Archive for February, 2009
There is a monster living in the garden. A fire-breathing, smoke-belching monster. I’m in charge of feeding him.
Here he is:
This monster eats wood, and lots of it. He requires feeding first thing in the morning, last thing at night and once or twice over the course of the day, depending on how cold it is. He is the central feature of the complex heating system that came with Willow House, an outdoor wood burner. Outdoor wood burners enjoy modest popularity in rural areas, owing in part to the availability of relatively cheap firewood, and in some cases, woodlots. Theoretically, we could cut our own firewood and heat the house cheaply with the 40 acres of forest on the property. The system has one very appealing feature. It allows you to use wood heat without the disadvantages and safety hazard of having an open flame inside the house. The wood burner heats water, which enters the house via underground water lines that terminate in a complex tangle of hoses.
The water heats air, and the hot air heats the house via a forced air furnace.
The system is a decade old or more, and not as efficient as newer units. There is also a bit of a leak in the line which requires topping up the level in the water pipes from time to time. When the water lines are refilled, the excess water begins to spill out onto the roof of the wood burner through a safety valve, which makes a wonderful sputtering, hissing cloud of steam. It’s a labour-intensive system, demanding regular attention, but it does keep the house at a reasonably comfortable temperature round the clock.
A week ago, it looked, not surprisingly, like the middle of winter around here. The world was covered in a foot-deep blanket of snow and the river, the south branch of South Nation River, looked like this:
That began to change as a February thaw set in. Yesterday, the rains began. By midday, the river looked like this:
After lunch, I braved the rain and took a walk to inspect the changed aspect of the river. The current of the newly released river was strong and the water level was still rising as the rain continued. Big slabs of broken ice were adrift and piled up along the banks. A small dark figure on one of the ice flows caught my eye:
On closer examination, the little critter turned out to be a star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata). In his sadly compromised state, his star nose isn’t conspicuous, but his strong front claws and long furred tail are good identifiers. Star-nosed moles live in wet lowland areas and often have tunnels that exit underwater. Although I have always associated them with digging in soil and eating earthworms and the like, star-nosed moles are good swimmers and are happy to eat aquatic insects and snails.
These busy little animals are active both day and night, and throughout the year. The star-nosed mole is named for the 22 feelers, or tentacles, around its nose, which are covered with tiny sensory organs called Eimer’s organs. These enable the mole to rapidly detect information about its prey. About 15 to 20 cm long (6 to 8 inches, including tail), the mole is covered in dark, water-repellent fur. Its tail acts as a fat storage reserve that may help it through the breeding season in late winter or early spring. The female typically bears one litter of 4 or 5 young in late spring or early summer. How this particular individual came to end his days on a February ice flow, one can only guess.
By this morning, the rain had stopped, the sun was shining and the temperature had dropped to -11 C. The river had slowed to a casual pace and the water level was down slightly. The view from the window looked like this:
Today, February 12, 2009, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. To mark the birth of this landmark scientist and thinker, celebrations are being held around the world. Are there any near you? You can find out at the Darwin Day Celebration site. Interesting information about Darwin and his theory is also available there.
Would it be rude to mention Alfred Russel Wallace on this, Darwin’s special day? Wallace was credited as the co-discoverer of evolutionary theory, but has never attained the fame of Darwin. Wallace corresponded with Darwin about his theories and it is likely that he played a role in Darwin’s decision to “go public” with his views. Born into more modest circumstances than Darwin, Wallace enjoyed neither his social status nor scientific credibility. He developed his theory while doing field work in the Malay archipelago, where his name lives on in Wallace’s Line, the boundary that separates the zoogeographical regions of Asia and Australia.
A highly enjoyable account of Wallace is given in David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo. Subtitled Island Biogeography In An Age Of Extinctions, Quammen weaves Wallace’s story into his fascinating and frightening examination of extinction and fragmentation.
Correction: Doh! The information posted here about Manitoba maples is correct, but the accompanying photos are not of Manitoba maples, but Amur maples. Please see All Abuzz for the updated information.
At the southeast corner of Willow House, two trees form a graceful arch over the pathway to the door. They don’t have the sturdy trunk we usually associate with trees, but appear rather like two large bushes. They display the typical growth habit of the Manitoba maple (Acer negundo) or box elder, with branches forking near the ground into many crooked stems. In summer, the trees bear compound leaves quite unlike those displayed by other maples. However, the trees produce an abundant supply of dense clusters of maple keys, or samaras, which mark the species as a member of the Acer clan.
