To follow up on yesterday’s Outdoor Hour Challenge on Squirrels, here are some of today’s nature pictures.

Squirrels, of course. Even though I dug out the snow around the bird feeder, they are still attempting to get up onto the baffle. The prickly bush approach must have been too painful, and it wasn’t working anyway:

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Climbing up the pole?

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Baffled again… But not for long.

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Beautiful animal:

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This is a tiny one. It’s the first time I’ve seen it. At first I thought it was a chipmunk, it’s that small. It’s very reddish brown: is it a young Gray Squirrel (do they turn gray as they get older?), or is it another species? It didn’t venture far from the tree.

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The Carolina Wren, who was really the hero in this photo and this one.

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And later on:

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The Moon and Venus below it.

And even later, just now as I am writing this – O my! – I can hear the Great Horned Owls who come here every year, in the coldest of winter, to breed (r have they been here all along?). I hear him, a low “Hoo, hoo-hoo” and her reply, a higher pitched “Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo”.

So unbelievably beautiful, magical!

I was told about these owls by a neighbor. I wonder, if he hadn’t told me about it, and if I hadn’t been waiting to hear this for the past month (at least)… would I have heard it?

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This challenge is really called “Tree Silhouettes,” but as the trees on our property and in our neighborhood are so crowded together, most of them haven’t grown into the typical shapes they would have had, had they been in an open space where they didn’t have to vie for sunlight with others. Except for the towering pines, most of our trees are hard to identify by  their silhouette.

So we decided to turn our attention to the bark – the leaves, in the middle of this wintry season, being long gone. The book focuses on birch, the bark of (most species of) which is of course quite amazing. I showed Amie a small roll of paper birch I collected long before she was born, and we talked about how you can use it for writing.

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We have two birch trees on our property, but going by their gray bark that hardly peels, and their black “eyebrows”, they’re the the Gray Birch (Betula populifolia). They grow right next to one another, so probably from the same root system.

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I showed Amie the other barks from my collection. I never took notes about where I got them – live and learn. I don’t remember where I got the one on the left, but as it is scaled, it is probably from a cherry or, more likely, a maple.

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The other pieces of bark I remember picking up from the ground, where they had fallen off the small trees lining my old street in Brookline, MA. They look like beech, being so smooth, but next time we’re in that neck of the woods we’ll try to identify the tree. They’re very pretty, and I hope they don’t indicate some tree disease.

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I am really liking the book, Discover Nature in Winter, which I’m loaning from the library. The book is quite basic (at 196 pages), and I do wish some there was some more about mammals in winter, but the information and challenges are novel and inventive.

Read aobut our next Winter Wednesday-Tree Silhouette adventure here.

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Outdoor Hour Challenge #45 is Squirrels. We have plenty of them, three at least, all Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). They come out when the sun is bright on the snow.

Comstock writes charmingly about squirrels, and she quotes from Thoreau, which I find always makes for captivating reading. They both seem to describe exactly the three squirrels I know! I also followed her suggestion of Ernest Thompson Seton’s Bannertail. I enjoyed Seton’s Two Little Savages, and I like Bannertail even more. It’s the kind of book I wished I had a first, signed edition of…

I’ve reported on our resident squirrels before, when we did an experiment leaving an apple outside and when the squirrel got hold of our Indian corn. On that last occasion the gorging squirrel sat still long enough for me to drawn it from life.

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We’ve had many occasions since then to observe “our” squirrels. I often save scraps of food out of the compost bucket and leave them on the balcony ledge, right in front of our window. Oftentimes I just know that they are studying us as much as we are studying them!

  • Squirrel Tracks

We’ve gone out and investigated squirrel tracks.

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They are vague because old and because the snow had melted a bit, but these are definitely (two sets) of squirrel tracks.

  • What They Eat: Everything

But his morning was surely a high in our squirrely studies. Amie yelled: “Mama! The squirrel is eating the birds’ food! Shoo! Go away, squirrel!”. You see, yesterday we had a short thaw followed by a hard freeze, so the snow in our garden, two feet high, is now capped with a hard shell from which the squirrels can jump onto the top of the baffle.

