Saturday, September 30, 2006

Nature Check-In

We are very lucky to be in a nature-filled area, despite the suburban nature of our neighborhood and the proximity of the interstate. We are right on one of the flyways to one of the nation's largest migratory rest stops, which is about an hour north of us. Last week we went up to Horicon Marsh and rented a canoe. We saw blue herons, egrets, white pelicans, and gulls galore. At our own home-sweet-home we get quite a variety of birds too. The lots across the highway have yet to be developed, the river is only about a mile away, and there is a wetlands area to the northeast. Sunrise and sunset bring flocks of Canada Geese on a regular basis, and occasionally we see other unidentified geese and ducks. Only slightly less common than the Canada Geese are the Sandhill Cranes. They are wonderfully majestic animals, and there's usually a pair or two that make our area their home year round, even when the others have moved on.

The past couple of days we've had new visitors. The other day Beo came home and quietly herded us all outside. Lo and behold there were three wild turkeys just on the other side of the fence. I imagine they came wandering down the hill from the lightly forested area on the other side. They didn't seem too worried about us. I'm not sure how much of that was the fence giving us a good blind and how much was just a lack of brightness on the turkey's part, but we were able to get very close to them. (Doesn't the yard look great? It's been cool and rainy, and everything is staying green despite the chill. The no-mow mix seems to love it, and the sycamores are putting on a last burst of growth before fall.)

Today when I stepped outside something caught my eye on the corner of the bench on our porch. Do you see it? Don't feel bad if you don't. I'm particularly paranoid about this area because it's where our jumping spiders live, and where we once saw a big ol' wolf spider--sitting right on the underside of the top of the door frame (prime drop-on-your-head real estate, right?). So my eyes do a quick inventory when I walk out, and they rarely betray me. Okay, I usually just go out through the garage, but I'm trying to be braver. Did you find it? Look under the rock by my little green duck. Ooh, it's a tough one. Yeah, in fact from that angle it's virtually impossible to see it. Here he is! After some cursory research, I think he's a Cope's Gray Tree Frog, but I'm not sure. I don't want to lift the rock up and scare him. I think whatever kind of frog or toad he is, it must be good luck to have him there. I'm enjoying the change of the seasons and the different wildlife we're seeing with it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Taking Time

I'm so glad to be back home. I can't remember the last time I was away from home for this long. I don't think I've ever travelled in such an erratic manner for so long. I'm home again, but things are such a blur that I can hardly imagine feeling like "things" are back to normal.

Beo and I had a chance to get away for a night while we were staying with my family in South Dakota. I think it's funny that on the rare occasion that we can get away by ourselves we end up talking about the kids. We usually do though. We had roasted vegetable risotto and pesto-cheese ravioli at a romantic Italian place, and discussed our parenting. We decided that what everything comes down to is taking time to just be with the kids.

Modern life hands us so many opportunities to draw on the hours of our day. We cook, clean, organize, read, travel, shop. I constantly flit to the computer to commiserate with like-minded folk, research, educate myself, and escape. It's so easy to be connected on-line (much easier than in real life, in my opinion) that it's a real draw on my time. The kids are generally relatively happy to play, watch a DVD, color, etc. When they have my full attention we're generally working on a project or running errands.

Last week there was a point where Beo and his Dad took Sprout fishing. Bird and I walked to the lake and bug hunted for my sister's entymology project. We had to just wait on the lakeshore for the boys to come pick us up in the boat. With Bird though, it wasn't "just" waiting. First I realized what a great conversation we were having on our walk. Bird could ask questions uninterrupted and I could actually take the time to answer thoughtfully. She chased a butterfly in the park for a good 5 minutes, never doubting she'd catch it. (It would have been a miracle if she'd caught it, and I finally called her off.) On the lakeshore, I pointed out a snail shell, and when she realized there were more scattered along the beach, the hunt was on. She gathered quite a little collection. It struck me as I watched her quietly explore the water's edge that our lives are usually so hurried. Even just hanging out with both kids, I'm usually so busy just keeping track of them and keeping them from getting eachother too riled up. I'm missing the window to see a much clearer view of who they truly are. You get a child alone, with no agenda--just time, and they Pop into 4-D. There's a magical aspect you don't see in everyday life.

