Monday, December 15, 2008

three bird stories

Two days before the blizzard, I was on my way to the bus stop, and this particular bus stop is a good little place or birds. There's a tiny city park--really, just a wedge of green between two busy streets--with lots of trees, including some nice spruce, plus some tall boulevard and yard trees. It's a popular corner for nuthatches, and there's often woodpeckers, too. So when I heard a tap tap tap, I assumed it was one of the usual downies or hairies, until I looked up, and saw a big Pileated Woodpecker, less than 20 feet up in one of the big maples outside an apartment building. It was close enough that I could see it was a girl (boys have a red stripe on their face like a mustache) and could see the glint in her eye when she cocked her head to stare back at me. But mostly she was unconcerned, and kept pecking away while I stood there and watched, and the wood shavings drifted down like snowflakes.

A day before the blizzard I saw a robin in somebody's yard. I guess a few hang out in Duluth all winter long, but this was the first that I've seen since the flock in Hartley a few weeks ago. The yard in question has some nice conifers to snuggle down in, and a Mountain Ash tree for robin snacks.

The day of the blizzard, yesterday, the buses stopped running before I got off of work, so I had to walk home, a little under two miles, in the snow and fierce wind. I stopped in the woods behind the farmer's market, by Chester Creek, to take a break from my grim trudge and seek shelter in the trees for a few minutes. In the woods there were about forty black birds, mostly grackles, with a few starlings mixed in, and a handful of crows. Or ravens. I can't tell by silhouette alone, and all the birds were eerily, completely silent. Now and then one of the nosed around the bark looking for grubs, and a small group of them relocated to a different tree when I entered the woods, but mostly they were all hunkered down, black clumps against the swirling white sky, waiting out the storm.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

confusion or bravado?

It is currently 17F outside and snowing lightly, as it has been all day, a grey, overcast day. It's less than two weeks before the solstice, and the days aren't getting much shorter at this point. I was just outside shoveling, and a chickadee was serenading me with his spring song, fee-bee, fee-bee.

Hey, that territory isn't going to defend itself, and I guess it's best to find a mate extra early, before all the good ones are taken.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

oh, the weather outside is frightful

Actually rather unfrightful today, but it's working on it, so I'm trying to get the apartment ready for winter. Attempted to put up fresh weatherstripping on the doors today. The back door went fine, but on the front door there is a small gap between the door and the frame, but then right inside the room the carpet is lumpy enough that once I put the weatherstripping on I couldn't open the door. I guess I could have left it up as an alternative security device, so that even if a burglar managed to pick the lock, the door still wouldn't budge.

I'm also putting plastic sheeting up on the windows, but that has its own set of challenges. This apartment has a million windows (okay, eightteen) and almost all of them are 65" tall. Which, for those of you who haven't bought window plastic lately, is just two inches longer than the plastic in most standard window insulating kits. That was a fun discovery my first winter here. So I have to buy the big patio door kits and cut the plastic into strips.

What else can I do to winterize a rental? Heating the rooms that you're in instead of heating the whole unit is a nice idea, but the apartment is so big and open that space heaters would be impractical. This place desparetly needs some new, non-rattly windows and some better insualtion, but that's not my department. The landlord did put in a new, more efficent natural gas furnace last year, and that helps. I keep the thermostat as low as I'm comfortable with (65 when I'm home/awake, and 60 at night). As an added bonus, when you keep the thermostat that low, the cats are far, far more likely to curl up in your lap or in bed.

I'm dreaming of next year, when I will hopefully have my own house, and I can make it as snug as I want. When I can afford it, I want to get a wood stove as a supplemental--if not primary--heat source. Northern Minnesota has a strong lumber industry, so heating with wood would be one of the cheaper options, and it's certainly more environmentally friendly than burning fossil fuels. In the mean time, I'm putting up plastic on the windows and am heating with cat.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

garden: still chugging along

Because I am a very, very, extraordinarily lazy gardener, I just got around to bringing my pots and things in the garage today. This is something I really should have done a month ago, since almost everything out there was long since dead.

Yeah, I said "almost":
I tossed some parsley seeds in my pot of dill last spring. The dill is long gone, but the parsley keeps on trucking.

But I was more impressed by this:
Broccoli buds.

I didn't bring in the broccoli with my original group, because it looked pretty scraggly, and at that point in time the buds were tiny (popcorn kernel sized) to nonexistent, so it didn't seem worth it. Now some of the buds are as wide as a quarter--and this growth occurred since the beginning of October. During which time the temperature has dipped down to the teens (possibly the single digits) and we've gotten a few dustings of snow. The air temp was about 30F when I was outside today, and the soil in the pot was frozen solid. But the broccoli leaves and buds were still green and pliable.

I figured the reason that they never did much this summer was because I planted them too late, and the heat of summer came too quickly for them. Most cruciferous veggies prefer cooler weather. "Below freezing" is pushing it a bit, though.

So, since they were not only still alive, but putting out flower buds, then of course I have to bring them inside. So the indoor winter garden experiment continues.

Friday, November 21, 2008

accidental science

When I brought my geraniums in from the outside to try to overwinter them, the flowers looked like this, bright pink and deeply saturated. I originally had them out on the indoor landing outside the apartment where there is a west facing window, but then decided that I wanted to bring them inside the apartment so that I could enjoy the flowers more, not just say hello when I was coming or going. At first I put them in my studio, which has windows on the north and east and gets a lot of indirect light but practically no direct light. Then, when the next batch of flowers blossomed, they looked like this:

Pure, bright white at the edges, and pink only in the center. All the flowers that have bloomed since I brought the plant in the apartment are like this. So, when geraniums are denied light, the flowers lose their color. I had no idea this happened. This feels like seventh grade science fair all over again.

Now the geranium are in a south facing window, in the sunniest place in the house. Stay tuned for what kind of flowers I get.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

luxury or necessity?

There was an article in the paper on Sunday about voluntary simplicity, and one of the sidebars was a list of gadgets and experiences and frivolities, things like "television" or "health club membership" or "strawberries in December," with the newspaper asking the reader how many of these things they would be willing to do without. There was a related poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 1996 and 2006 asking how many things like this people considered luxuries and how many were necessities. In the two surveys, every single item became more of a perceived necessity except one—owning a car. In 1996 93% said that a car was a necessity, and in 2006 it had dropped to 91%.

Both those figures are still depressingly high, but it's encouraging to see that the percentage dropped a little bit, because that means an additional 2% of the population is sick of waging wars for oil and the unhealthy, unsustainable infrastructure that comes with everyone driving cars. There is, perhaps, a small amount of hope.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

late season flowers

Every year I try to keep an eye out to see which flowers are the last to go before winter hits for good, and even though it is now the second week of November and we are getting our first real snow today, it's not even close to the end of flower season. The bergamot in the yard still has a few frail wisps of color, and on my walk to/from the bus stops this morning (a total of about 4 blocks), I saw white sweet clover, red clover, tansy, tansy ragwort, European bellflower, dandelion, sow thistle, cress, and evening primrose, and I'm quite sure that there's lots more out there.