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I call this picture “Unbaffled” (the baffle is that black cylinder: it’s supposed to stop the critters from climbing up via the pole). From the baffle, the squirrel lunged for the hanging suet basket. It was a sight!

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We witnessed a lot of acrobatics, and a lot of suet being consumed.

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As you can see the intrepid Carolina Wren wasn’t afraid at all, and ate from the same block of suet the squirrel was grasping. The other birds hung back.

I let them eat some, then threw out some cut up apple cores, then shoveled the snow around the feeder. Party’s over. Amie wanted to put out one of the “experiment pine cones” for them, but I explained they only eat the seeds inside the cones, not the cones themselves – which led to some discussion of what a cone is made from and what its function is.

  • Where They Live: In Trees

After preschool Amie and I went into our yard to look for squirrel nests. She was surprised that our squirrels (Gray Squirrels) live in trees in nests much like birds, only bigger and not so well constructed. We also found out that a squirrel is not attached to any one home, and often has half a dozen where he can bed down.

We found three nests that we suspects are squirrel’s nest (click for larger).

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I’m not sure about this one, there aren’t as many leaves:

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  • Squirrel Bones: A Missed Opportunity

We found a dead squirrel many months ago. It had been attacked by a fox, maybe a cat or smaller dog (though I doubt that), who had taken a chunk out of its thigh. I dropped it over the fence so the meal could be finished, but now I wish I had buried it somewhere. I could have dug it up and cleaned and mounted the bones… I remember once, as a child, after we had rabbit stew, we put the skull in formaldehyde (?) and kept it. It would be neat for Amie to do too. Maybe when we’re a bit older.

UPDATE on the Squirrel Shenanigans here.

We had another snowstorm today. Preschool was closed. Amie and I sat ,in our PJs, at her table and decided to draw something. She chose her favorite book of animals, an older edition of the Visual Encyclopedia of Animals (DK). I think she likes this book because it is small, but thick and compact with stiff and shiny paper, and it looks like “a grownup book”.

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She opened the book to the first page and I suggested she draw the beetle, since it was the simplest. Declining to take this opportunity to read some in my own book, I decided to make it into another seeing lesson. I thought the fact that she would copy from a book was interesting. It is after all something she will be doing often and another good way to learn seeing and drawing.

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It took quite a bit of talking by me and concentrating on her part to get the beetle down on paper. I could see she was struggling with certain preconceptions of how she should draw such a thing (round body, head attached, four legs) and what it actually looked like in the book. Then we parsed the sounds in BEETLE and for a moment I thought of letting her write it like she heard it: BEETUL or BEETOL. But then I pointed out how it was written in the book, and could she copy that, because that’s how it is really spelled? She found that quite interesting.

The ammonite was her second choice and easier. She is quite confident  drawing spirals. She liked it so much she added a bigger one and called the first the baby and the second the Mama ammonite. She spelled out AMMONITE, from the book, and I wrote it down, and then we discussed whether to add a S, because there were two of them.

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The flamingo was the most interesting shape. Again she battled the urge to reproduce the traditional preconception of what a bird looks like. So together we described the shapes, in detail. How the flamingo has such long legs and a long neck, and a large beak. And how this one was turned away a bit. And where was its eye? I really like how the flamingo turned out! I think she captured its shape very well. She also enjoyed copying FLAMINGO as we parsed the sounds. There’s a B there because she was going to write BIRD first, but then she changed her mind and took on the challenge of the larger word.

Then she water colored all them and this is the result:

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I also instituted what I hope will be a tradition: beside the date we’ll also add some details about the day. I asked her: “What is so special about this day so far?” “Snow storm!” she said, and “School is canceled.” Duly noted.

A while ago I pledged to learn the great and ancient art of beekeeping. I contacted several bee schools and was about to enroll. Then I realized that it won’t be possible to have a hive this spring or summer, for the simple reason that there are no flowers nearby. We live in a wooded area. There are no fields or meadows close by, most of the vegetation is trees, shrubs and lawn. So I’m holding off on enrolling in a beekeeping class and the new plan is to first establish lots of bee-flowers around the property. That will take a good year, so the bees will hopefully arrive next summer.