Native to the prairies, Manitoba maples grow along river valleys and floodplains, where their roots help to prevent erosion and their crowns shade streams, helping to maintain cool water temperatures for fish. Early settlers planted Manitoba maples with other trees to form shelterbelts that would help to break the winter winds and fight soil erosion. Millions of tree seedlings were distributed to prairie farmers by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) Shelterbelt Centre. Manitoba maples can also be used to produce maple syrup, and in recent years shelterbelt plantings have been evaluated as important carbon sinks.
Since the arrival of European settlers, the range of the Manitoba maple has expanded as far east as Nova Scotia. Its keys are a favorite food of the Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) and it is speculated that the planting of Manitoba maples may have played a role in the matching eastward range expansion of the grosbeaks.
In spite of the positive aspects noted above, Manitoba maples have long been disparaged as “junk” trees, disliked for their weedy, shrub-like growth, weak wood, susceptability to insect pests and messy dropping of leaves and keys. They are not, however, without their charms. That amazing, abundant crop of maple keys remains on the tree most of the winter. In the hush of a still winter evening, the merest breeze sets the keys in motion and the trees speak, a sweet, gentle, whispered “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”.
Last night’s full moon was striking as it rose through patchy cloud cover early in the evening. Many cultures assign a name to each full moon of the year. The Old Farmer’s Almanac refers to the February full moon as the Snow Moon. Many native American names reflect the difficulty of life at this time of year and include the Bony Moon, the Hunger Moon and the Famine Moon.
The full moon has a magical presence. Indeed, it has long been associated with lunacy and even lycanthropy, the cult of the half man, half wolf, or werewolf. An interesting take on this, less frightening than traditional tales, is Elizabeth Coatsworth’s slim book The Werefox, originally published as Pure Magic, sadly currently out of print. The touching story, intended for young readers, tells how Johnny, a lonely New England farmboy who befriends the strange new boy next door, learns that Giles is a werefox and one wild night, saves his life.
In the September that my youngest daughter started Grade 9, our household had been catless for a few months. It was decided that the time had come to adopt a new kitten. I checked out the local pet store one afternoon, and found that they had two kittens arriving from a nearby neighbour later that day. I picked up Fiddlegirl after school and we headed to the pet store together. Fiddlegirl marched ahead of me with great purpose, past the store proprietor and over to the kitten cage. When we opened the cage door, the male kitten hung back nervously, cowering in the back of the cage. The tiny female, however, had no such reservations. She happily emerged and began checking us out. The kittens were of mixed heritage, with one tabby parent and one Siamese. While the male favoured his Siamese ancestor, the female looked like a mocha-coloured tabby, with a white bib and white tippytoes. Both kittens had bright blue eyes. It was decided within a matter of minutes that the pair would come home with us.
So it was that Moey joined our family. The pair were originally named Tonka and Tai, but while Tonka stuck, Tai somehow morphed into Moey, aka, with great affection, Little Girl. For reasons none of us could fathom, Moey became the devoted companion of our middle daughter, Ponygirl, who dressed her in dolls’ clothes and otherwise fussed over her in a way few cats would tolerate. When Ponygirl left for university, we wondered how Moey would manage. But Moey quickly transferred her allegiance to Fiddlegirl and life went on.
Once all the kids had fledged, I became the default object of Moey’s affection. Not one to hobnob with her male kin, she is very independent all day. While the boys eschew strangers, Moey is more likely to put in an appearance when visitors arrive, thus seeming to be our only cat. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind, either, with her expressive Siamese vocabulary of talky little mews. When the evening arrives, I can count on Moey keeping me company on the chesterfield or in bed where I sometimes read, curled as close as she can manage to my chin. Our tiny, perfect cat is now 10 years old and is greatly loved.
After winter days that have seen the temperature dip to -30 C and lower, it is a pleasure to enjoy a few days with the temperature hovering around 0 degrees. How quickly the earth begins to let go of the frost. Paths that were dug through a foot of snow are already turning muddy and puddled.
To the north of the house, the south branch of the South Nation River has been covered under a foot of snow and ice. This morning, a narrow ribbon of open water is flooding into pools.
