Monday, August 30, 2010

Change of the Seasons

It's the end of August and things are starting to change. Sunrise comes later and sunset comes earlier than just a month ago. The long, oppressive humidity of this summer has broken and you can go outside without feeling like you're drowning in the air. Our daytime temperatures might spike into the upper 80s and low 90s, but it drops down into the upper 50s and lower 60s at night, enough to make you grab the extra blanket on the bed come midnight. We've opened up the windows again to let fresh air into the house and it's good to hear the birds and bugs outside again.

Well, to a certain point. We have a lot more bugs here at the new house, surrounded as we are by pasture and trees, and they're fairly loud. The cicadas have finally stopped their incessant yelling, but there are a myriad of crickets, tree crickets, katydids, and their kin. And they all have something to say, day and night. Most of it's along the lines of, "Hey, baby? Wanna get together?" There's not much point in being subtle in late summer if you're a bug.

In the next month many of these insects will die off and things will be much quieter around here. Already they're dying by the bucket load. I can say that authoritatively as an entomologist, but really I'm just basing it on the number of dead bodies I find on the front porch each morning. Sometimes the bodies are intact, as if they just collapsed and died there, while others are shriveled and empty or have clearly been chewed on by someone else. Clearly there's a lot going on our front porch long after we've gone to bed for the night.

But aside from the changes in temperature, hours of available light, and entomological activity, there are other signs that the seasons are turning. Every couple of days I notice a few more yellowed leaves, and some have begun to turn orangey-red. Fall is my favorite season and I think it's going to be right on time.






Saturday, August 28, 2010

Another day in life with Ally

This is a condensed version of what transpired at the breakfast table this morning. For those of you who aren't acquainted with Ally, she's our three year old daughter. Ally is very much in the stage where she wants to be in charge of making decisions for herself, but she's very aware of how little control she actually has. This means that she tends to automatically reject any suggestions we make, no matter how much she might actually like the offered suggestion, simply on the grounds that her parents suggested it. I could offer her a pony and I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if Ally flung herself on the floor while wailing that she doesn't want a pony.

Steve made a Dutch baby pancake with fresh fruit and bacon for breakfast. Ally was playing with her dolls upstairs and didn't want to come down to eat. We let her play for a few more minutes and then insisted that she come down for breakfast. Ally began to fuss and whine that she didn't want to eat breakfast, that she wanted to play with her dolls instead. I threatened to give her blueberries to the dog, which prompted Ally to come down. She walked over to her chair grudgingly, climbed up in her seat, and then the theatrics began.

Ally (looking at her plate): I don't want any syrup.

Me: Then eat the bacon and the blueberries. They don't have any maple syrup on them.

Ally (poking at the pancake with her finger): Yes they do.

Me: No they don't.

Ally: Yes! They do have syrup on them! I don't want any syrup!

Usually Ally considers the maple syrup is the best part of a pancake. Today, however, maple syrup is evil and has contaminated the entire plate. Even though Mommy and Daddy have assured Ally that only the pancake has a teeny-tiny bit of syrup on it, clearly they don't understand the greater issue here that, by association, everything on the plate is obviously drowning in syrup and it's yucky.

Ally continues to poke at her pancake with her finger while grumbling about the blueberries.

Me: Ally, please use your fork.

Ally: I don't want to.

Me: Use your fork so you don't get your hands all sticky.

Ally: I don't want this fork. I want a different fork. I want Mommy's fork.

Me: No, your fork is just fine.

Ally: I want Daddy's fork.

Me: Mommy and Daddy are using their forks. You use the one you have.

Ally: I don't like this fork! I want a spoon!

Me: Ally, just use the fork please!

Ally (turns red, erupts in tears, and yells): NO!

The scene here dissolves in a choatic fit of crying, screaming, and kicking. Some of it is Ally's, some of it is mine. The kicker is when I offer Ally a tissue to wipe her nose. She insists that she doesn't need one, but then deliberately ignores the offered tissue because I'm the one giving it to her and wipes her snotty face on her cloth napkin.

I haul Ally outside for a timeout on the front porch where I remind her about how Daddy made us a special breakfast and we expect her to show good manners. Ally merely scowls at me and starts grunting, a horrendously annoying habit she just started this past week. I tell Ally that she can come back inside the house when she calms down and can behave herself, then shut the door and go back to eating breakfast. We can hear much screaming, stomping, and crying on the front porch through the open windows, but this is preferable to having it inside the house. Thankfully we don't have close neighbors to watch this little drama and report us to the police for child neglect, and the cows out back don't seem to mind the commotion either. Within minutes the tempest subsides into genuine tears and calls for Mommy. I go to the door and thank Ally for doing all her yelling outside where it's more appropriate, and she tells me she's sorry. We both go back to the table to finish breakfast.

