Friday, January 29, 2010

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I drove to campus this afternoon to pick up some student work to grade and it seemed like there were tree limbs on the ground everywhere from this morning's sleet storm. Here are a couple of large ones I saw on campus:

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The color of waiting

These are the bitter weeks for the gardener, are they not? Winter lingers, spring dallies, and we wait for the garden to awaken and provide us with companionship.

I seem to spend a lot of time explaining to my students that the grasses and trees around us are not dead, but dormant. This is not a time of emptiness and loss on the prairie, but a time of waiting: for warmth, for light, for moisture, for the rest of the natural world to shuck winter's cloth and join in a cycle as old as Earth herself. We modern humans carry on as if there were no seasons; tucked away in our offices, our classrooms, our homes--most of us never have to slow our work down. We cook and clean, we work on our computers, we study our books, we tend our families. We have forgotten the art of long stillness. Meanwhile, the natural world abides.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Pearl at the City Council Meeting

"...and finally, we want the city to put up signage at that spot stating that it's nobody's business why we're crossing the road."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

FTC alert: Free stuff. Finally.

Last April someone from a promotional products company contacted me and asked me if they could send me stuff for review, no strings attached. Always quick to take advantage of a freebie, I said, "Sure, you betcha."

Ere long after that little email exchange, UPS delivered a big box to my door, inside which I found the following:

Garden stool
Tape measure
Water bottle

I haven't said anything about it until now because I wanted to use the items for awhile in the garden to see what I thought of them. I was given the option of reviewing one or more of them, and told I could write whatever I wanted. When I opened the box, I immediately had a pretty good idea what I'd have to say about each--mind you, these are apparently promotional give-away products, and so the bar is set pretty low (if it's free...). But I thought, what the heck, I'd give those trinkets a real workout and see what transpired.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Doing my part to save the prairie, one dish of chili mac at a time...

Here's how it works: when you live with a vegetarian, you tend not to cook meat. I mean, it's easier for a meat-eater to eat a vegetarian meal than vice-versa, so for the last 17 years, I've more or less lost any ability I might have ever possessed to cooked a brisket, or bake a ham, or sauté a chicken breast (or whatever it is that you do with chicken breast--still haven't figured that out).

Oh sure, every once in awhile (mostly when Walu goes out of town to a conference), I go on a meat-cooking binge, almost always with uniformly dismal results. My hamburgers/chicken breasts/steaks/etc. are always dry and puck-like, and nearly inedible. It seems to be a skill that requires some practice to get it right.

The truth is, though, I don't really miss it. What I've lost in the ability to cook meat, I've gained in the invention of delicious, rib-sticking vegetarian meals. And if you think that last statement is oxymoronic, then you've only eaten vegetarian meals prepared by people who are not vegetarians (or living with vegetarians) themselves.

And mind you, I haven't stopped eating meat myself--for example, I'll sometimes cook up a mess of ground beef on occasion to throw into my own, separate pot of spaghetti sauce. It's hard to wreck ground beef, after all. Other than that, however, I let restaurants cook it for me. It's a system that has worked just fine for many years now. So why change it?

Here's why: PaiDom Meats

The prairie is a grazing ecosystem, so it makes environmental sense to have a agricultural economy that recognizes that. PaiDom does, and is making a go of a family farm operation that is environmentally responsible, sustainable, organic, humane, and free-range.

I first heard of PaiDom a few years years ago, when I got wind of people buying meat in a parking lot at a local hardware store, as if it were some sort of drug deal. I got more intrigued when I found out that one of my students, Erin Hoelting (now a former student serving in the peace corps; see her blog here), was actually related to the farm family selling the meat. I know Erin and trust her, so when she said these people are intent on finding a more environmentally sustainable approach, it sounded like something worth supporting. Even so, given my lousy track record with cooking meat, it wasn't until a couple of months ago that I signed up for the email list, and it wasn't until last week that I finally screwed up my courage to place an order.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Pearl and Henrietta step up

"See if they'll take eggs."

The situation is dire and aid is having trouble getting through, but it will. When it does, resources will be needed.

Here are avenues for aid that readers have provided:
Wyclif Jean's foundation
Doctors without Borders
Haiti Emergency Relief Fund
Partners in Health

And of course, the venerable:
American Red Cross

For others that have been working in Haiti for some time now, go here.

Finally, holding someone in the light is a Quaker practice to which author Susan Tweit introduced me when my father died. It seems appropriate that she has offered this opportunity for aid:

Hold Haiti in the light today.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Let us hold the people of Haiti in the light today.

They will need our help to recover, so if you are able and feel so moved, please give. Here is one means to do so and the one I am using because I trust it, but this is not a political issue (and please, let's not turn it into one), so use any an agent with whom you are comfortable. In fact, if you know of some, perhaps you could offer additional options for aid.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Specimen preparation: Lesser Prairie Chicken

Last Friday morning I braved the brutal (BRUTAL!) freeze and walked into campus, even though I was still on holiday. The Big Walu and I don't have parking permits for the campus (why have them when you live less than a mile from your offices?), and so driving in, which would have been the sensible thing to do, was not an option. Still, I figured that if I just bundled up Real Good, I'd be all right.

