street.

In part, we have a new chicken keeper in the neighborhood, and though I won't out her here, her arrival gave the excuse for a chicken-keeper get-together, at Susan's house. (I hesitate to call it a "chicken dinner" because we didn't even eat eggs) So now we have a community, rather than just two crazy chicken-keepers. Emily has finally told her friends at school, rather than trying to hide the chicken-facts from the upper-cliques. In a further act of self-outing, I invited the garden club conservation committee over to meet the hens, so I've outed myself to the demographic most likely to think me a low-brow Kentucky girl. This is a part of my identity - our family's identity - no longer needing to be hidden.
Oh, well, and one more reason - Gabby, who had been undergoing a particularly unattractive molting season, is finally getting in some new feathers. She's still a bit funny looking, but at least she no longer looks half-plucked.

So let the chickens roam! This Kentucky girl may be unspeakably ashamed to be from the state which elected Rand Paul (if only it were RuPaul instead!), but I'm darned proud to have hens, their companionship and their lovely eggs.

(I think I'll wait at least another year, though, before I try for goats)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Emily's 11th Birthday, on the cheap

We didn't intend to make this a bargain birthday, and in fact, the planning process felt rather extravagant. Outdoor adventures can be, like Everest or a trek on the Appalachian Trail, something for only the rich or richly sponsored; at the same time, they can be the cheapest form of family entertainment. I'll spare the credit card advertisement about priceless, but you get the idea; $16 for the shelter reservation and a few more dollars for grilled cheese and cake fixings, and we had a party I'm pleased to remember, even while still recovering my wits.

But luck was with us, too. The dry summer yielded just enough to make campfire-building easy, but not dangerous. The moon, just a couple of days past full, made the late-night bathroom trips less scary and more beautiful. The cold made the mosquitoes go away, and made it possible for all the girls to sleep in tight quarters, rather than having to spread out and split up for ventilation. We had enough experienced campers to make the experience not-too-scary, but enough inexperienced campers to add the wonder and awe and excitement.

I'm exhausted. I needed caffeine today in a bad way. I hated unpacking our backpacks and putting the things away, and I hated, as every weekend, putting away the mountain of laundry (not all done yet). But there was not a single moment of the party when I wished to be anywhere besides where I was, when I needed space I couldn't get, when I wondered whether we'd bitten off more than we could chew. Even when Brian was helping the girls use the saw to get firewood, I felt glad to be where I was, and comfortable enough with the first aid kit close by.

Next week, all of the 5th graders from Emily's party will head off for a week at school camp. I know some kids there will be camping for the first time, and Emily will be camping the first time without me, and probably every kid going is somewhat anxious about *something* - who isn't, even before the best camps? But I'm hoping that turning 11 while outdoors overnight at a state park, in the company of family and 6 good friends, gave the birthday girl a good start on her tweens, some extra confidence to carry into the darkness of puberty, middle school, Camp Allegheny, and whatever else the next few years might throw at her.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Natural Bridge, naturally hazardous

One of the aspects of Kentucky which I particularly love is that, in general, people are still able to swim, fish, climb in the craziest spots, not separated by fences or CYA legalese signs posted all over. It gives the state a bit of a Darwinian feel - as in Darwin Awards. And there is no place where this is more obvious than Natural Bridge.

As you can see in this photo, Hazel is standing by a sheer dropoff with no guardrail, in front of the bridge we'd crossed, moments before, also with no guardrail (after climbing some stairs in a spot aptly described as "Fat Man's Misery").

I wasn't ready for any rock-climbing or anything like that (frankly, some of the stairs on one trail terrified me, though that was partly because they were rain-slick rather than because they were actually all that scary. But this was a pretty good thrill, even on a misty day, when I could as easily imagine thousands of feet empty below me as hundreds, or tens.