Instead I enrolled in a pottery class. My first class was yesterday and I already threw two “competent” pots at the wheel (“competent” as in: they will hold water and they look okay, but their shapes are entirely accidental). Next week I will learn to trim the pots, then later to fire and glaze them. There will be hand-made sessions too, and I’m keen on learning how to make decorative tiles.

But I already know that my favorite will be sitting hunched over that wheel, shaping the earth with steady hands and sensitive fingers. It feels just great to work with the earth. To see the pot come off the wheel is so satisfying: I did that? And then to think how strong well-fired clay is, that it can withstand temperatures of over 400 degrees.

I’ve already added a pottery wheel to my wishlist! Maybe we can devise one ourselves. And a kiln…

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Today we finally had a chance to set up our germination/seedling area in the basement. It’s not fully done yet, but so far we have:

  1. One large Gorilla shelf rack – fits 4 standard Jiffy or Burpee seed starting flats perfectly. $87.97
  2. four shop lights (2 sockets each), chain links and S hooks included. 4 x $8.97 = $35.88
  3. One pack of 10 fluorescent bulbs: T8, 48″, 32W, 6500 K color temperature, 36.000 hours lifetime light temperature. $25
  4. four wooden dowels (4 x $1.45 = $7.25)
  5. one timer ($11.97)
  6. one power strip ($4.98)

Total cost (so far): $173 (plus tax), at Home Depot.

If more space for seedlings is needed, we can put two more lights/four more bulbs above the lower shelves.

The dowels (those round wooden sticks) fit the holes in the shelf unit perfectly and the shop lights hang from it securely. We can adjust the lamps’ distance from the seeds/seedlings either by shortening the chains or by moving the dowels up some more.

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We’re going to put a sheet (poly? shower curtain?) around the whole unit, creating a chamber. This will trap the heat and the humidity.  Now the dowels are too long and we’ll trim them some, but we’ll leave them sticking out so that

  1. there is some clearance in front for one person stand inside the chamber
  2. there is space for the heat to rise to the highest shelves (for the germination and the most heat-loving plants)
  3. there is air flow (we might also drill holes in the particle board shelves)

We’ll monitor if these lamps generate sufficient heat for the seed/seedlings (our basement is only about 55-60 degrees F, and we’ll need temperatures between 65-70). If not, we’ll try a hot lamp or  heating mats, which are more expensive.

We’re also going to put a small household fan inside the “chamber”, to prevent damping off (fungus).

  • Germination part

The top shelf will be the germination part of the operation, because it will be the hottest (since the heat from the lower shelves will rise).

Most seeds need an ambient temperature of 65-70 degrees F, and soil temperatures of optimally (though not necessarily) 80-85 degrees F. Heat is the most important consideration, then light. Some seeds need light to germinate (lettuce), others need darkness (many flowers), but most are indifferent (pepper, squash, tomato). We’ll simply put newspaper over the darkness-loving seeds to block the light, or we’ll paint their domes black.

  • Seedlings

A plant is a seedling as soon as it has grown to “true leaves” – leaves that weren’t already part of the seed-package. Seedlings need up to 16 hours of bright light per day to thrive. Our timer will ensure we don’t forget!

There will no doubt be some shuffling around as we get to know our system, our seeds and seedlings. I’ve added an extra Flickr badge in the sidebar with annotated pictures of anything garden.

Also still needed: seed-starting mix, flats, domes, potting soil, peat pots…

Seeds? Check!

Riot for Austerity fist with Thermometer

This is only our third Riot month and I feel like I’m slacking already.

I realized this when last week I volunteered to drive Amie and a preschool buddy to their field trip. This was legitimate, I think: the preschool needed volunteers. On the way back – just Amie and I – I decided to stop off at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, which was legit too, as it was on the way home. It was too cold and windy to go for a walk, and then the officer told me about this great Visitor Center at the Assabet River Reservation, only a couple of miles away. She gave us directions.

Only a couple of miles away – back up north, though, with our home to the south. And the directions turned out to be faulty. And there turned out not to be a Visitor Center. Just a kiosk.

After driving around in circles for many miles, almost getting the car stuck in a snowy lane, with a grumpy child in the back who needed to pee, and seeing the miles tick-tick-tick away on the dashboard, I was very upset.