Ironically, the pancake with the offending maple syrup is the first thing she eats.

I fully understand that this is merely a developmental stage for Ally where her desire to be autonomous conflicts with her need for parental care, and we should be reassured that this is perfectly normal behavior for a toddler.

What I'm not too clear on is how I'm supposed to weather this maddening behavior without losing my temper. It's like being back in college, trying to reason with your drunk roommate and convince him that going out for waffles at 3 am isn't a good idea right now because you have an important exam at 8:30 am. None of his argument makes any sense, yet you persist on trying to have a logical conversation with this person because what else can you do? All you want your roommate to do is go to bed and sleep it off, because that's in his best interest, but he's too busy trying to tell you that up is down, black is white, yes is no, to listen to you. It's a genuine miracle if both of you don't wind up in tears, kicking and screaming at each other.

Thankfully both Steve and I can find the humor in all of this about a half hour later. It's like we're in the middle of one those screwball comedies from the 30s or 40s, our very own version of Bringing Up Baby or Arsenic and Old Lace. The plot is all about chaos, larger than life characters, and wildly contrived situations that somehow wind up with a happy ending. We're hanging onto the idea of happy endings, so don't even mention how this will pale in comparison to raising a teenager.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Driftwood Cove

I finished another quilt last week. It's another charm quilt made from an assortment of fabrics, some new and some from recycled clothing. There's a flannel sheet for the batting and the edges are self-bound and triple-stitched again. The back is pieced from three different fabrics, and it's all quilted in a diamond pattern.

The neutral colors of brown, tan, and gray, along with the marine and lighter blues, all remind me of the beach. One of those beaches with cobble stones, bits of sea glass, and lots of driftwood. Probably someplace on the west coast in Oregon or Washington, where in the fall you might build a bonfire and watch the sun go down while sipping hot chocolate and wrapped up in a throw like this one. For that reason I'm naming this one "Driftwood Cove."

Driftwood Front

Driftwood Back

I made this quilt with the intention of selling it at the Floyd Arts and Craft Show, which runs October 1-2 at the high school in Floyd, Virginia. Something tells me I won't be too disappointed if it doesn't sell.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


I planted pumpkins for the first time this year. Well, I should say that I intentionally planted pumpkins for the first time this year. Since I always compost my vegetable scraps, it's not unusual to have a volunteer pumpkin or two come up in the compost pile. In fact, one year we had one grow up and onto our deck. We spent much of the summer trying to guess what kind of vine it was, starting with cantaloup, then watermelon, and then finally we guessed pumpkin when the huge, oblong fruit began to turn orange. In October we picked the pumpkin up off the deck, cut it from the vine, and then just plopped it on the front porch for Halloween. Easy peasy.

Since the volunteer pumpkins grew so easily, I wanted to try actually planting some in the new garden this spring. I had saved some seeds from a Jarrahdale pumpkin I bought at the Floyd Arts and Craft Show last October. These pumpkins are squat, ribbed, somewhat lumpy and a distinctive blue-gray color. They never turn into the classic orange jack o'lanterns, but the flesh is tasty and I like the different color.

We started the seeds in flats inside back in March. Ally had a grand time checking them each morning "to see if the seeds woke up" yet. I finally got the plants in the ground around June. They took their own sweet time to get going, but by late July the vines were covered with yellow blossoms and were rambling everywhere. I could hear the surprising loud whiny hum of the bees in the flowers when I went down to check on the garden, and it wasn't long before the vines had climbed up the fence and grown through it. But there weren't any pumpkins. Sometimes I would find a small fruit that appeared to have set, but then it turned yellow and went mushy. For a while I wondered if the Jarrahdale might not be open pollinated and required a different pumpkin as a pollen donor.

I should have known that anything from Australia was hardier than that. Soon enough I had a small pumpkin, then several small pumpkins, and suddenly they weren't that small anymore. Then the leaves grew so big and thick that I couldn't see the pumpkins at all, except for the one that began growing up on the fencing until its weight brought the fruit down to the ground, or the one stealthily growing outside of the garden fence.