For the first time in many weeks, I took the horses’ blankets off so that they may enjoy the warmth of the sun and have a roll in the snow if they wish.
A mild day in February feels like Nature whispering in your ear “Don’t lose hope! Spring will come.”
While we are enjoying a much-appreciated warm spell, the heat is far from pleasant in some parts of the world. When I caught the news on the radio this morning, they were talking about a heatwave and wildfires in Australia. The southeastern Australian states have been gripped in a heatwave for the past two weeks. In the state of Victoria, temperatures reached a state record of 47 degrees Celsius. Blair Trewin, a climatologist with the National Climate Centre in Melbourne, was quoted as saying “They are the most extreme conditions that we have ever seen in historic record in parts of southeastern Australia. We are seeing an upward trend in temperatures in Australia, as elsewhere in the world.”
I was reminded of Jared Diamond’s interesting book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, in which he examines societies as disparate as the Viking colonies of Greenland and the small communities of present-day Montana and considers how environmental degradation relates to societal decline. Diamond observes that events in Australia, water-poor and bereft of the rich soils of other continents, will foreshadow what awaits other countries on a warming planet.
My favorite quotation from Diamond’s book is about Easter Island, where inhabitants stripped their homeland of its forests, with devastating results. Diamond asks “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it? Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering!”?”
I have stocked bird feeders for winter visitors for many years and set up several feeding stations around Willow House this fall. It took a while for the birds to discover my feeders, but the usual suspects now include my stations in their rounds. Mourning doves, juncos, chickadees, goldfinches, and woodpeckers are all regular visitors. However, the Common Redpolls (Carduelis flammea) are my favorites. This owes, in part, to the fact that redpolls, as an irruptive species, can’t be counted on arriving every year. Irruptions usually occur biannually. In these years, a set of northern species, including redpolls, move south for the winter, probably driven by food shortages. I set two tube feeders for niger seed within viewing range of the living room window in the hope that redpolls would find my supply, and indeed they have.
Redpolls, as their name implies, are readily identified by their red caps. Their distinctive black bibs are also helpful identifying features. They are querulous little birds and seem to spend as much time squabbling and chattering as they do eating.
Energy reserves for birds roosting at night may consist of relatively large amounts of seed in their crops, but the primary energy reserve for most species is body fat. However, redpolls have evolved a special pouch located within the neck called an esophageal diverticulum. Extra food can be stored here towards nightfall and regurgitated as needed. This helps to make these tiny birds one of the most cold-hardy species.
Males can be distinguished from females by the flashy rose colouring on their breasts, which becomes more vivid as spring approaches.
My mother was a very skilled knitter. She was taught to knit by her doting aunt when she was 13 years old. She sometimes repeats this fact as evidence of what a miserable childhood she had, forced to knit against her will. Nevertheless, she knitted many beautiful sweaters over her life. At the age of 85, she announced that she hated knitting, and wasn’t doing any more, quitting mid-project.
I didn’t suffer the trauma of learning to knit as a youngster and so was left to teach myself as an adult. I tried my hand at a variety of handicrafts in my early 20s, and as a young mother, took up knitting for my kids, even producing a few sweaters for them. When I moved on to knitting a sweater for myself, however, my patience was over-challenged and I never finished that project. I haven’t picked up knitting needles for many years.
One of my mother’s last projects was a fuzzy purple hat that she knitted for me a few years ago. I was very fond of that hat, not least because she had made it. Funnily enough, when I was out shopping the hat received numerous compliments from other midlife women such as myself, perhaps in recognition of a skill in decline. I dare say my generation produced fewer knitters than did my mother’s, and that skill is even rarer amongst my daughters’ generation. I wouldn’t claim that knitting is dying out, of course. Indeed, there has been a resurgence of interest, with books with catchy titles such as Debbie Stoller’s “Stitch ‘N Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook”, meant to appeal to a new generation, appearing on bookstore shelves.
Here’s my hat from Mom. Here’s the label.
Sadly, my fuzzy purple hat is showing signs of wear. A large hole has developed in one side. Although I have other perfectly adequate store-bought hats, the demise of my purple hat inspired me to pick up knitting needles once again. I chose the simplest pattern I could find, a basic knit one row/ purl one row stocking stitch cap that even I could manage without tears. Here is the result.