Depending on the weather, I've seen some flowers (sweet clovers, tansy ragwort, and once liatris) hang on until early December, and I've seen dandelions as early as mid-March. And of course, pussy willow catkins are technically flowers, too, and they'll start coming out in late February sometimes. Even up here in the frozen north, we only have about a 10-14 week period with no flowers.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


In America, today is election day. And of course you all know I'm going to tell you to go vote for Obama, so I'm not going to bother typing out all the reasons why.

Instead, I'm going to focus on this: if you are in Minnesota, please vote yes on the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment. This amendment will raise the sales tax by 3/8 of one percent (about thirty cents on an $80 purchase) and will generate about $300 million a year for protecting our water, preserving habitat, creating and maintaining parks and trails, and promoting the arts and our cultural heritage. This proposed amendment gives us a unique opportunity to fund programs that are sorely in need of more money, build a legacy for years to come, and continue to make Minnesota a place worth living in and loving. Not voting will count as voting "no," so please go vote, and vote yes.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

wild robins

I haven't been posting as much naturey stuff as I used to. Partly because this summer was kind of crazy and I didn't get out as much as I'd like, but also partly because I have been giving too much credence to probloggers who go on and on about how a "successful" blog post should always have photos (and bullet points, and short, snappy, googleable text, and other things I don't really care about). So I start to think that if I don't have a photo it's not worth it to make an entry. But there is something to be said for good writing, too, and a lot of apparently successful blogs, with their bullet points and SEO and stock photos, are also kind of boring. And really, I spend too much energy as it is doing what I think I "should" do, rather than what I want to do. I should be writing the kind of blog that I would want to read.

So I went out to Hartley yesterday, and came upon a flock of about twenty to forty robins, feasting on a large grove of chokecherries east of the pond and behaving like, well, like wild birds, not the half-tame yard birds of summer that I am more used to. They were hopping around the trees, making this weird clucking/barking noise I don't normally associate with robins but which I'm told is an alarm/contact call. They were skittish and wary of my presence at first, but I stood still and they eventually moved in closer, and more and more kept coming in. The robins passing through Duluth now probably summered in the fields and forests of Alaska and northern Canada. Before migrating they probably haven't had to spend much time around people or civilization, and they were instead free to be the wild, woodland thrushes that they are.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

bringing the outdoors indoors

It's always sad when the temperatures start dropping and garden stuff starts to wither up, especially in Duluth where the growing season is so short, and especially for me because I guess I'm just not very good at container gardening because the plants don't start to mature until right about when the frost hits. So this year I thought I'd experiment and try to extend the season a little bit, so I hauled my most robust tomato and pepper, the parsley and basil, the strawberries, geraniums, and the stupid cabbage that were just starting to form heads now, and I put them on the indoor landing outside my apartment and set up my old lightbox in front of them. It didn't really work for its intended purpose, but it is a Very Bright Light, and I thought maybe it could at least ripen a few tomatoes.

That was three weeks ago, and I'm afraid the experiment was not much of a success. The basil is dying very quickly now, and the tomato is going brown now, too. There was an old article in Mother Earth News about overwintering tomatoes, but I don't think mine are getting enough light, even with the lightbox. The pepper is still hanging on (and still flowering!) but it looks kinda sickly and I doubt I'll get any fruit off it. The cabbage are still trucking along, but I doubt they'll turn into anything edible (the leaves are as thick as burlap). The parsley still looks beautiful, and I carried parsley through the winter last year, too, so that's a small success. The strawberries, oddly enough, still look really good too, even though I later learned that I "should" put them back outside or in the garage or something so that they can go dormant and I can replant them next year. (And I really should do that, and not try to force them to flower and fruit in the winter, because if they're not allowed to go dormant they'll almost certainly die in the spring then. But it's kind of temptng to carry on with the experiment just to see what happens.)

But the geraniums are soldiering on, too, and both of them are putting out flowers now, so they might make it though the winter. I think I'm going to ditch the lightbox and bring the geraniums in the apartment, once I find a sunny, cat-free place to put them.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

chokecherries, Thoreau style

Today I got a chance to try some chokecherries Thoreau style--dead, ripe, and a little wilted. I've recently been reading "The Forager's Harvest" by Samuel Thayer, which is an amazing book on wild foods, highly recommended, and in it the author extols the virtues of chokecherries. He says he regularly eats chokecherries fresh off the bush and like to make chokecherry fruit leather without any sugar. I read that and shook my head, thinking, "Chokecherries without any sugar? I am not that hardcore."

But today I got brave. Mr. Thayer writes, "The puckering mouth that [chokecherries] induce is a sensation, not a flavor. If you can learn to not let it scare you off you will be free to discover that the flavor behind the pucker is really pretty darn good." We've had a few light frosts recently, and I've read elsewhere that winemakers will wait until after a frost to harvest the grapes, because the cold sweetens the fruit, and I've also noticed that flowers, particularly sweet clover and tansy, smell sweeter after a frost.

So I picked a few chokecherries from a neighbor's bush on my way to the bus stop. The fruit was soft, and more purple than black now, and it really did taste sweet, with a sugary flavor and gooey texture just like cherry jam. They do still fur the mouth, however.

Friday, October 3, 2008

I made potatoes!

Last spring I had some sprouty Yukon Gold potatoes, and rather than just throwing them away, I decided to put the in a pot to see if they'd grow. (I tried the same thing with garlic last year but didn't have much luck. I stuck the cloves in the dirt and waited, and all summer they didn't really do anything (I think a few put up feeble little stems) so in the fall I just put the pot back in the garage and forgot about it. The following spring when I started getting ready to plant stuff again, I went to get my pots out of the garage, and *then* the garlic was growing, after half a year with no water and minimal light. I tried to keep it going but it didn't last. What I didn't realize at the time was that there is garlic that you plant in the spring to harvest in the fall, and then there is also garlic you plant in the fall to harvest in the spring, so I probably planted fall garlic in the spring and just ended up screwing with its little garlic head.)

But I've grown potatoes before, and they're easy and fun. You don't need seeds or anything, just a sprouty potato, and you don't actually bury them in the dirt, you just nestle them in on top of the soil and then heap a bunch of leaves or straw over the top. I've tried burying them in the past, but they grow better if you don't. The plants shoot up like weeds and put out pretty white flowers and then they die. The tubers are ready to harvest when the tops have died back completely.

So I dug my potatoes yesterday. I had them in a big pot, maybe about 16 inches across, and I think I squeezed about seven or so sprouty taters in there, which is seriously overcrowding them, and I probably would have harvested more if I'd actually planted fewer. But I still dug up 21 potatoes, ranging in size from four inches to 1/4 inch.