The last time I checked, there are about six pumpkins out in the patch in addition to the two I picked earlier. I've decided to let them be until either the vines die down or I think they're going to rot. And truth be told, I think those vines are going to go gangbusters until the weather really turns. If anyone wants me, I'll be down in the garden beating them off the fence so they don't pull it down.





Thursday, August 19, 2010

How you gonna keep them down on the farm once they've been to the fair?

We took Ally to the New River Valley Fair in Dublin last month. It's your typical small town fair with agricultural exhibits, carnival rides, cotton candy, demolition derby, and horse pulls.


Here was the big surprise: I entered my 'July Regatta' quilt in the "first quilt" category, and it took first prize! We were very excited.


Yep, I can now talk about my prize winning quilt.


In interest of full disclosure I should add that I don't think there were many entries in this category, but it is a blue ribbon and and a $3.00 premium to my name.

Ally rode a pretty pony....


and a motorcycle....



and a blue dolphin.


I made friends over in the livestock barn.


This little nanny goat had something on her mind and she wanted everyone to know about it. She was quite the talker. Those are her kids in the cage. Good thing they were in the cage, or that little spotted one might have gone home with me.


I believe this one would have followed me home if Steve would have let her.


I should tell Steve more about the wonder and majesty of goat ownership. I don't think he's realized yet that Ally will have the opportunity to raise and show goats through 4-H now that we live way out here in the county. Yep, I've already checked out the current Mid-Atlantic 4-H Market Goat Project Guide available through the Virginia Cooperative Extension. One way or another, I'm gonna get my goat.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On Bats, Pets, and the Natural World

We have a bat on our porch. It's a little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus, who hangs out where two of the log support beams meet under the porch roof. I've been looking for bats flying around our property at dusk all summer long but never saw any until we noticed Sugar Booger. We probably would never have known s/he was there until the pile of bat poop on the porch grew into a noticeable pile.

Usually Sugar Booger is wedged into the narrow gap between two logs and you can hardly see her/him, but little brown bats look a lot like a furry brown kiwi fruit with leathery wings. I've seen them before on the few times I've been spelunking. Most of my experience with caving has been limited to hauling myself up and under rock formations, sometimes through crevices so narrow that I was certain that my helmet was going to get permanently wedged in there. I have fond memories of squirming under the massive boulder of Fat Man's Misery in Tawney's Cave. I have never done anything with ropes and I have always been in a small group of people that always include a trip leader who had past experience with that particular cave. I've always found spelunking a fun way to spend time getting wet and muddy underground, but now I don't know if I'd go back into a cave. It's not that I'm facing 40 and should know better, but rather I'm concerned about white nose syndrome affecting U.S. bat populations and I know better.

White nose syndrome is a condition where infected bats have a distinctive ring of white fungal growth around their muzzles. Infected bats are underweight, appear to have respiratory complications, and seem be emerging from hibernation early than they should, when little food is available and temperatures are still very cold. It is not known if the fungal infection is the primary cause of death or if it is an opportunistic infection on bats sickened by other causes. As stated in Wikipedia's entry on White nose syndrome, "As of May 2009, bat colonies have been decimated in at least seven states, with an estimated half a million bats having died from the disease. This deprives the country, especially during the spring and summer, of a valuable natural pesticide as bats consume huge quantities of insects: as much as their own body weight each night. The Forest Service estimates that the die-off from white-nose syndrome means that at least 2.4 million pounds of bugs (1.1million kg) will go uneaten and become a financial burden to farmers. Crop production may require more insecticide, raising environmental worries and pushing up grocery prices." (Wikipedia, White_nose_syndrome, accessed Aug 5, 2010).

The impact of white nose syndrome on bat populations has me worried. I like bats. I always have. I'm not afraid of them and I enjoy watching them come out at dusk. We should have oodles of bats here at the new house and I've only seen a couple. Frankly, I can't be certain that there isn't more than one and I've only seen Sugar Booger flying around. I know white nose syndrome has been verified in the area and this may explain why we don't have more bats here. This saddens me greatly.