It's been a good summer for scenery, and adventure, and confidence-building. Between scary steep scree en route to the Burgess Shale, high winds on bear-laden mountains at Lake Louise, and finally this last jaunt at Natural Bridge among steep rocks and by a copperhead (Brian bravely took this photo; I was long gone up the trail after a quick look). Of course, none of this adventure kept me from my standard week-before-classes nightmares (forgetting to go teach class, cartoons infecting my powerpoint slides), but maybe it just help keep us all agile, young and old alike.

I like to think that after facing scenery like this, mean girls and school bullies, assignments and assemblies all seem smaller. If you've walked up to a sheer cliff face and peeked over, just to see the view, surely anything that happens at school is just a proverbial walk in the park.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Cross-training, with kids

About a month ago, I tried to convince Emily to sign up for the local kids' triathlon, which she did last year and seemed to have a good experience with. However, the moment she gave me a firm "No", I realized who really wanted to do a triathlon in the family: me.

Having completed a couple of short tri's back in Ithaca in the late 1990's, before children, I knew the experience to know the agony and the ecstasy of it: the glory of that fast-dry bike ride after swimming, the pain of that first half-mile of running after a long bike ride. I'd accidentally exposed myself swimming backstroke in open water, so I knew what clothing would be needed.

The only problem, if you can call it that, was that between parenting and work - even just getting some writing done on the upcoming weed guide - time was short for training. 600 m swim, 20K, bike, 5K run, all in a row. Improvisation was in order.

I'd spent the early part of the summer keeping up with the growing grass with my reel mower (beloved reel mower), so that had to count as training. The 12 mile hike to and from the Burgess Shale had to count for something, too - presumably stamina training, and hill training. Swimming training was easier - adult swim is just long enough to complete a 700 meter swim, and with a few extra laps I could manage some safety net for extra stamina. During trips to Ohiopyle, I fit in one 20 mile bike ride. I literally ran circles around the girls while they played at Squaw Valley park, getting in a run or two.

The best part was Thursday and Friday, when Brian and I took the girls on a trek from Ohiopyle to Confluence, 10 miles one way on rail-trail, camped overnight, and rode back. I don't know how to count that kind of interrupted ride as training, but like I said, this was improvised training.

I've talked to a couple of dads recently who do longer triathlons, and they spoke of generous partners and flexible work hours, all the better with which to fit in 4-6 days a week of (!) 2-3 hour workouts. Listening to them I've felt envious. I can't do that kind of time, and what's more, I like to think that my training is part of family exercise. Sometimes the exercise is separate, like my 20 mile ride while Brian played with the girls in the water at Ohiopyle; but at the same time, my getting out is related to the whole family getting out.

A recent Wharton School study found that women who participate in sports as youths have better rates of employment, and I love knowing that our daughters will benefit from school and neighborhood sports programs. Thinking about men and women in triathlon, though, I have to wonder - when moms train, is it possible that their kids get more workouts than when dads train? Do moms often do this kind of improvisational family-training, involving children in workouts simply because that's the only way the workouts can happen?

In any case, the race this morning went well. I didn't carry a watch - it's been too long since I did this, and I wanted to be listening to my body rather than constantly berating or cheering myself with split times - so I won't know my times until they're posted on the website. But I finished running hard, didn't drown, didn't wreck, didn't puke, and was ready to come home before they posted my official results. This is the biggest difference for me between doing this now and my race 12 years ago, before daughters - I've got someone waiting for me at home, and I was awfully glad to see them, so we could go out for some adventures.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Early harvest?

This year, determined to get some more of our own pumpkins for Halloween, I planted a lot of them...Yes, there is room in the garden also for kale, rhubarb, some herbs, tomatoes, potatoes, and snap peas (alas, now gone), plus a random assortment of weeds which I've kept for photographic and culinary purposes. But maybe not as much as we'd like.