I don't think I'll be eating the 1/4 inch one. How would you cook it?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

free catnip

Mint is great for a lot of things, but it's kind of a pain in the garden because it has no sense of boundaries and, given the chance, will spread everywhere. Which is why I, and a lot of other gardeners, usually grow mints in pots, to try to keep it at least a little bit contained.

But apparently in the past somebody at my apartment building was not so cautious. Next to the patio out back, there's a few inches of grass that escaped the lawn mower this summer, and in that grass some catnip and other mystery mint has sprung up. I pulled up the shorter stalks of catnip for my kitties, but I left the mystery mint and any flowering stalks out there for whatever pollinators are still hanging around. I know there are still plenty of bees and flies, and I've seen some white cabbage butterflies and last week I saw a monarch. Mint flowers are tiny (about 1/4 inch) but they grow in clusters, which make for convenient nectar gathering. There aren't a lot of flowers left this time of year, and mints are good nectar sources.

The catnip must be pretty primo stuff, since both the kitties went nuts over it, rolling around on the floor and tossing the catnip leaf up in the air like it was a mouse. Also, it makes Emily a little paranoid.

I let both the kitties have a few fresh leaves, but most of it I just hung up to dry. The oil rubbed off on my skin and my fingers still smelled like catnip for hours afterward, and whenever I tried to pet the cats they would wrap their paws around my hand and start licking or biting me.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


I am now helping to advance the cause of Gonzo Science. Come check it out.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

lakewalk expansion

Today was the first time I've biked down the new Lakewalk expansion out to 36th East, and it is beautiful, even if it doesn't go along the actual lake at that point. It passes through some very pretty wooded property, over Tischer Creek and some little tributaries. It's hard to believe you're sandwiched between two fairly major thoroughfares; it feels very secluded and woodsy. It actually reminds me a little bit of the Tri-County Corridor, which I used to ride all the time when I lived out in Ashland. (Never quite worked up the guts or stamina to attempt going all the way to Superior, about 70 miles one way; I wasn't in super good shape back then, and while I may have been able to make it *there*, I wouldn't have been able to make it back.)

It was a warm, sunny, Indian summer day today, and the air smelled like apples. For my entire ride I was racing dragonflies, and I really should have brought my binoculars with me because there were warblers and sparrows everywhere, and most of them just too far away to ID (at least by me, who relies on markings and is not so great IDing by song/behavior).

Monday, September 15, 2008

chokecherry syrup

Most people wouldn't want to eat something that has the word "choke" in the name. Most people don't know what's good for them. But I digress.

Sometime around 1633, in a book called "New England Prospect," William Wood wrote, They be much smaller than the English cherry, nothing near so good, if they be not very ripe; they furr so the mouth that the tongue will cleave to the roof, and the throat wax hoarse with swallowing those red bullies (as I may call them) being little better in taste; English ordering may bring them to an English cherry, but they are as wild as the Indians.

Henry Thoreau, feeling a little more charitable and adventurous, wrote, They are a rich, fatty-looking fruit. However, though they are scarcely edible, their beauty, especially when they are half-ripe, atones for it. See those handsome racemes of ten or twelve cherries each—dark, glossy, red; semi-transparent? You love them not the less because they are not quite palatable. However, finding some once near the end of August dead, ripe, and a little wilted, they were tolerable eating—much better than I had ever tasted—yet the stones are very much in the way.

It's true that they are not exactly a free-snack-on-the-trail type of wild food—though I have never tried them dead, ripe, and a little wilted—but behind that choking astringency is a powerful cherry flavor just waiting to be coaxed out with some sugar. Last year I bought a little bottle of local chokecherry syrup at the co-op, and it was amazing, so this year I was determined to make my own, even though I've never made fruit syrups or anything like them before.

It's a little late to be going a-chokecherrying (two weeks ago would have been ideal), but I found two trees still heavy with berries and a handful of other with some stragglers, and limiting myself to the easy fruit, leaving plenty for the birds, I still managed to come home with about three and a half pounds of chokecherries. The berries grow in bottlebrush-like clusters (I've also heard them described as grape-like) and the ripe berries come off easily in your hand if you just start at the top of the cluster and pull down, wiggling your thumb and forefinger as needed. I set out a little late, just before dusk, and it was dark by the time I started heading home, but by then I had picked enough chokecherries that I didn't need to see them, because I knew the fruit by touch.

Three and a half pounds of chokecherries measures out to about ten cups, and cooking them down brings you to about six cups juice. I juiced them by first mashing the cooked berries with a potato masher, then pressing them though a sieve, then squeezing the pulp through a cloth, although mashing and squeezing would have sufficed. It should be noted that chokecherry juice will stain your hands and kitchen utensils and countertop and everything you love a red-pink-purple. I made the syrup four days ago, and the crevices of my hands are still lined with purple cherry juice.


10 cups fresh chokecherries
4-5 cups sugar

Rinse chokecherries and pick out leaves, stems, and bugs. Place cherries in a very large pot and cover them just barely with water. Cover the pot and cook over low-medium heat for half an hour, until the cherries are very soft and the flesh begins to loosen from the stone and the water turns pink. (Simmering chokecherries smells sweet and fruity, and it says something about my cultural heritage that the first thing that popped into my head was, "Smells like jell-o!")

Juice the cherries by mashing them and pressing them through a sieve, cloth, or fruit press. Discard the pulp and stones (I've heard rumors that the stones will sprout even after being cooked, so make of that what you will; I dumped mine in the abandoned, weedy lot behind the house that I call "the woods," in the hopes to populate it with chokecherries.)

Dissolve the sugar in the juice and boil steadily for five to ten minutes; the more sugar you use the less you have to boil it. You can adjust the sugar to your taste; I used 4 1/2 cups and wish that I would have stopped at 4, so that it would have a little bit more of a tart cherry zing. Stir constantly to prevent it from boiling over. The syrup will thicken as it cools. Yields a little under four pints. It will keep for several months in the fridge, or you can can it and keep it longer. Use on pancakes, waffles, ice cream, etc.

The little bottle I bought at the co-op last year was eight ounces and cost me $10; five hours "work" (hiking through the woods and picking berries, then cooking them down on the stove) yielded me about eight times that. Factoring in my hourly rate at my day job, it's far more economically profitable to make my own chokecherry syrup, and even if it wasn't—how would I rather spend my time? It's not much of a contest, really.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

green living, pop culture style

I was cruising the freelance writing job boards this morning, and I saw that a major blog network was looking for someone to write for their "green living on a budget" blog, and I thought, gosh, that's right up my alley since I am both poor and eco-conscious. So I went to check out the blog and, uh, yeah. Of the seven posts on the front page, five of them are encouraging the reader to buy some gadget or bauble or otherwise spend money.

One of the posts is about buying compostable plastic bags for picking up after your dog, when the actual green and budget-minded option would be to compost your pet waste (it's free, and unlike plastic bags—even compostable ones—in a landfill, it will actually biodegrade). Another post was about buying recycled envelopes made from old magazine pages, and hooray for supporting independent artists on etsy, but the truly frugal cannot afford 24 envelopes for $10, and it is very easy and completely free to make your own envelopes.