What Beo and I decided during our dinner was this: we'll give the kids the gift of time, which is better than anything we could ever buy them. Monday will be family days. We'll have homemade pizza and watch movies while we eat--something Sprout thinks is the coolest thing in the world. One night a week will be Beo's night to spend 15 minutes with the kids doing whatever the kids want. Each month on the date of the kid's birthdays (or the closest possible morning), they'll get to go out to breakfast with one of us--by themselves. (I saw this tradition in a Parenting magazine, and think it's a great idea.) The kids need to know that we realize what a unique spirit they have, and that we honor it. We'll start out slow with these reminders to give them our time, and take it from there. I'll close now--Beo's making pizza and I'm off to take Sprout to the video store to select our viewing pleasure for this evening. Family night!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Just a Fly-By

I am in for one evening in a very busy week. Last week we did a day in Chicago, visiting a Veggie Board friend, the Shedd Aquarium, and dear friends whom we haven't seen for far too long! The next day we were off to Lake Geneva to visit the in-laws, and did some insect collecting for my sister (The Biologist, not the Vulcanologist. Gotta love the Science!). The following day we headed to South Dakota. Yesterday we went to Omaha and back with my family, visiting the Henry Doorly Zoo. We got back home today, and I leave tomorrow morning for a statewide interfaith conference. I don't think I've travelled this much since the days of Beo and my crazy road trips. At least 24 hours on the road this week so far, and I'm on to add 7 more in the next couple days. Thanks to everyone for keeping up with my blog. I love seeing my visitors from far and wide (check out the map at the bottom of the page!), and hope you all enjoy my posts, though they're sometimes few and far between. I have a post or two in store once I'm able to settle back into home.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Science is COOL

My sister has the coolest job. When she graduated from college, she had the opportunity to go into a master's program to study volcanoes at either Hawaii or Alaska. My sister, being my sister, decided that Alaska was the best program, and despite having to leave behind all of her family to live at the ends of the civilized world, off she went. (OK, calling Fairbanks "civilized" is pushing it. Not really--it's a really decent size town with all the amenities. It's a really cool place.) My sister studies geophysics. Now first of all, how cool does that sound? I love telling people what she does. She actually studies the relationship between earthquakes and volcanoes. One year since she's been there one of their offices got a call from NASA, who connected them to the International-freaking-Space-Station, who could see an ash plume from one of the volcanoes AVO studies. (Cleveland, pictured above, photo courtesy of AVO, Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center) How cool is that, I ask you?

She did a lot of monitoring of Augustine this year. When things got busy with it's activity, they were monitoring it around the clock. Sometimes she would be the one to notice different patterns that would indicate changes or allow them to predict new patterns, raise warning levels, etc. So cool! She has even gotten to go to a couple of the monitoring sites, which as you can see in these pictures isn't just amazing in the scientific sense. She gets a unique view of Alaska's rare beauty. (This view of Augustine taken by Mariah Tilman, courtesy of the Alaska Volcano Observatory.) I often joke with her about the volcano/earthquake movies out there, and how she's totally living those out!

Last night the movie plot thickened. My sister told me about a volcano that they expected no activity from in any of their lifetimes. People on the mainland took pictures of plumes coming from the Fourpeaked mountain region where they don't even have monitoring equipment because of the complete unlikelihood of activity there. (Photos courtesy of Alaska Volcano Observatory, taken by Lanny Simpson, Alaska High Mountain Images.) They confirmed ash in two places this week but they haven't pin-pointed the source yet. The only thing they can do is go look at the volcano. When they went out yesterday afternoon in a plane, the observers saw a steam plume coming down from above the clouds, but couldn't see the source. On this heavily glaciated mountain, there were two gushing waterfalls tumbling down the mountainside. It's so mysterious! So interesting! What could be causing this unexpected eruption? Does it correlate in any way with the other volcanic activity in the area? I personally find it absolutely fascinating. I feel cool just having the inside scoop. I'm very proud of my little sister, volcanologist extrordinaire.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How Local Can You Go?