In any case, though, the having pumpkins for Halloween thing is clearly not going to happen, because they're all getting ripe, right now. I finally harvested them, seeing they were more likely to rot by October than get bigger, so it looks like pumpkin pie is in my future/freezer sooner than I thought. Global warming? Or poor garden planning? (and I know the eggs aren't directly from the garden, but I love that basket and couldn't resist including them)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Not-so-lazy river

One of the many must-do activities we hadn't done yet since coming to Pittsburgh was rafting or kayaking at Ohiopyle. This seems to be one of the main activities at the park, and we've always wanted to do it each time we watched the rafts go downstream. Hazel is turning 8 and is now a decent swimmer, which made us eligible for tours we hadn't been able to sign up for earlier, so the time was ripe.

It surprised me how long that 1.5 hour drive feels at 8 in the morning, but still, we only hit the river at 10:30 or so. We paddled, and coasted, and worked our way off rocks. (The guide who gave our safety spiel explained about letting your feet float if you fall out, to prevent foot entrapment. She said at the time there was no such thing as "butt entrapment" but after all those rocks I got stuck on, I beg to differ.)

It was 3:00 before we reached our takeout spot, soaked, a bit stiff, very hungry (note to self: pack more lunch next time), but also very happy. Ready to do the whole thing again, before long.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Motivation and memory

I don't know what the girls would have said if I'd asked in advance, because I didn't. Last winter my mother-in-law asked if the girls would be able to handle a 12 mile hike to see the Burgess Shale, and I impulsively said yes, without asking them. They'd never hiked that far before, but why not? Plus, with a lunch break and a fossil hunting break in the middle, it should be OK, right?

As it turns out, the kid-led (with adult supervision) kids' hike to the Burgess Shale, one of the most diverse sites for fossils from early in the history of life, was a gorgeous, well-run trip, and easily within the kids' capabilities. Hazel and her cousin Thea were the youngest on the trip, but Hazel was hopping along even at the last mile. The adults were, well, a bit sore in the knees and toes by the end, but nothing beer and Advil couldn't fix (or simply cold packs, for my MIL, but that sounds less fun, doesn't it?). (The photo at left, alas, was not from the Burgess Shale hike, because we weren't with them for the hike - we were staggering along 30 minutes behind, since only 10 or so people can be on the Burgess Shale at once - that's from Mt. Revelstoke instead.)

I think for Brian and his brother, who knew best what to expect, the fossils were perfect. For me, as for the girls, they were a bit, shall we say, subtle - smudges on rock, easily enough mistaken for chalk drawings or rock fracture lines, at least to the uneducated eye. Emily said afterward that the hike was great, but the rocks were not worth all the effort. No one argued with her on that point, though she did acknowledge that the mountain goats, at least, were pretty cool.

I often wonder, during these family vacations, what the girls will remember. Will they remember the roadside grizzly, grazing shrubbery, or the view of Emerald Lake from the Burgess Shale? Will they remember the hotel pool at Lake Louise, or the stream behind our campside on the Kicking Horse River? I know I have ideas of what I hope they remember, and I'm sure that these ideas don't always match up with the reality.

This summer, though, I think what all of us adults noticed was how capable these kids are (our two and their two cousins). We hope that what they remember is that they climbed a mountain, crossed rockslides with ease, and scampered down afterward with nary a scratch. I myself had to take deep breaths and control my fear in places which they didn't think twice about. And maybe, whether they remember it or not, they'll carry with them a sense of physical capability. On the way down the mountain, Emily told her younger cousin about what a good job she'd done that day, and asked her if she knew the word "endurance." I don't quite remember how she explained it, but she explained it well, and when she finished explaining the word, she told her cousin "You had endurance today. You were tired but you kept on going anyway."

I think it might have even been fun, too, but I didn't try to convince them of that at the time.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Riding along

Yesterday we packed the car with bicycles, drove to Washington's Landing (an island in the Allegheny, near 31st St from downtown), and took off down river. Hazel has a new-to-her bike, courtesy of one of Emily's soccer friends who outgrew it, and we took our first voyage with it. We arrived on the island, crossed one street, and *voila!* we were on bike trail for the rest of the afternoon.