I am not linking to or naming the site in question, because one should not badmouth potential clients, even if one has no intention of applying for this particular job. And really, it doesn't matter, because this sort of thing is all over the internet and in magazines, and it's so disheartening to see fluff passed off as green living. But this is what people want. They want to be good without expending very much real effort or changing their lifestyle in any significant way, and they want to buy things (or woo advertising dollars from the people selling things).

There are exceptions, but it seems like the majority of website, blogs, and magazines that claim to be about "green living" are really about fluorescent lightbulbs, carbon offsets, and recycled glass bric-a-brac. And apart from Mother Earth News and the like, it's tough to find information on actions that will make a real difference, like gardening, composting, eating lower on the food chain, eating whole foods, buying second-hand or handmade consumer goods, buying fewer consumer goods to begin with, etc.

It's also tough to be a freelance writer trying to break into the green living niche while refusing to write about fluff. I'll write about fluff for other topics—if the eHow people want to pay me $15 for "How to Make Lime Juice," that's totally fine with me—but I refuse to write about how buying a $300 pair of hemp jeans is going to save the planet.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

EPA meadow

There was an article in the paper yesterday about the native meadow planting by the EPA building on the eastern edge of town, so I thought I'd go out there and see how it was coming along.

They've really done a nice job keeping the invasives out, and I'm impressed that they've done it with minimal chemical use. (On the Wild Ones e-mail list that I'm on, it is often debated whether or not it is acceptable to use judiciously applied Round Up to battle European buckthorn, garlic mustard, et al. I have to admit I'm undecided.) I don't know my grasses well enough to know what's native and what's not, but of the flowers I saw, they were very nearly all native. In bloom now are mostly bergamot and black-eyed susans, with some silphium, goldenrods, and asters. A sunny northland field in the autumn without tansy—imagine that.

The only obvious non-natives I saw were some birds-foot trefoil and various clovers, and they were almost exclusively at or near the mown edge near the sidewalk. What does this teach us about ecology? Most weeds are not as cosmopolitan as you might think; they do not grow everywhere. Look up clovers, creeping charlie, dandelion, thistles, bindweed, etc., in a field guide, and for habitat they'll all list the same thing: disturbed soil, waste areas, and lawns.

There are exceptions—the aforementioned buckthorn and garlic mustard among them—but most of the plants that we think of as weeds are designed to take advantage of weakness, to thrive in poor soil or harsh conditions. They're the plants that, in their natural environment, would be the first to move into an area after a fire or landslide. They have a short life cycle so that they can grow, make flowers, get pollinated, and put out seeds before getting grazed (or, more often in modern contexts, mown), or they spread in other ways, by putting out runners underground. A lot of weeds in North America, actually, including clovers, were purposefully brought over here from Europe to be grown as cattle fodder. The reason they're so hard to eradicate from lawns is because that's exactly the kind of environment they thrive in.

If you do something like what the EPA did, and pull or spray the worst of the invasives, plug in some strong prairie plants, and just stop mowing, over time the weeds will just remove themselves, because they can't compete with the likes of silphium and susans. I've noticed this in my own tiny garden. Last year I dug a new flower bed and put in some bee balm (another monarda, related to bergamot), black-eyed susans, and hyssop. The first year the natives were a little sparse and I had to pull a lot of weeds, and I planted some non-native annuals just to fill in the open space so that it wouldn't look so bare. This year the bee balm just *exploded* and completely took over, and the susans and hyssop are filling in any space that the bee balm didn't. I've even had a few new volunteers, some bergamot and some wild geraniums that I didn't plant but they just showed up. The seeds could have just blown in, or they could have been waiting in the soil for years for the right conditions to germinate.

Natives plants are better for wildlife and insects, too, and at the EPA meadow I found these two grasshoppers. Although to be honest I don't think these particular grasshoppers really cared what kind of flower they ended up on just at the moment.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


I have to admit that I can't really get behind all the principles of Leave No Trace. I mean, it's a good theory, definitely, and I agree with the general concept that we shouldn't go mucking up nature. But taken to its extreme, Leave No Trace removes all human activity from the wilderness experience, and in doing do negates the whole point of the wilderness experience: people are not going to want to protect and preserve things that they don't love, and they're not going to love things they can't tangibly enjoy, and sometimes tangible enjoyment involves things like hunting or fishing or picking wildflowers or hiking off-trail.

Or picking thimbleberries, which are ripe now. They're a little late, thanks to the cold and wet spring, but other weather conditions must have been perfect for them because they are everywhere, much more prolific than I can remember in recent years. I went for a walk through Chester Park, which is mostly mixed deciduous with many sunny patches (in other words, perfect for thimbleberries) and walked about a mile and in the course of my walk ate maybe a pint of thimbleberries. I didn't think there was a limit to how many thimbleberries a person can eat, but there is, and it's about a pint. Not that that really stopped me. The logical part of my brain was thinking, "Don't be greedy. Even if there is so much fruit it's rotting on the vine, leave some for other people, or for critters. Besides, aren't you starting to get a little sick?" But then the illogical, primal part of my brain countered with, "But... thimbleberries! Must gorge self on thimbleberries. Have no choice." Guess which part won out.

Thimbleberries are a fruit that will never be grown commercially, since they are so fragile it is not uncommon for the berries to fall apart in your fingertips; it takes a skilled, delicate touch to be able to pick them without squishing or dropping the berry. As you can probably guess by the berry shape and Latin name (Rubus parviflorus) they are related to raspberries, and the flavor is similar, but much more complex. Think raspberries mixed with tart green apples and just a touch of peppery cinnamon spice. I do not have the facilities (nor equipment, nor experience) to try this myself, but I bet they'd make a really excellent wine.

Thimbleberries (also called large flowering raspberry, white flowering raspberry, or salmonberry) grow on thornless stalks in dense, tangled clumps that often fill in understory of a sunny or freshly-disturbed forest. The plants usually top off around two to three feet tall, and the leaves are huge and maple-shaped, sometimes up to eight inches across. The flowers are equally conspicuous, two to three inches across, white (sometimes purple), and as flimsy as tissue paper. The first time I saw the plant I was convinced that it had to be some alien invasive. Those huge leaves, those huge flowers, that spreading habit—northern plants are not that extravagant. But it's native to the US, and is largely a western species, although the distribution creeps out across the Great Lakes states and into Massachusetts. (I think Thoreau mentioned them... in Wild Fruits maybe? I don't have that book with me at the moment.) In Duluth, the flowers come in late June/early July, and the fruit usually ripens in early August.

Monday, July 28, 2008


The other day I was moping, so I went out for a walk in an desperate attempt to find some therapeutic green space, and look what I found:

Serviceberries! There was a huge, sprawling patch of them, filling of the weedy ditch of a potholed street in a shady part of town. There were more than I could possibly eat. I grabbed a handful off the first patch of trees, but then as I kept walking there were more and more and more. I wonder if you can make serviceberry jam. I've never made jam before. But now I guess I know where to find enough serviceberries for it.