This summer has been a fabulous time for eating local. As our favorite foods took their turn in providing an abundant harvest, we stopped planning our menus in advance and started letting the market plan the menus for us. Ratatouilles; eggplant "steak"; tomato pie; crisp green beans; lentil soup with fresh peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes all filled our table. Some nights we still went for the simple side of life. I was surprised at how much that's changed from what it would have been a few months ago. In the spring this would have been from a Seeds of Change jar of sauce, boxed pasta, and Whole Foods Market frozen broccoli. It will be again in a few more months, I know. For now though, we get to enjoy broccoli and purple cauliflower hand picked and delivered to be selected at the market that morning, pasta handmade less than an hour away, sauce made with ingredients that came exclusively from our garden (with the exception of oil and salt), and homemade bread for garlic toast. The spirit of local, slow food makes this simple meal something magical.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Tomatenis

This rare specimen represents a new variety that is sure to gain heirloom status. Very early fruit. Highly productive variety. Fruits hold well for extended periods. May pair nicely with this new variety from California, according to one's palate.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

I suppose it started for me when we moved into our first real house as a married couple. I feel silly admitting it, but I sort of expected people to show up at our door with baked goods, welcoming us to the neighborhood and introducing themselves. Days went by before I realized that not only was I not going to be visited by the welcome wagon, but people would go out of their way to pretend that they hadn't noticed that anyone had moved in. A year later, my naive self thought: "Surely the birth of our baby will bring out those neighborly instincts!" Luckily in my alternating panic, stupor, and adoration after Sprout's birth, I didn't notice the complete absence of neighborhood visitors nor the distinct lack of casseroles. Our church was very supportive when Sprout had his surgery. A woman delivered some mums leftover from a harvest service, and another asked me to drive the 20 minutes to her place to pick up some chili she'd made for us. Gaia bless the Unitarians.

When we moved to our new home, I saw the chance to make it the neighborhood I dreamed of. We set up for trick-or-treat the day after moving into our home, but few candy-beggars visited. A month later at Christmas time, I baked cookies and Beo and I delivered them to the neighbors, introducing ourselves since only our next-door neighbors had introduced themselves to us. Mostly we got looks of confusion and muttered thanks. The neighbors we knew gave us some of her own cookies a couple of days later. Reciprocity, I suppose. Was it that no one expects those kind of neighborly gifts and longer? Is it that people don't want to feel indebted to someone? Is it simply an overvaluation of privacy? After the second horrified look of a new neighbor presented with a load of fresh baked bread, I gave up. I stopped saying "Hello" when walking neighbors pretended not to hear me--or even crossed to the other side of the street. I stopped waving then every driver looked the other way--or worse, stared at me impassively. If they didn't want to be my friends, well I didn't want to be their friends either. So there.

I had settled into this frame of mind nicely. After all, we don't even have a "Neighborhood Association". It's a "Homeowner's Association". My neighbor-free life was broken only by pleasant surprises from our next door neighbors. One, a seamstress, asked if she could make Bird a Christmas Dress. Another, a pastor, offers us gifts of extra food from his church, and once even a jar of Apple Butter ("No preservatives or anything, and all of that natural stuff!" Gods bless him, too.) to thank us for sharing some excess produces. I neighbor them right back with pesto kits from the garden (complete with pine nut baggies!) and heirloom veggies (complete with history and recipe suggestions!).

My reverie of non-neighborness was broken by a conversation with my Dad. They're considering getting a play system for the kids, and my Dad asked if anyone else in our subdivsion had a play system yet. When we told him that we'd be the first, he said he thought we'd be surprised at how many friends we suddenly discovered when our play system was installed. I was a bit taken aback. Would people really bring their kids to our backyard? Did I want them to? The next week on an early morning run I spotted a play system like the model we'd been considering. It was one subdivision over. As I rounded the cul de sac, I realized that the house right across from them had a similar system, and there was a third right next door. They were all neatly fenced into their own spacious yards. I began to wonder if this lack of neighborliness had it's drawbacks after all. The following week in a more tighly packed rural suburb, I saw 3 play systems in adjoining yards. Back to back. I doubt they were even the reccomended distance apart from foreign objects. I felt tears spring to my eyes. What's more, we were on our way to an incredible neighborhood playground--just 2 blocks away.