The journey: across railroad bridge to the North Shore, along the river past lots of trees and weeds (japanese knotweed galore), past the old Heinz Plant, past the Warhol Museum and the hipster downtown condominiums, past the kayak rentals under Pirate Stadium, past Del Monte, Heinz Field (Steelers Stadium), the Science Museum, and finally past the casino. (Emily: "Why are they playing loud music the casino?" Me: "So gamblers can't hear their inner voice saying to stop losing money.")

But we made lots of stops, especially on the way back. First, we stopped just past Del Monte, at the water steps, which feature a tempting and apparently illegible sign saying "Slippery surfaces: Swimming and wading prohibited." It was clear from the number of children in swimsuits that many had brought their children for this particular purpose, so the girls waded in, cooling the biking grime from their legs. (I confess, I dipped my feet in, too) Then we stopped for pizza, just outside Pirate stadium, an early dinner which, had Emily had her way, would have turned into a full-evening activity, Pirates-Phillies game included. Among the trees, Emily spotted ripe mulberries (4 stops) and apple trees (2 stops). The mulberries were eaten on the spot, the slightly-green apples went into my backpack for a pie, later. A stop for looking at the river from an old boat launch, which gave me this view of 3 weeds together: purple loosestrife, covered with hedge bindweed, getting crowded out by japanese knotweed. Competition in action: the Pirates have nothing on these three plants.

Back up the ramp and across the bridge to the island, past the houses, past the restaurant/bar - I'd joked with Emily on the way out that if she exhausted me I might have to stop for a drink on the way back - and back to the car. We loaded up, stopped for grocery store pie crust on the way home, and recovered with apple pie, Brian, and a backyard campfire before bed.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Seen from various trails

We've been back over a week from our first Kentucky trip of the summer, and the good news is that we've played a lot since then, with the side effect that I haven't blogged much. I've been working hard on a weed guide (St. Lynn's Press, 2011), with photos by Sheila Rodgers. Next spring, when anyone wants to see all those lovely (and unlovely) weeds I discuss in A Weed by Any Other Name, I can just send them to this guide.

Jessica Walliser, though, has already told us about the good bugs and bad - well, insects, since "bug" is something of a technical term. My in-laws, for example, are hosts of a bee tree in their yard, which was full of activity during our visit (see above, definitely good, both the bees and my in-laws). Not far from Bardstown, near the even smaller town of Boston, KY, we found a new hiking location, which featured these millipedes (yes, that's Emily's hand holding one of them - no crawly-phobes in our family!), lots of wildflowers, and even (drum roll, please) Fossils, with the bonus that it is a 3 mile loop with no crowds. No, I'm not telling where it is, exactly. (OK, I would if you asked nicely)

(See how this butterfly's head is out of focus? That's why Sheila is taking photos for the weed guide - she's good! She doesn't take photos like I do.)

Back here at home, the tomatoes are ripening, the kale is still surviving the heat, the peas are still luring the girls to eat a vegetable (if only "on the wing," since they don't eat them cooked). The chickens are laying, and the squashes and pumpkins are taking over the garden. Midsummer, with all its lush excess, is upon us.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hunting and gathering

The season of harvest may well be autumn, but June is definitely a season of plenty in its own way. While the garden bears a few early snap peas, plenty of well established herbs, and kale I can put daily into my ration of eggs, the wild outdoors has its own delights, even beyond the strawberry plants we have hidden around the yard.

I grew up with a cherry tree across the street, and June, then, was the season for gathering cherries and making pie. Near Ithaca, one of the state parks on the lake featured several mature cherry trees, and while Brian climbed for their fruit, I would stand on picnic tables and gather on tiptoe. Those cherries, too, went home for pie. Perhaps Brian has kept his eye on this tree earlier, but this week when I arrived at soccer practice, ten girls and Brian were off on the edge of the field - not looking for a wayward ball, as I first thought - but cherry picking. Some of the girls weren't too sure about it, but they believed in their coach, and were soon talking (tempting?) their younger siblings into trying the fruit, too.