I suppose I should have been more careful and not eaten berries growing right off of the street like that, since plants absorb car exhaust and other pollutants, but it's not a very busy street, and anyway with serviceberries it is kind of hard to resist. As with many wild (uncultivated) fruits, the seeds are large and noticeable, but the flesh is sweet and lightly puckery, somewhat reminiscent of cherries, to which they are related.

A bit later on my walk, I unexpectedly wound up on the Superior Hiking Trail, and I found a huge patch of thimbleberries, too. Thimbleberry plants, anyway, only one ripe berry. There's no picture of that because I popped it in my mouth as soon as I saw it.

I have for years been meaning to expand my knowledge of wild foods, and I really should get on that. It's so nice to run across these happy surprises, like free snacks on the trail, especially on sad days when you really need it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

pupation station

Speedy was getting so big so fast that we had to get ready for her to pupate (ahead of schedule, of course, because she is Speedy). I made up a nice dish of soil (because sometimes they burrow in the dirt) and stuck three sticks in it (because sometimes they do it on sticks or other vertical surfaces). I made a point of collecting a variety of sticks, a thick one, a thin one, and a rough-textured one, so that she could take her pick. See how nice of a set-up I made for her?

And you can also see in that picture that she was having none of it. That blob in the upper right corner is Speedy, hunkered down and ready to pupate, and choosing to do it on the blinding bright orange terrarium lid instead on of the nice sticks and dirt that I got for her.

I guess whenever I raised monarchs when I was a kid, they never spun their chrysalis on the sticks I gave them, it was always on the side of the jar or on the mesh covering on top.

Because of the angle, it's hard to get a decent picture of the chrysalis. Usually they are either green or brown, depending on their surroundings and what would be better camouflage. Last year, of our three that made it to adulthood, the two who pupated higher up on the sticks had brown chrysalids, and the one who pupated closer to a bunch of parsley had a green chrysalis. So when I saw that Speedy was getting ready to pupate on the bright orange terrarium lid, I was excited to see what color her chrysalis would be. Which is better camouflage for blaze orange?

Apparently she couldn't decide either. Her chrysalis is brown on the bottom (the side closer to the terrarium) and bright green along the back (the side facing open air).

Now we wait and see if she can actually hatch successfully hanging upside down and sideways like that (I removed the sticks and parsley, so she has room to spread her wings). She officially pupated on the evening of the 18th (when nobody was home to watch, of course) and since she is Speedy she'll probably hatch in a few days.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

local strawberries... finally

I wouldn't say that my parents were early proponents of the local foods movement, but they did teach me a few things: local strawberries are the best kind of strawberries (supermarket strawberries are acceptable only in a very dire emergency) and supermarket sweet corn is not even worth considering but fresh-picked local sweet corn is food of the gods.

We had such a cold and wet spring that the harvest this year is 2-4 weeks behind schedule, so it's still way too early yet for sweet corn, but now finally (finally finally finally!) there are local strawberries. (There may have been some last week; I didn't get out to the farmer's market.)

I work at a grocery store, and when the slightly damaged produce gets culled off the sales floor, it become available for staff. Lately there have been a lot of California strawberries, which a lot of my coworkers are excited about because, hey, free strawberries. But I have been resisting, because I knew that local strawberry season was just around the corner.

And, oh, it was so worth the wait. I stupidly only bought one quart, and had to force myself to not eat the whole thing in one sitting as soon as I got home from the farmer's market. Now this means I have to stop by the Saturday market before work, and go back next Wednesday, too, and on and on until they run out, so that I can gorge myself on local strawberries to make up for the other eleven months of the year when I have to make do with supermarket strawberries, or no strawberries at all.

In the vegetable kingdom, color is indicative both of flavor (usually sweetness) and of nutritional content. This is why local strawberries, which are a deep, luscious, juicy red through and through, taste so much better than supermarket strawberries, which are usually a pale pink or even white or green in the middle. That also means that local strawberries have more vitamin C, lycopene, and other nutrients than supermarket berries. The only advantage of supermarket berries is that they travel well (they are picked underripe and then ripened/reddened artificially—yup, even organic berries). My local strawberries today got slightly banged up in the 15 block bike ride home from the farmer's market. But that's okay; they'll be gone by the end of the day.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

molting action pix

I finally managed to catch Speedy when she was molting, and I got a few crappy pictures through the plastic terrarium. This picture was taken when she was still in the process of inching out of her old skin.

When they're freshly molted, the head and lighter parts of the body are pale and colorless, and it takes a few minutes for their face to turn black again.

In this picture, the old head capsule is still stuck to her face. She got the rest of the way out of her old skin, waggling her butt a little to make sure she was free, then took her old head
in her hands and turned it over and examined it, all Hamlet-like, before tossing it to the bottom of the terrarium. She rested and meditated for about half and hour, then went back and ate her old skin before moving on to the parsley.

She's a big, fat instar 5 now. In a few days she'll start getting ready to pupate.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Speedy Papilio

Well, I meant to document our swallowtail's progress more thoroughly on my blog here, but Speedy is just zipping through her instars way faster than our swallowtail charges last year. Or maybe it only seem faster because this is our second year with swallowtails, so we're old hands at it now, or because this year we only have one and not six to worry about.

But, wow, she's gotten really big really fast. When we brought her inside she was just in her first instar, and just last night she molted into instar #4. Here's a few photos.

Instar #2, mostly just bigger and fatter than instar #1:

Instar #3, bigger and fatter still:

And then, wham!, in instar #4 she's suddenly stripy:

I don't know if you can quite tell from this photo, but while she no longer has the big, obvious white sash around her middle, the corresponding area is still slightly paler than the rest of her.

She's got one more instar to go as a caterpillar, then she'll spin her chrysalis. In instar five she'll be (again) bigger and fatter, and the stripes will be more prominent and the little spikies she still has in I4 here will smooth out.

I haven't been around to actually see her molt, which is a shame because it's a neat thing to see. First they loosen their head capsule and knock that off, then they accordion scrunch themselves out of their old skin, and then after resting for a moment they turn around and eat it. Hey, waste not want not.

If you look in the background of my photos here, you can also see how much parsley she's been eating, since she's on the same stalk of parsley in every photo. There were three full leaflets when she started out in I2, and as of this morning she's eaten one and a half of them (she also ate close to a full leaflet from the stalk that she hatched on). Gardeners sometimes refer to this critter as "parsley worm" and dispatch it with other pests. Black swallowtails are under no real danger as a species, and while I'll admit that a lot of them could do a number on a garden, that's still no reason to wantonly kill pollinators.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

it begins again

We found a black swallowtail caterpillar on the parsley today.

Just the one. Last year we had six. We left two of them outside (they both died) and brought four inside (one died). So now we're kind of morally obligated to bring in any caterpillars we find and try to raise them.