This week on a flight to Pittsburgh I prepared myself to enjoy the bird's eye view of the country as we descended. Instead of pure amazement, I was shocked to see the rows of swimming pools that lined the backyards of the suburbs with matching houses. What about that 5th house--the one that broke the perfect line of pools? Even the smaller neighborhoods, obviously lower (middle) class even from the air, were dotted with splotches of blue. (It was very easy to find an example.) What's the point of all this chlorine?

So far I've seen our lack of neighborliness isolating our children, isolating adults, creating akwardness, and driving excess. Is there anything else? In a recent article in Plenty, the author cited two studies which seem to point to our lack of social contact as one of the key factors in our skyrocketing anxiety rates. Now not every neighborhood has fallen to this depressing phenomenon. Our good friends live in a neighborhood where neighborhood barbecues, babysitting co-ops, and even group dates are the norm. They seem to be an exception to an ever-expanding rule though. The organization I direct has a mission, which I wrote: "Neighbors Serving Neighbors in Need". We call our services of visits, rides to the doctor's office, help with grocery shopping "neighborly-type" services. The only issue is that we have to recruit and import the neighbors to help them. Let me tell you from experience: A lot of folks out there could use a good neighbor. Our program and others like it only see a growth in demand.

Do Sprout and Bird see any parity between the lively neighbors of Sesame Street and our own? Do they ever envy (as I do) Mr. Rogers' friends, delivery men, and mayor popping in to say hello and have a visit? Maybe that kind of neighborhood is as imaginary to them as Dora and Calliou's neighborhood. Maybe they don't even know that they used to really exist. Maybe the don't realize that they still can. I'm reversing my stance on the acceptance of my non-neighborly neighborhood. I'm going to be knocking on doors again this year, armed with christmas cookies. We'll make this neighborhood a community yet.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Monarch Madness

A while back, I posted about finding two monarch caterpillars on the butterfly weed in our new prairie. I wasn't convinced that they were monarchs, because monarch caterpillars are supposed to be on milkweed! I decided to go ahead with our science experiment/miracle (while simultaneously saving our butterfly weed from utter decimation) and bring one inside. (The same one pictured in the previous post, actuall!) I brought in some "ditch milkweed" for it, and when it finished the sprig of butterfly weed we'd brought it in on, it grudgingly started in on the huge milkweed leaf. I could not believe how quickly it ate, or how much it pooped! I've never really thought about caterpillar poop, but for how much they eat, I understand. As soon as it "spun" it's chrysallis, I knew it was a monarch. Their chrysallis is like no other. In my research I learned that they don't actually spin a chrysallis, they just shed their last caterpillar skin and poof--there's the chrysallis. It's incredible. Later in the week, Beo pointed out some native red milkweed to me. It looks very different than what I traditionally think of as milkweed, but it also looked quite a bit like the butterfly weed. Beo did some research and found that sure enough, the plants are closely related and monarchs happily lay their eggs on butterfly weed. It took a little over a week, and the chrysallis turned clear, and then poof again--a butterfly! It really is a magical, amazing, awesome thing. When the monarch first emerges, it's instinct is to cling, and so Sprout and Bird got to experience the magic of having a monarch on their hands. It took it's first drink (while on Sprout's finger) from the big butterfly bush in our front yard. He eventually crawled on to the bush, and about an hour later we saw him take flight for the first time. Amazing, amazing. I can't even explain! We did the whole thing a second time with a second caterpillar. We had well over a dozen caterpillars on our native plants this year. In the weeks since, our butterfly bush, one of the last sources of nectar as fall comes on, has been alive with butterflies of all shapes and sizes. Today when I walked out there was a monarch clinging to a cluster of buds, and I smiled, knowing the likelihood that he went from egg to caterpillar to butterfly in our own yard. We've created a Magical Monarch Machine.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sour Grapes