But it was my own fault. After so many months I was on the road, you know, and I used to love road trips, and getting lost in the country, cruising by the farm houses and going bumpety-bump through dark woods. So I left our “legitimate” route for some pleasure driving…

I’ve been leaving the big computer on all day, letting it sit there, munching on electricity. The screen saver isn’t even on.

I’ve been leaving lights on in unoccupied rooms.

I’ve been wasting water with longer showers, and sometimes boil a full kettle, to forget and then have to bring it to a boil again.

Most of the hay box is finished, but I still haven’t brought myself to put it all together and to actually cook in it. This though I’ve made several soups and stews in the meantime.

We spent too much at Whole Foods on Saturday. Too many exotic luxuries.Y Yesterday  I forgot to put an opened can of tomato puree in the fridge and had to throw it out.

Etc. Etc.

To some of you that may sound uninteresting, but to me these mistakes hurt. I do recognize them as mistakes, and regret them. So why did I make them? Is it Riot fatigue?  Is it winter?

Will the numbers at the end of the month jar me awake?

I think of the seeds every day. They’re locked away in their envelopes, in Ziploc bags, in a large cookie tin, in the cold basement. Held within these many layers, deprived of light, water and warmth and temperature fluctuations, they are kept suspended.

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I am rereading Thoreau’s Dispersion of Seeds. It was published for the first (and so far only time) in 1993, in a lovely volume called Faith in a Seed.

Thoreau was writing around 1860, when most people in the States believed that plants spring up spontaneously, not from a root or a cutting or a seed. It’s so hard for us to imagine that people ever thought such a thing. But Thoreau could, though he was one of the few arguing against it (this was part of his larger, Darwinian argument against Agassiz’s “immutable species”).

Thoreau drew this interesting comparison between the American vs. the European idea of a seed.  He writes (on page 1):

We are so accustomed to see another forest spring up immediately, as a matter of course, when one is cut down… never troubling ourselves about the succession, that we hardly associate seeds with trees, and we do not anticipate the time when this regular succession will cease and we shall be obliged to plant, as they do in all old countries. The planters of Europe must therefore have a different and much more correct notion of the value of seeds than we… we know only that [trees] come out of the earth when we cut them down, as regularly as the fur grows on the hides of animals after the summer has thinned it.

Old country versus new country, a place where man has to plant versus a place where Nature sows… I came to this country ten years ago and I live constantly with this Old-New comparison. Look around you, is your America still that New World? Or has it become Old?

What a privilege, what good luck, to be able to read this text!

I have faith in a seed too. The seeds in my basement seem dead, but I believe they will live and flourish. I believe that nature is forgiving. If I make a little mistake, I believe she will correct it. If I make a big one, she will give me another chance, here, in my New World.

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One of our Christmas gifts was this game, Max, made by a small family-owned company called Family Pastimes that makes only cooperative games (they even print and make their own boards and boxes).

We must help get the little Creatures safely home before Max, the Tomcat, catches them. In an exciting way, children learn logic, consultation and decision making. An important issue to discuss is also raised: we don’t like Max catching those Little Ones, yet we recognize that he is a natural hunter. How do we resolve this in our minds and hearts? Let’s talk it over.

The game is just at Amie’s level.  She isn’t getting the strategy yet, but a game like this – not too simple, not too complex – is just what will help her understand the necessity of thinking ahead. The duration of the game is also well within her attention span… so there’s time for one more, of course, or two…

It’s also very engaging. Amie gets very concerned about the little creatures – a bird, a chipmunk and a mouse. So much so that she calls Max back to his porch (with a treat) even when he isn’t anywhere close to being a threat. So much so that she tries, very clumsily, to manipulate the dice, which decide who gets to move ahead, the little ones or Max. When I told her she has to leave it up to the dice, she tried hard, but soon I caught her again.

- Amie, we shouldn’t cheat.

- Shhh, Mama! Max didn’t see me do it!

How is that for immersion! I had to put a stop to it after three games. She was getting too excited.

I heartily recommend it anyone with a three to four-year-old, or older child. Also check out Family Pastimes’ other cooperative games: they have them for all ages. Of course I’m putting “Harvest Time” on our urgent wish list!

(I hope this company won’t be adversely affected by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.)