Duluth is on the northern edge of their range, and while the species is not by any means a rare butterfly, they're not super-common around here. And yet this is the second year I've found them on my parsley. I wonder if the species has some intergenerational memory where they return to the spot where their ancestors hatched to lay their own eggs. (Our butterflies last year would have laid eggs again after we released them, and those caterpillars would have overwintered as chrysalides and hatched the following spring, and then those butterflies would have laid the eggs that this new caterpillar hatched from.) Now I want to go poke around other people's gardens in town and see what I can find.

One thing we have determined is that hatch date very likely corresponds with daylight hours. This one that we found today is maybe two days hatched... last year we found them as eggs, and they hatched on June 30. Last year's spring was dry and hot, and this year it was cold and rainy, so it can't be weather related.

This one so far seems lively, and has been crawling around and eating a lot. She hasn't got a name yet (last year we had all girls, so, ya know, I'm just assuming.) There will be updates as events warrant.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

national pollinator week

Last Sunday kicked off National Pollinator Week (last Sunday was also my birthday; I don't think anyone planned it that way).

By now, everyone should be familiar with the problems facing honey bees: worker bees are just up and leaving the apparently healthy and functioning hive, and nobody knows why. There might be some parasite or virus that scientists haven't been able to pinpoint yet, but from what I've read it is more likely a combination stressors from all directions that are wearing the bees down to the point where I guess they just give up.

Pesticides are a big one; after all, it is not inconceivable that chemicals designed to kill one kind of insect may have effects on another kind of insect. Genetically modified crops are a big stressor, too, particularly Bt corn. Even if exposure to pesticides and GMO crops does not kill the adult bees outright, it will weaken their immune system and make them more susceptible to disease, and it will almost certainly disrupt the development of the more vulnerable larvae, who feed on the chemically-tainted nectar and pollen that the adult bees bring back to the hive.

Another stressor for the honey bees is a poor diet. Many (most?) commercial honey bees are trucked around the country to pollinate different crops as they go to flower, so for a few weeks they're in Maine pollinating blueberries, then later they're in Pennsylvania for a while pollinating apples, then they're in Florida pollinating melons, etc. Large scale, commercial farms almost exclusively have their field planted in huge, monocropped expanses, and there is precious little diversity (wildflowers, after all, are "weeds") and there are increasingly fewer and fewer greenbelts or hedgerows or other places left wild, and what that means is that the bee's diet is limited to whatever crops they are plunked down in. How do you think you would feel if you ate nothing but bread? (Which, actually, might be our fate if the honeybees disappear completely.) And many of these crop plants are ultra ultra hybridized to produce the biggest, most perfect-looking fruit. For us humans, this fruit is often less tasty and less nutritious than the more natural versions, so it would follow that the pollen and nectar are also less nutritious for honey bees. Bees in this situation might also be overcrowded in an attempt to ensure adequate pollination, which means that there's not enough nectar to go around and the bees go hungry.

All that traveling, chasing the bloom, adds to the stress of bees, and exposes them to a wider variety of diseases and other pathogens. Then there's a host of "smaller" stressors, like climate change or pollution or electromagnetic radiation from cell phones (although I think that last one has been disproven).

If honeybees go completely kaput, so does about one third of our food—pretty much all fruit, vegetables, beans, and nuts. Even meat and dairy products might become scarce or more expensive, since many animal feed crops (like soybeans or clover) are pollinated by bees. The only thing that would be safe, really, would be grains like wheat, which are wind pollinated. There are other insects that work as pollinators, but none on a commercial scale, and it wouldn't be worth it to try to domesticate some other species of bee or fly or moth or hummingbird for pollination purposes (as cute as a hummingbird farm would be), because we'd eventually just run up against the same problems. It's our agricultural system that's corrupt, not the honey bees.

So what can you do to help honey bees and other pollinators? One solution that's always mentioned is to plant flowers and vegetables in your yard, and although it sounds small and insignificant, it does make a huge difference. Native wildflowers produce better food for native pollinators, and heirloom fruits, vegetables, and flower varieties produce a higher quality pollen than many of the new hybrids, which are often sterile. You could also think about setting up a beehive of your own. Small scale and backyard beekeepers rarely experience the same calamities that commercial beekeepers do, and I reckon the bees are happier, too. Growing your own food also means that you are less dependant on big agriculture and all its evils.

Another important thing you can do is to support bee-friendly agriculture. Buying organic is a good start, and it's cleaner for the air and water and soil, but in my opinion a huge, monocropped, organic field is only marginally superior than a huge, monocropped, non-organic field. A better solution is to support small, local, sustainable farms, which may or may not be certified organic. Small farms are more likely to have a diverse selection of crops, and are also more likely to have pastureland or a woodlot or some other plot of greenery that is left in a wild state, all of which are better for bees and other wildlife. (Supporting local farms has a host of other benefits, too.) It's summer now in the northern hemisphere, and is the perfect time to go visit farmers markets or roadside stands, and buy local for the bees.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Indigo Bunting

We've had a colorful visitor in the yard recently, and today I finally got some decent pictures of him.

Like many other birds, it's the bright, flashy male that the entire species is named after, which is kind of insulting towards the female. I mean, she exists, too, she's half the species, and she's often very pretty in her own right. But with the Indigo Bunting, you can almost forgive those early ornithologists who did the naming, since the male of the species is rather stunning, a fierce gas-flame blue lighting through the verdant flush of summer.

The females are more drab (and this particular picture below isn't the most flattering either, since the angle of the sunlight washes out a lot of her color). But then, drabness is what works for her, since she spends more time sitting on the nest. Bright colors are great for attracting mates, but a smooth dun is better for camouflaging yourself and your children against predators.

We've had a male and female in the yard pretty consistently for the past few days. They might be thinking about nesting near here, so we've been trying to keep the feeders full for them, which is no small feat since the grackles and starlings are feeding their babies now, and a fleet of them can clean out a feeder in a few quick hours.

Friday, June 13, 2008

the awesomeness of plants

To make up for my two recent text-only posts, here is a photo-centric one.

We went walking yesterday and found the stump of this huge tree, probably a Black Willow, but I don't really know my willows that well, and there's a kerjillion of them and they hybridize.

Looks dead, huh? Nope, not quite.

There were clumps of fresh sprouts coming out of the trunk. Sure, you can cut through a five-foot trunk and remove probably 100+ feet worth of tree. But that doesn't mean that it's dead.

There were, however, decomposers making quick work of the trunk.

(Note: this picture is larger than life; in reality the millipede-looking things (anybody have an ID?) were about half and inch long and about the thickness of a sewing needle.)

And then in the rotting-trunk-turning-into-dirt, we have what looks like a Box Elder seedling sprouting.