Do you know what grapes taste like? I mean what they're supposed to taste like? Have you ever wondered why grape flavored popsicles taste nothing like the grapes you buy in the store? Well today, I found the answer to the question. Imagine your favorite grape flavored confection. Then imagine extracting all of the artificialness and combine what's left with the freshest thing you've ever tasted. If you can manage to accomplish such a feat of imagination, you'll come close to imagining what I tasted today. It was a real grape, fresh from the vine. I've never tasted anything like it! It was sweet, refreshing, and a bit sour--which is perfect, in my opinion. We were told that if they stay on the vine a bit longer, they'll lose that tartness, but I wouldn't want them to.

We were visiting a local permaculture/organic/CSA farm. We met with the very kind, knowledgeable and honest owner, and he gave us the grand tour. We saw the the chickens, the working draft horses, the peacocks with their brood of chicklets, and the pigs (who are slated to be roasted October 1st, and we're invited! Ack!). We saw acres of restored prairie, ingenious swales, composting, ponds, water collections, methane reclamation system deisgns. The owner has set it up to be a true community farm. To hear him talk, most anyone can come do what they need on the farm's 20 acres as long as they pitch in in one way or another. There are Mung families who have garden space, an experimental orchard and nursery, and a forest of an asparagus patch which produces over 2000 pounds! The farmer said that you get pretty sick of it after the first 500 pounds. I find that hard to believe. Oh, and there were magnificent grapes. We picked some of the grapes and filled a canvas bag with apples straight from the trees. I got the chance to prove to the children that it really IS true that after 4-5 barely ripe apples you really will feel sick. They just couldn't get over the tree-picked apples. Maybe it was the ownership of it all, or simple fascination. I think I may attempt a grape-apple jelly. I'm a bit nervous at anything that depends on setting after my vegan marshmallow attempt.

Seeing this farm gave me a lot of hope. We read about all of these wonderful things and Beo experiments on a small scale in our own backyard, but here was someone making it happen on 20 acres. Admittedly, he said that it's an unbelievable amount of work, and sometimes he just can't keep up. This is why I'd never want more than a few acres. Part of me feels like our role might be to bring those backyardable ideas into the suburbs though. The magic and beauty of nature and growing food just outside your door is brilliant on a grand scale out in the country, but how much more magical is it to have it in suburbia? There has to be some give and take, to be sure. As we were leaving, the owner brought up the fact that they may be doing a dairy cow share next year. 8-10 families would buy into the cow, and take a turn milking her each week. We'd have 3-4 gallons from each milking. Can you imagine? Milking our own cow while living in suburbia--I think we may have found the magical formula after all...

Saturday, September 09, 2006

What I Did on Summer Vacation

Okay, it's really just what I did today. I've dubbed Saturday "chore day" so today I got down to domestic business--cleaned house, baked bread for the coming week, made marinara from the overflowing basket(s) on the counter. I decided to make double batches of everything since we're going to the in-laws tomorrow, and I thought I'd share the bounty. Now I'm not nearly as good at bread as Beo, but if Beo makes bread it takes twice as long (because he does it right, I guess), and we have to stay home all day. That's not an option this week, and either is store bought bread. (Budget? What budget?) It took most of the day, but once everything was done and the kitchen was cleaned and the house smelled delicious, it felt so good! I just had to take a picture and share. My bread didn't rise well, but it's surprisingly light for that fact, and tastes just fine. There was twice the marinara, but I only have one pretty jar, so there you have it!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Summer Fresh Pesto

The garden has been beautifully bountiful this year. We've had produce trickling in all summer, but the past 6 weeks have been simply overflowing. I've enjoyed testing and inventing new recipes to try to use up all of the Goodness.