It was a little over a mile to the Biology Building, my destination, and by the time I got there, I could no longer feel my appendages (I suppose I had not bundled up Real Good enough). No matter, I thawed out nicely as I sat in the warm office of my colleague and friend, Dr. Nancy McIntyre, waiting for her to begin work on the carcass on a Lesser Prairie Chicken, Tympanuchus pallidicinctus (LPC). Nancy is, among other things, an ornithologist and avian curator at the TTU Museum of Natural history.

What Nancy was preparing to do was a necropsy to determine cause of death, take tissue samples to catalog for potential future study, and to turn the carcass into a "skin," which is what the preserved specimens in museum are called. Skins are used for the twin purposes of study and teaching, and back in the olden days, the birds were often killed for this purpose. Now, however, new skins are more likely to be made from birds that have died through accident or disease and are donated by wildlife rehab centers, game wardens, scientists, or other agents. When this happens, Nancy will usually stick the bird in a freezer in her lab to wait for a time when she can work on the bird without distraction.

Well, Friday was the day and Nancy knew I'd be interested, so she posted a note on my wall on Facebook, pulled the bird out of the freezer ahead of time, and waited for me to show up. Which I did, though only slightly less frozen than the bird had been a few hours before my arrival. Here's a shot of me holding the bird shortly before the action started, both of us mostly thawed out at this point:

The worth of a skin for study is almost priceless. Though I've watched LPCs through spotting scopes and binoculars and examined countless photos of them, there simply isn't a substitute for the amount of detail that can be seen when it is held in the unhurried hand. For example, the male LPC has feathers on the back of the head that are used for the purpose of display during breeding season. Called "pinnae feathers," in the field and photos they have always appeared uniformly dark to me. However, here is a close up shot of them, in which you can see that they are unexpectedly more complex than that:

Part of the reason we don't see this bi-coloration very well in the field is because they rotate the pinnaes forward during display and we see mostly the backside:

Here is another shot, in which Nancy is graciously holding open the mouth so that I can get a good photo of the bill for study, since it is always a troublesome part of the anatomy for me to draw on any bird:

And here is one more photo, showing one of the air sacs on the side of the neck that are inflated (and red) during courtship displays:

I don't have good photos of the courtship display myself (it is always pretty dark when I'm watching this, since the action starts around sunrise) and I don't want to use anyone else's for copyright reasons, but here are some little thumbnail sketches I've drawn in the field of the craziness of LPC hormones at work (note all the pinnae feathers at work):

(Note: "my feet are cold" is referring to the condition of my feet at the time, not the LPC's)

Finally, here is a shot of Nancy as she begins the preparation of the skin:

My students in the Introductory Fieldcraft course I am teaching this spring will get the opportunity to study this very bird later in the semester, shortly before we go to the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Milnesand, New Mexico (I'm tentatively scheduled to do a book signing, too), to watch living specimens doing their courtship displays. Hopefully, they'll be making their own thumbnail sketches of bird craziness by then.

I took many more photos--both of the bird's anatomical components and the complete preparation of the skin--and will post the process on my teaching blog later so that students in my natural history illustration course can see what goes into the making of the specimens they draw. When I do that, I'll note it here and provide a link for anyone who might be interested.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Holiday Egg

"Well, of course I could be wrong, Henrietta, but I still maintain that this is NOT the way Cadbury makes their eggs."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Addictive Ugly Cookie Alert: Fair Warning

You know how there are just some foods you shouldn't have anywhere nearby because you just can't not eat them? Yeah, well, these cookies, a favorite in my family when I was growing up, fall into that unfortunate category. They are simply impossible--impossible!--to leave alone. I only make them a Christmastime now, and only then if I can take them to a party and foist them off onto unsuspecting victims (and not have batches lying around my own house, tempting me). I put them on an anonymous plate and walk away, pretending like I have no idea on earth who might have brought them. That way, even if people start eating the cookies and decide that they must have the recipe at all costs, I can save them from themselves by not being forthcoming.

Goodness this good should not be available on a regular basis except for the gods, because mortals can't handle it more than once or twice in a lifetime. Seriously.

In fact, in the interest of public safety, I probably shouldn't ever share this recipe*, but I promised Nell Jean (Secrets of a Seed Scatterer). She did, after all, help me out of a little HTML pickle, and in a moment of weakness, I offered to let her in on the secret. So I'm just saying that if you decide to try these, you proceed at your own risk.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Goodbye, Old Paint

Thanks to all for your well-wishes this past few days. My mother had surgery on Saturday and is recovering. Now we wait to see how it all shakes out in the long-run.

For now, I am back in LBB for a few days, preparing for next week's start of the spring term. As usual, I am excited and ready to get it under way.

Unfortunately, weather and life got in the way of starting work on the compost fence during the break, so it will have to wait for a free (and warmish) weekend after classes start. I need to get it constructed as the first step to preparing the farm for chickens, since they could easily hop over the current fence separating it from the main backyard and into the waiting mischief of the dogs (don't ask me how I know this). After I get the fence built, I'll start on the coop. It's a lot to do during what will be a busy spring, so here's hoping for at least four free weekends.

In the meantime, when I made my nifty little pull-out shelf last week, I remembered that back in the summer, when we were cleaning out my parents' house, I'd promised to do a post on environmentally safe ways to get rid of all those old cans of paint we have stuffed away in closets and shelves. The reason I thought of it when I was making the shelf is because the first tip is...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Radio Silence

Greetings all. My mother fell and broke her hip yesterday, so the Bike Garden will be going into radio silence for a few days while I attend to family matters.

Friday, January 1, 2010