If everything survives, and the Box Elder keeps growing in the middle of a clump of willows, it's possible the willows and Box Elder could graft themselves together and create some bizarro franken-tree. I wonder if the trunk will decompose quickly enough for the Box Elder to grow, or if it will just grow through the trunk to reach the soil. That is also possible: willow is a fairly soft wood, and while I don't personally know Box Elders that intimately, other trees' roots can grow through stone to reach water or soil if they need to.

And then, party just to show off my camera, here is a neat picture of a fly I took on the willow. Anybody have an ID for that? About an inch long, with a one inch wing span. I didn't even realize until I uploaded my pictures onto my computer that it had a stinger. Maybe I shouldn't have gotten so close to it, huh?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

gas prices, food, and manure

There was an article in the local paper recently (not online, sorry) about how a bunch of local farmers are struggling to be able to afford petrochemical fertilizers—because just like with oil, the price of those have been going up and up, too—and some of the farmers are reduced to trying "alternative" fertilizers, like manure.

It's a sad commentary that manure is now an "alternative" fertilizer. One of the farmers interviewed even already had a dairy operation, but is only just now using the manure produced to fertilize his corn field. What was he doing with all that manure before?

Now, I know that farmers aren't stupid, and I don't mean to imply that they are. I'm sure that the dairy/corn farmer did realize that manure can be used as a fertilizer, but he chose not to use it because he believed that the store-bought petrochemical stuff was better, because that's what all the advertising says and because everybody else is using it. (Which is sadly how human society tends to function, anyway: the dominant or most visible system is the most "correct," and anything different is suspect. It doesn't matter if you're talking about farming practices or food choices or religion or sexuality or anything else.)

Although the farmers might have had somewhat valid reasons for choosing petrochemicals. So many crop plants, especially corn or soy, have been hybridized and genetically engineered all to heck, and they need mega applications of chemicals to keep them going, and the farmers think that its worth it because they can then harvest mega yields. I'd like to see some long term study done comparing the cost and yield of growing heirloom vegetables organically in smaller, rotating plots vs. growing monocropped frankenfood chemically. It would have to be conducted over a long period of time, say ten or twenty years, because eventually the monocropped petrochemical corn field is going to be a sterile wasteland—the soil cannot sustain that level of abuse and continue to rebuild itself—but organic farming has been shown to actually improve the soil over time. I would bet that the chem field would have larger, less expensive yields for the first two or three years, but that the organic field would win by leaps and bounds in the long run.

The US government is now predicting that gas prices will peak at about $4.15/gallon and will hover around $4 for the rest of 2008 and 2009. I have a hard time really caring that much. I don't drive, and a lot of the food I buy is organic. I buy local whenever I can, and I grow some of my own food (just in pots out on the back steps now, but hopefully in a year or two I will have yard space for a real garden). I don't think rising oil prices is a crisis; the crisis is a cultural system that is dependant on inexpensive and abundant amounts of a finite resource.

There was another article in the local paper a while ago where garden centers said that they were selling significantly more edible plants this year, that in addition to the usual flowers, every customer seemed to be picking up a six pack of tomatoes or some herbs or strawberries, and they posited that this was a reaction to rising food prices at the supermarkets. This economy is good for something. If everyone converted even half their lawn into a vegetable garden and started a compost pile, we could easily grow a significant portion of our food, and do it organically.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

pray at the pump

This is one of the more offensive things I've read in a long time:

Americans pray at the pump for cheaper petrol

1.) Making a spectacle of your own religion is always a good idea, and 2.) In what universe is this a useful or practical solution?, and 3.) Is cheap fuel really the answer, anyway?

Do they really think God wants Americans to drive big cars and to drive them long distances? Personally, I would tend to think increasing fuel prices would be a sort of blessing in disguise, since they illustrate the unsustainability of our culture—the ubiquitousness of single passenger vehicles, car-centric urban layouts, a lack public transit, a globalized economy where most of our food and nearly all of our consumer goods are shipped from halfway around the globe, etc. Or maybe God is punishing us for screwing up his planet.

Not that $4/gallon is really much of a punishment, when Europeans are paying $8-12/gallon, and the rest of the world is paying as much as we are (or more) and with a considerably lower average income. Americans have always had fairly cheap gas, and, globally speaking, $4/gallon is still cheap.

But I understand that $4/gallon is still a pinch, especially for rural Americans who are probably making less money to begin with and also don't have a lot of other options for transportation. So it's extra funny that Mr. Twyman and his crew are holding their pray-ins in Washington DC and San Fransisco, because it's not like these cities have any kind of public transit or anything.

I also like their modified version of "We Shall Overcome" with the added lyrics "We'll have lower gas prices." Because that's what the civil rights movement was all about! Cheap gas! Unsustainability and perceived convenience!

If you feel the need to pray about anything here, I think it should be for things like more public transit (especially a reintroduction of rail lines between big cities and small towns), more pedestrian and bike friendly communities, more and stronger local food economies, and more funding for renewable energy. That is a more practical long term solution to our present situation, not cheap oil.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

red knot red knot red knot

The rufa subspecies of Red Knots are on the fast track to extinction. They migrate over 9,000 miles, from Argentina or Chile at the bottom of South America to the Arctic tundra at the top of North America, and to make that unimaginably long journey, they need a steady supply of food along the way. They make a stopover in Delaware Bay to gorge themselves on horseshoe crab eggs, but horseshoe crab numbers are declining rapidly because we humans are overharvesting them (and, more often than not, just using them as bait). If the knots can't fuel up in Delaware Bay, they can't finish the migration to the breeding grounds to make more knots, or they just starve to death. Red Knots were also hunted extensively in North America in the 19th century and in South America today. Over the past 20 years, Red Knot populations have dropped from 100,000 to 15,000, and they could be gone completely in another couple years.

They are mostly coastal birds, but a few usually pass through the Great Lakes region. Two of them stopped by Duluth today and hung out by the soccer fields in Park Point.

We had to creep along the sand and crouch in the grass and scrub to be able to watch them, although they didn't seem too disturbed by our presence (and cars/bikes/motorcycles kept going down the street maybe 30 feet behind them); at one point they walked within about 10 feet of us. While hiding in the weeds makes birdwatching easier, it makes bird photography more difficult. Most of my non-blurry pictures are slightly goofy shots of preening or bathing.

Or this one, where I miraculously caught one of them mid-blink.

There are people working to save the Red Knots, although it might be too late—they aren't officially listed as an endangered species, so conservation options are somewhat limited. I feel incredibly honored that I got a chance to see them today.

Monday, May 26, 2008

taking a leek in the woods

No, not that kind of leek, this kind of leek.

In the grocery store they're called ramps, but in field guides they're called Wild Leeks, or Allium tricoccum. A wild relative of cultivated leeks, onions, shallots, garlic, and chives, they look like a flamboyant green onion once you dig them up.

They sort of taste like it, too. This was my first year harvesting them, and in the past I'd been warned over and over to be careful, that they are very pungent, that a little goes a long way, and so on. Maybe they get stronger as they age, but the ones I picked had a flavor like a very mild onion with just a little bit of garlicky bite. Euell Gibbons, the patron saint of foraging, says that they are "the sweetest and best of the wild onions," and although I haven't had other kinds of wild onions, I would tend to agree.