This week, too, Hazel got her own idea of gathering. She recently attended a birthday party at which the party favor/craft was making little aquaria, with plastic toy inhabitants but real water, in small containers. Since then, she had the idea that she wanted a real fish swimming in it. Years ago, Brian and I kept fish - hand-me downs, I think, from some departing student - and still have the aquarium, though the residents departed (some to friends, some to the earth). I'm not actually keen to keep fish again, but I also figured that letting the girls try to catch them with nets would be relatively harmless, and might give us a resident fish for a week or so, when we could re-release it.

Don't hold your breath - we haven't caught anything, yet. Recent rains have made the streams so fast that the water bends our nets even in the deeper, more slow-moving sections. The pond, meanwhile, has plenty of fish too smart to be caught 3 feet from the bank, and even Emily seems too squeamish about the muddy bottom to go further. But the process itself, in my view, is the goal - ideally to wear them out on the idea of having fish, but keep the nets as a gentle way to hold whatever critters we might find.

And, starting now, we've entered the season when I know we will find plenty.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Gardening at the playground

The pool opened this weekend, and for two full days it was hot, sunny, and perfect for swimming. We could hardly complain - I was actually relieved - when the clouds rolled in Monday afternoon, the thunder clapped, and the rain poured down.

What I didn't expect, but was really happy about, was that when we got home, the girls immediately put on their raincoats, grabbed their scooters, and zipped down the street to their friend's house. Though A. is in kindergarden, the only problem with her is that Emily and Hazel compete for her attention. Both of my girls seem to crave the chance to be big-sisterly with her.

When Hazel got a call for a playdate elsewhere, that left Emily with A., and I took them to the community center playground. The mulch was wet, everywhere, and the thunder boomed distantly. They took shelter under the play structure, and soon had built a little house (from larger mulch pieces), a wall (from sweetgum balls), and a garden (from transplanted maple trees and grapevines, growing all over the playground).

In reality, these plants will probably wilt from lack of water, not this week, certainly, but by August. But perhaps, I can imagine, someday the play structure will feature a swinging vine and some wild grapes.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Favored weed patches

One of the odder aspects of our family's lawn is that every year, some weeds are given a month or so to show their stuff - to rise above the lawn and bloom - before returning to mowed anonymity the rest of the year. Right now we have two flowers granted this reprieve - King Devil and bluet. These are both in the backyard, though I am considering whether we can get away with having a similar patch in the front yard, where some yarrow grows but has never been allowed to bloom.

This puts us in questionable legal territory with our township. Weeds, township law states, are not allowed to grow higher than 8". But of course, we all know by now that if I love the plant, it isn't a weed. I assume in the backyard these patches go relatively unnoticed - our next door neighbor has clearly mowed around his bluets for decades - but I wonder what would happen if we let something similar happen in front, outside the flower beds. My repeated tendency - to look up the law and then try to find my way around it - may seem familiar to readers who accompanied us through the acquisition of a variance for our chickens. (And again, why am I surprised when I see this trait in Emily?)

I haven't quite set the yarrow free yet, and there is a tempting bull thistle rosette right next to the yarrow. Should I put a fence around them so they look official? Should I just let them go free and call it professional research? The possibilities are enticing. If suburban teens fantasize about sneaking through windows to go dancing at forbidden bars and clubs, this suburban parent has milder aspirations: sneaking through legal loopholes to let the weedy plants grow tall and flagrant. It might be that I need to get out more.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Now streaming, from your local watershed...

Last weekend, as this coming one, weather predictions involve both rain and sun, and though we all tend to hope for perfect weather for our own plans, I do like for it to rain during springtime. It sounds silly to say that - it is going to rain, or not, no matter what I prefer - but I like to have it on the table that rainy days aren't all bad for outings. Sure, I'm not a fan of cold rains, and I'd rather not have a cookout in the rain. But except for when I've lost a rental car key in the ocean and I have to wait outside for a locksmith, most of the time getting wet doesn't bother me much.