You may be asking yourself why in God's name I call this bat Sugar Booger. No, it's not my pet. I don't expect it to come when I call it, I don't expect it to know its name, and I don't expect it to be a friendly Disney forest creature. Ideally the bat shouldn't be aware of me at all. It's a cutesy name for a decidedly less than cute creature. However, it's a fun name and Ally seems to like it, and that's why the bat is named Sugar Booger. I want Ally to be interested in the bat and not fear it. I want her to learn more about this bat and respect it for the wild creature it is. I want our daughter to appreciate the natural world, to observe its infinite variety and beauty, and to understand why it's such an important facet of our lives. And every other day or so we'll be on the front porch and she'll want to go look at the bat. Sometimes Sugar Booger is in her/his roost, but other times s/he isn't there and we'll just look at the pile of bat poop. (Like all toddlers, Ally is always very impressed with poop regardless of the maker.)

I'm hoping very much that this isn't the only time Ally ever sees a wild bat in her lifetime.

PS--It's not uncommon for little brown bats to roost by themselves around man-made structures, so I don't want anyone to get their panties in a twist about this being strange bat behavior and therefore Sugar Booger must be carrying rabies. Clearly we would take preventive action to protect ourselves if we suspected that this bat was sick, but so far all Sugar Booger does is hang upside down, sleep, and poop. That's perfectly normal for a bat, so Sugar Booger is welcomed to hang out under our porch roof and eat bugs all summer long.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

How My Brain Works

On any given day, this is how my brain works:

1. Come inside from yard work. Realize I'm hungry. Pull out leftovers from Cracker Barrel last night to reheat for lunch.

2. The green beans reminds me of the little disclaimer on the Cracker Barrel menu: *We want to make sure you know that some of our offerings, like Turnip Greens, Green Beans, Corn Muffins, Hashbrown Casserole and Pinto Beans, are made the old-fashioned way using meat seasonings and are not strictly vegetarian.

3. The disclaimer reminds me of how much my vegetarian cousins loved our grandmother's vegetables. Memaw grew many of her own vegetables in her garden, and they always had a great flavor. Years later one of my cousins asked her how she cooked them and Memaw mentioned that she always used meat drippings to flavor her vegetables. Shocked, my cousin asked how could she do that when she knew two of her grand-daughters were vegetarian and had been vegetarians for years. Supposedly my grandmother replied that of course she knew they were vegetarians, but it's not like there was any real meat in the vegetables.

4. I mull over the differences between incomplete and complete proteins in the diet, and how some vegetarians eat fish, eggs, and dairy products, while other only eat eggs and dairy, and the rest (the vegans) refrain from anything but plants.

5. I think about how much extra protein there might be in a "vegan" dish if you weren't too careful in picking all the little green worms off your organic broccoli. Or how often you might eat some fruit fly eggs and larvae without knowing it.

6. And that makes me think about figs and how the fruit is pollinated by fig wasps, just something to consider the next time you eat a Fig Newton.

7. The microwave timer goes off and and I eat my lunch.

PS--My grandmother never saw the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), but she certainly could have related to Andrea Martin's character Aunt Voula.

Aunt Voula: What do you mean he don't eat no meat?
[the entire room stops, in shock]
Aunt Voula: Oh, that's okay. I make lamb.

Monday, August 2, 2010

My Brief Career as a Sex Researcher

Once upon a time I lived in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was a graduate student in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Tennessee between 1992 and 1994. I was working on my MS degree, specializing in medical/veterinary entomology. In particular, I was examining the impact of a topically applied anti-parasitic compound on the invertebrates found in the emphemeral resource of bovine dung.

In other words, I spent a lot of time looking at bugs in cow poop.

Knoxville was a rather fun place to be in the early 1990s. Lots of tanned, blonde women with bows in their hair and good ol' boys in Duck Head shirts dying for the next football game. The internet did not really exist then and no one had uttered the words "dotcom" yet. Since there was no Facebook back then, we had to fill up our free time with other activities, such as watching "Friends", gawking at the current fad of country line dancing, and waiting for the next football game. Mostly I dove into my graduate studies and my research.

(You're probably wondering where the sex research bit comes in here.)

Generally I would try to come up for air from my research and go home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's about a 9 hour drive from Knoxville to Poquoson, Virginia, a long, long stretch of I-81 with a dogleg turn at Stanton, Virginia, onto I-64. I didn't mind the drive too much as it was 9 hours I wasn't sorting insect specimens in the lab, but traveling took two days out of my all too brief holiday time at home. By my second year in Knoxville, my mom insisted that I fly from Knoxville into Newport News, which condensed my travel time into a mere fraction of what the drive required.