Wild leeks are a great introduction to foraging because they are so easy to identify—your nose will tell you if you've found an allium family plant. The leaves come out in the early spring, followed by a single umbel of white flowers later in the summer after the leaves disappear. They grow shady, semi-moist forests, and a lot of what I've read says that they like a rich or sandy soil, but I pulled mine out of thick clay that didn't want to give anything up. I hadn't brought a spade or anything, I was just digging around with a stick and my fingers. This was four days ago; my hands are still dirty.

But look how pretty the leeks are once they're cleaned up.

I harvested seventeen bulbs, ranging in size from finger wide to pencil thin. They cleaned up very quickly—the tough outer skin rubbed off easily under running water. I only used the white bulb and red-purple stem, although the leaves are also edible (I tried one raw; it was tender and mild and had only the very slightest hint of onion—they would probably be a good addition to a tossed green salad) and sautéed them in a couple tablespoons of salted butter until they were just starting to caramelize, then served them with tomato-basil fettuccine. Cooked this way, the leeks were amazing, but the recipe needed more of them.

I'm going to try to get back out and pick more leeks this week, and I might continue on through the summer to see how the flavor changes. But this time I'm picking more than seventeen, and this time I'm bringing a spade.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

being green pays off

I noticed at a gas station yesterday that gas there was up to $3.85 a gallon. The newspaper today says that a few miles up the road in Two Harbors it's $3.94, and across the border in Hurley, Wisconsin, it's $4.25.

Every day I am gladder and gladder that I walk, bike, or bus everywhere I go.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Spiced Ginger Orange Cookies

As promised: cookies. The inclusion of molasses and whole wheat pastry flour make these very slightly more healthy than the average cookie, but don't let that put you off thinking, "Eww, healthy=boring." These cookies are amazing. The fresh orange juice and zest and all the spices really make them sing with flavor. Warning: they are highly addictive. It would be worth your time to make a double batch if you have more than two people in your household. Or if the two people in your household are like me and my girlfriend. I made a batch tonight and they're seriously going to be gone in less than 36 hours.

My recipe is a modified version of Joy of Cooking's Gingersnap recipe. I added the whole wheat pastry flour and jacked up the spices and orange flavoring. You can use pure all-purpose flour if you want, but definitely only use fresh juice and zest. It really makes a huge difference.

Spiced Orange Ginger Cookies

1 cup gold and white or all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
dash salt
a few grinds of black pepper
6 tablespoon butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
scant 1/4 cup blackstrap molasses
the juice and zest of 1 orange

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a small bowl, whisk together flours, baking soda and powder, spices, and salt and pepper,

In a medium sized bowl, cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg, molasses, and orange juice and zest and mix until well combined. Slowly add flour mixture. The dough should be the consistency of thick buttercream frosting.

Form dough into balls about 1 inches across and bake on a greased, lined, or nonstick cookie sheet for 10 to 12 minutes.

new website announcement

Another announcement: A green living website that I've written some articles for just launched, and while it's still rather skeletal, it looks like it will be pretty neat. So go check it out:

Someday I will post actual content here again. Maybe a cookie recipe with pictures later tonight or tomorrow.

Friday, May 16, 2008

new blog announcement

I have stepped into the realm of paid and semi-professional blogging, and have started a blog over at, and I'd really like it if you gave it a visit and would let me know what you think. I'm still fiddling around with it,and am slowly getting used to the wordpress-based interface, but the basic structure is there, and I've got a few posts up.

At All Natural Cat, I'll be writing about safe, healthy, eco-friendly cat care, and will address topics like canned food vs. dry food, indoor vs. outdoor cats, and homemade, recycled, or otherwise green cat toys and furniture. Today I wrote about growing your own catnip.

We've got two kitties (Emily and Bill, at left) that we are trying to raise if not all naturally, at least as naturally as we can. We are inching towards a raw/all-meat diet for the both of them and we're trying to treat illnesses holistically rather than just throwing medication or crappy prescription food at them. I also make many of their toys by hand (okay, most of them are crumpled up paper balls or empty cardboard boxes but, hey, it works).

I'm going to try to post to it every weekday at least. Please stop by and say hi.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

a laundry list of birds (literally)

This isn't the kind of blog where I air my dirty laundry, but I will air my clean laundry.

Ah, spring, when a young woman's fancy turns to hanging laundry out on the line. Okay, there's also gardening. Does it make me weird that all winter I look forward to hanging my laundry outside again in the spring? I don't care.

Seriously, this is one of those instances where the green benefits are completely secondary. Yeah, yeah, it uses way less energy and your clothes will last a lot longer, but then best part is... you get to hang your laundry outside! It smells like outside! Putting your laundry out give you a perfectly valid excuse for puttering around the yard in your PJs in the early morning, when the grass is still wet with dew and the birds are singing. Sure, I could just go have my tea out on the back steps, but there is something especially satisfying about enjoying the weather and the outdoors and being productive at the same time. Maybe it is the Midwesterner/Protestant in me: must work, must keep busy.

Our laundry line is next to the birdfeeders, and amazingly we haven't had any, erm, "accidents" yet. While I was putting my load of laundry out, a chickadee flew back and forth from the feeder in front of me to the honeysuckle behind me again and again, so close that if I was nimble enough I could have reached out and grabbed it; there were a couple more chickadees in the distance singing spring, fee-bee, fee-bee. A White-throated Sparrow pecked at one of the millet sprays we put out, and a White-crowned Sparrow hopped around the bushes and sang at me. A Downy Woodpecker was not so charitable and stopped by only to scold me before flying off again. A flicker called from the tall maple, a pair of robins flew in and sang for a while, and a junco came over to investigate me. A handful of other brave sparrows kicked around in the leaf litter or visited the birdfeeders. I was outside for maybe a grand total of 20 minutes, and there were other birds singing that I didn't see and can't identify by song.

(Oh, and yes, that's a row of cloth handkerchiefs on the front line there. I am that hardcore.)

Friday, May 9, 2008

why I love Duluth #142


Moose in Duluth!

My friend and I were trespassing mildly, walking along the Lakewalk extension that is not officially Lakewalk yet but is instead a muddy path dotted with construction vehicles, and there were these enormous tracks in the mud--six inches long, with a stride of about three feet--that really can't be anything but moose.

This is well into the city, at least a mile and a half from any woodsy area, and to have come from there he would have had to walked down some paved roads all Northern Exposure style. He could have also come into town through the country club (which is mostly golf course) and then walked about a mile down the railroad to leave his tracks in the mud on the Lakewalk extension.

Why? I don't know. This particular moose was probably not the healthiest moose in the world, but apparently there are reports of moose wandering into town on a rare but regular basis. I am positively tickled to live in a city that can house over 80,000 people plus the occasional moose.