If there's one thing you can't have too much of in a backyard garden, it just might be Basil. This is especially true if you have a preponderance of tomatoes. The basil has been thick in the garden this year, glossy and brilliant. It's incredibly versatile and adds a splash of freshness wherever it finds a place. Slice some tomatoes, top with fresh dipped mozerella and basil leaves, drizzle with balsamic, and throw under the broiler for a few minutes. A beautiful caprese dish, inspired by "Luzer's Tomato Plate of Doom". Then there's pesto. It couldn't be simpler. Take a few handfuls of basil leaves, a handful of shredded parmesan, maybe a handful of pine nuts, definitely a good drizzle of olive oil, and throw it in the food processer. Voila! Now the kids weren't thrilled about it until we called it "Green Spaghetti", making it out of Mollie Katzen's "Pretend Soup". (More on Mollie's kids cookbooks later!) Then they each ate 2 helpings. It's amazing how getting kids involved and adding a bit of imagination can make a big difference.

One of our favorite dishes so far has been a pesto primavera, ala the Pesto Cavatappi at Noodles & Co. Our currant tomatoes are unbelievable little bursts of Tomato Goodness. Their jeweled strands on the vines are almost magical, and they are perfect for this dish. Just make a pesto, however you like it, and your pasta of choice. Reserve a bit of the pasta water to thin the pesto. Toss the pesto and pasta together, then add a bit of extra parmesan, and your choice of fresh veggies. We used baby yellow pear tomatoes, isis candy tomatoes, and currant tomatoes. Toss and serve. So simple, so good.

If you're serving it to little ones, let them strip the leaves of the basil, choose the tomatoes or other fresh veggies to add, let them add in the cheese, let them stir. The more they help, the more they own the dish, and the more likely they are to enjoy it themselves. Bon Apetit!

Into the Wilds...and Back

This was a post intended for August, but Summer slipped swiftly away...

This is our second summer here in our little house on the subdivision. Our subdivision is an odd enough entity in itself. Our village is just off the interstate, halfway between the two major metropolitan areas in Wisconsin. It's claim to fame is an outlet mall. (Seriously, I tell people where I live and they say: "Oh, where the outlet mall is!") Exiting the interstate you'll drive past the typical small, rural, tightly packed houses, huddled together for protection from the wilds of the surrounding farms. Turn down a little street and you'll pass the small library--right in the same building with town hall, the playground at Veteran's Park (newly remodeled thanks to added tax dollars), a tiny laundromat, the baseball field, then one more turn and suddenly you're transported to the middle of suburbia. Brand new houses seem to spring from the newly grass-seeded ground--a striking contrast to all you've seen up to that point. Yes, we've cut down the trees (well, mostly just bulldozed farm fields) and named our streets after them.

It's a strange place to find our family. We don't quite belong in either of our village worlds. Our house stands out from the rest, because instead of a Chem*Green lawn or even a sadly struggling grass menagerie, you'll find 3-5 foot wide garden borders all the way around the house, and big island beds on both sides of the driveway. (This picture was actually taken in tame, tame June, the others in wild August.) Our landscaping preferences don't exactly make these manicured suburban dream gardens. They're all more than a little wild (as evidenced by our huge spiders, birds, and frogs, which honestly I wouldn't change for anything). I think most of our neighbors would be shocked if they could see behind the fence, to where things really get wild. We've even more gardens back there, and frankly they're all left a bit more to nature than normal folk might be comfortable with. There's the sunflower house reaching for the sky and carpeted with pumpkin vines, the "meditation garden" which has become more of a nursery and experimental bed, the strawberry patches that sprawl onto the paths, the giant compost bins, more flower beds, and now even a prairie. Last year it got even a bit wild for me. This year it seemed it might remain a bit more tamed, but I'd not counted August for all it was worth. With the heat and rains of August, the wild side of the gardens showed their faces, and one had to be brave to venture in. It was amazing to see the sunflowers shoot up feet at a time, the bergamot burst like a milkweed pod, the prarie grass burst fireworks from their stems, and the green to spread thicker and deeper. The new rain garden sunk it's roots deeper and the new prairie burst into bloom. It was a riot of life in our backyard. It wasn't suitable for the garden party I'd envisioned, but the thrill of it was more than worth it.

Now September has come, and the time has come for taming back the gardens in preparation for a new season. I love this time of splitting and moving and cutting back--dreaming of what wilds await us next year.