So Sunday afternoon, we headed for a favorite local park, even though dark clouds were gathering to the southwest. We started walking in the stream, which was not at all pristine, but we could at least see the rocks to step on, and headed upstream until I heard thunder. Unfortunately I, being the grownup, had to make the very boring and responsible decision that we would turn around and head back toward the car.

As it turned out, we decided instead to head to the picnic shelter when the rain came, and huddled under the center of it, listening to and watching the storm. I wouldn't have minded being a bit warmer while we watched, but in any case it was a great storm to see from a dry spot. You probably can't see the raindrops in this photo, but let's just say that the fountain wasn't really wetter than anywhere else, for a good 30 minutes or so.

Afterward, the girls wanted to head right back to the stream. We'd seen a water snake we wanted to look for again, and I'd wanted to go past the place where we'd wisely turned around when it thundered. The stream, however, had other advice for us - I was immediately reminded of Bridge to Terabithia when I saw it, and once again, making the boring, grownup decision was left to me: no more walking in the stream. Reasons, that we couldn't see rocks to step on, just for one, were asked for by the intrepid Emily, but reason was pointless. I wasn't going in there, and the girls weren't either.

I'm sure all streams get muddy in a storm, no matter how healthy they are. And in our neighborhood of Pittsburgh, I'm grateful that the storm and sewage systems are separate, so when I see muddy water like this, I can reasonably assume that it really is, at least mostly, mud, rather than something far more foul to write about.
The bottom photo, taken very close to the top photo, is the same stream, minutes after the storm. This is a stream we couldn't play in, one which made me feel icky just thinking about touching, even though I'm not easily icked out. If only I felt really confident that mud was the only issue!

At a regional water authority meeting I attended a couple of months ago, I raised a bit of a debate by suggesting that our goal, in water treatment planning, should be that I should be able to take my kids to any stream in the area and let them play in it. And someone from the water authority tried to clarify, Did I mean except not during or after a storm? Her guess was not accurate. Of course I have no intention of letting either child get carried downstream and drowned. But yes, I meant it, and I explained that I might not be exactly normal that way, but I think during a rainstorm is a fine time to play in a stream, because you're already planning to get wet, so why not?

So last Sunday, I was just a bit bothered. Muddy water and wet clothes, fine - but, what else was in that water? I can judge, easily enough, the safety of the water for crossing, and if drowning is the fear, then once you walk away from the stream safely, you can take a sigh of relief. What creeps me out is the invisible problems, the pollution which, when we walk away from the swollen stream, is still with us.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bare Necessities

Since about last September, we've had our eye on kayaks. Though it didn't - and still really doesn't - fit into our budget, with the beginning of summer we decided to test the water, so to speak, with one kayak.

I would like to be able to say we "need" kayaks. Pittsburgh is blessed with a number of great waterways, and though hiking through them is fun, some spots can't be accessed that way. Apparently 2nd grade is when the concept of needs vs. wants is discussed at school, so I recently got to look at this question through Hazel's eyes. Hazel's list of Needs includes a tent - above dictionaries and soccer balls and watches and calculators, all of which are hardly luxuries, but still are categorized as wants in her view. Can I justify thinking of a kayak this way?

Still, kayaks are not tents. Tents might, for example, represent a bare-minimum form of shelter. Hazel probably thought of them that way for this assignment, but that doesn't take away my joy at the idea that at some level, camping might be a necessity rather than a desire. Camping is a skill, and a tent representative of it, which implies self-sufficiency and ability to get along without all the other objects we normally have access to in our homes. (The girls used to ask me if we were rich, sometimes, and I would always answer that by any reasonable worldwide standard, we are indeed very rich, no matter how our homes might compare to others nearby.)

Whether it was necessary or not, today we got to test out the new kayak, the latest luxury item in our home. It was a long-anticipated event, and even though we're still a long way, equipment wise, from being able to pack up the family and head downriver together, this is a good start. I still feel like I "need" a new reel mower - the beloved Brill, despite my adjustments last summer, doesn't work, and I have my eyes on Fiskars' Momentum, a new model of mower. But the kayak is something for all of us to enjoy, if only, for now, one at a time, so the mower waits its turn, for a little while at least.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Chicken bath

Finally, for your amusement, the bath. Yes, that's 4 chickens in that pile, because baths seem to be a group activity. Perhaps it is the Roman Chicken Bath.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Dirty Birds

With the nice weather lately, some people get into spring cleaning. While spring cleaning never interested me overly much indoors - why do anything indoors when the weather is this beautiful? - I've cleaned out the coop, and am getting ready for gardening. Spring cleaning *outside* seems like a wonderful idea. I've even pulled a few dandelions, just as something to do while watching the chickens forage, even though I rather like their yellow cheeriness and uppity persistence.

The chickens, too, seem to be inspired to clean up. Of course, they can't do anything about their coop, alas, but for some reason an onion bed full of rich, peat-moss soil seems to be their favorite spot for a good old-fashioned feather cleaning dirt bath. The first time I saw them do this, it looked like they were having seizures, but now that I've watched how much they love the process, it no longer looks so involuntary - more like self-indulgent. This afternoon, I sat in the yard, Tiggy lolled in the sun, belly up on the back porch, while the chickens lolled in the garden. Some of us were twitching more than others, but all of us were enjoying ourselves thoroughly.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Last one out's a rotten...

ooops, I didn't mean that. Sorry Swallow.

The last few days when I visit the coop, Taylor and Gabby are quick to take advantage of the open door, leap on the bottom of the door frame and head out to find worms, dig up my garden (no rototiller necessary), and explore. Both of them have easily figured out that the door I use is the opening for them, too.

It is often said that chickens aren't smart, but I'm laying it on the line, so to speak: some chickens are less smart than others. Now I'm not saying this is an IQ test or anything, but Selena and Swallow do not get this door thing. Sometimes I take pity on them and help them out. Sometimes Swallow, in the process of trying to fly out the top of the covered coop, lands in the doorway and gets out. But so far, neither of them has figured it out, and both of them will pace around, against the side of the coop closer to their adventurous sisters, and act like they have no idea how to get to them. I'll give them credit - the doorway does require hopping or stepping over about a foot-high frame. But still - they can see over it, if they stand up straight.

So anyway, it's time to go let out the chickens again, because it is so fun to watch them. And I'm going on record with this statement: no matter how many degrees I have or what fancy schools I attended, no matter that I'm a professor and an author, I am perfectly capable of loving a creature who is really not too bright. At least if that creature is as cute as a chicken.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Little alligators

This past week we were in Florida, doing a sweeping ecological tour of Keys and Atlantic Beaches, the Everglades, and our ever favorite, Ocala National Forest. Despite my newfound affection for mud season, I was terribly happy to be in sand and sun.

One of our favorite tasks, as parents, seems to be scaring the children. Despite our best efforts and several panther crossing signs, we did not get to see a Florida panther in the Everglades. Nor did we get to see any bears in Ocala National Forest, despite bear crossing signs there.

But we did see alligators. In fact, a lot of alligators, including some really hopelessly cute baby alligators. At Anhinga Trail, I couldn't tell if the buzzards were waiting for an alligator to die or the alligators were waiting for a buzzard to get careless, but they were certainly wary of each other. At Ocala, we saw a stingray in a spring pond, and all of us snorkeled above it, treating it with much more deference than all the other fish who swam away from us.

Wood storks, egrets, tricolor herons, swallowtail kites, anhingas, cormorants, white pelicans, a purple gallinule. A really wonderful tern signal at Coot Pond. Birds are all common enough in south Florida, but completely exotic to us. Crabs and man-o-wars. All respectable critters in their own ways. But still, the scary animals are the most fascinating ones.

So I spent a lot of time this week remembering Quickfoot and Lightfoot, Maurice Sendak's little alligators, the quarreling siblings who were fascinated and repelled by the big hungry alligator. And often, I felt like their Mama Alligator, fruitlessly trying to keep them out of trouble with her warnings.

But at least I got to learn that baby alligators really are every bit as cute as the ones Maurice Sendak drew.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Mud season - woohooo!

I generally enjoy snow, and of course I love flowers, summer, even a good rainstorm in its time. But usually, my least favorite season is mud season.

Mud season follows snow season, though in a mild winter sometimes the mud season doesn't even have snow as an excuse. It is often drab, feels dirty, and it generally isn't all that warm. It is tough on good shoes and makes even routine yard tasks seem, well, icky.

But this year, I am unspeakably happy to see mud. Mud means the snow is over, if only for a now, and mud means soon I can start planting kale and peas. It doesn't hurt that this year, mud season is beginning with sunshine, and that I'm particularly excited to have a whole new spring with our chickens.

Ask me in a month, and I'll be tired of it, tired of sweeping it and vacuuming it and squelching through it. But for now, mud represents snow melting, the change of colors from all-white to anything else, even if it is just brown for now. But there's hope yet. Maybe after spring break I can start enjoying crocuses, and anticipate the daffodils, if only while wearing boots.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Letting it beat me

Scarcely two weeks ago, I was in Kentucky, visiting my folks, and about to hurry back - to see the biggest snowstorm to hit Pittsburgh in decades. We came back to a week of snow days, and for a few of them I was pleased: pleased for the girls to get the kind of Big Snow experience I remember from the late '70's in Lexington (6 weeks straight of no school!), pleased to get to wallow in winter, pleased even to shovel - at least when I looked behind and saw the space of clean driveway behind me.

Two days ago, I got back from a short trip to DC - where I saw pansies blooming and some bare patches between piles of dirty snow. Since then, we've had another snow day, and two occasions for shoveling the driveway. I'm glad to get the exercise - always - but golly, I am tired of this single form of it.

We've basically hunkered down. My two young vegetables, I mean children, have watched four movies in the last 2 days. They have read. Hazel has even done math sheets, voluntarily, for entertainment. Even the chickens seem to feel cooped up. (sorry, couldn't resist) When I see a blade of grass sticking out next to our sidewalk after I shovel, it is cause for excitement, because I feel I can hardly remember life before snow - even if the blade of grass is not exactly vibrant green.

And I have to keep reminding myself: it is still February. It is fine to have snow in winter, because some years we have very little. I should enjoy it, because who knows how long it will be until there is another winter like this one? So in a few minutes, I am going out skiing, and darnit, I'm going to try to enjoy this.

Because really, winter is almost over. Isn't it?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snow excavation

I'm not sure Brian or I has ever experienced a single snowfall like this one, though for both of us it brings back memories of other great snows: central Ky, winter of '78; Boston, May '93; Ithaca, yearly (OK, partly kidding).

But for Emily and Hazel both, this is new territory. Sledding in the yard doesn't work, because the snow is too deep. I can't x-country ski through it. Even Brian's snowshoes, which we tried for the first time ever, didn't quite work, though I know that's probably because of our inexperience rather than the depth of the snow.

One activity which works perfectly (besides shoveling! That's going great, I tell you....) is snow-caving - right next to our own driveway. So yesterday, after we got out driveway clear enough to be functional, we made two forts: one tall, and tall enough for Hazel to stand inside; one long, twice my body length, with entrance, exit, and an escape hatch for safety.

Because as much as Brian and I feel like we've done this before, we haven't - not with the girls, of course, but never with our own driveway to shovel, our own snowpiles to shift and tunnel on our own. I'd helped make a decent snow fort or two in my life, but never one which required a head lamp and a sled to see and reach the interior.

Hazel and I saw a sign on a snowpile on our way home from grocery shopping: "Snow for Sale". I guess we don't need any more, but I bet I could buy some more, real cheap, and we could make more tunnels. If we needed to.