Both the McGee Tyson Airport in Knoxville and the Newport News International Airport in Newport News are not very big. Certainly their names were bigger than their physical size back in the early 1990s. Little commuter prop planes, really just puddle jumpers, flew between the two airports. This meant my flights always left from a dinky little commuter gate, where I would walk out a glass door to the plane right there on the tarmac. The commuter terminal was very loud, with the noise from the planes taxing up to the gates and continual announcements on the intercom for flights arriving and departing.

One Thanksgiving a man and his wife struck up a conversation with me as we waited for our plans to begin loading. They, too, were traveling someplace for the holiday. We did the usual small talk and inevitably they asked me what I did. I paused, as I generally tried to gauge how much someone might want to know about beef cattle, ivermectin, and bugs before I gave them a verbal overload about my research, and simply told them I was a grad student at UT.

The University of Tennessee is revered in eastern Tennessee. It is the Holy Mecca of Football each fall. I have never seen such diehard football fans as these people in my entire life. They live, breathe, eat, and sleep orange and white. There is an entire flotilla of fans that arrive at the stadium by boat. If you want to get an automatic approval of most people in eastern Tennessee, you just tell them you're a student at UT. Go Vols!

The couple beamed and congratulated me on being a student at VT. I held my breath, expecting their next question to be something about how well the football team had done that season. Here I must admit that I hadn't ever attended one UT football game, rarely caught any of it on TV, and generally know diddly squat about football in general. I have a fear of crowds and Neyland Stadium seated over 90,000 fans back then. There was no way I was getting anywhere close to the stadium on game day. I steeled myself for the usual disappointment people showed when they learned that I didn't follow the UT football team.

Instead, the couple began asking about my research. Ah-ha! Now here was an interesting subject I could talk about with some authority. Indeed, I may have been the only authority on aphodiine dung beetles in the tri-state area at that time. But still, I disliked being seen as a biology geek so I just told them that I studied insects.

"REALLY?" they laughed. The intercom blared another announcement. "So what exactly do you do?" they continued when the noise subsided.

I waited for a dozen people hauling luggage to pass on their way out of the terminal so the couple could hear me. "I'm conducting a field study on how a specific medication limits the spread of parasites." Now this was a slight fib. Most of the insects living in cow poop are not really parasites of cattle, although face flies and horn flies can annoy the animals enough to cause problems. I just figured this wasn't an appropriate topic for polite society, lest the memory of my description of maggots, grubs, and feces bother them as they settled down to a Thanksgiving dinner the next day.

"Oh my!" gasped the lady. Her spouse chuckled, and to my surprise, another man sitting several seats over joined in on the conversation. "Do you really study this?" he asked.

Another announcement blared on the intercom.

"Yep. I'm working on my master's degree," I answered.

This garnered general laughter from several people sitting around us. Apparently the conversation had captured the attention of more people. This was very unusual, as most people couldn't care less about bugs.

"So how do you study this?" someone asked.

A prop outside the gate began to whine for take off. I waited a minute until it was quieter and then told them how I went to the field and collected samples of the "parasites." Then I looked at them under a microscope to identify the invertebrates and measure the impact of the medication.

More twittering. More travelers passed by with noisy wheeled suitcases.

"And the university lets you do this?" another person ask.

"Oh yes," I nodded. "There's a lot of need for researchers so they do what they can to encourage people to enter the field. I don't pay tuition for my classes and they even give me a stipend to live on."

"Wow. I just can't imagine anyone doing something so, so....daring."

At this point a tiny voice in my head informed me that perhaps the ten or so people enraptured by my description of my research did not entirely understand what I was saying. People often find entomologists to be interesting in that they study bugs for a living, but generally they shake their heads in disbelief and say, "Gee, that is just so weird." My audience in McGhee Tyson reminded me more of the audience on Oprah Winfrey's talk show, hanging on to my every word.

In a flash I knew exactly what had happened. When I told them I studied insects, they misheard me and thought I said "incest." And my attempt to shield them from the uglier particulars of my research by talking about parasites and medication and field studies merely enforced their misunderstanding. I'm sure my face must have flamed scarlet as I stammered, "No wait, you didn't hear me right, I study bugs, I'm an entomologist!"

The whole group broke into laughter for a minute then immediately went back to reading their newspaper or talking about Thanksgiving dinner with their travel companions. Just like that, I'd gone from being a captivating young woman studying a taboo subject to merely a geeky biologist who looked at bugs in cow poop. I was tempted to say something about the mating habits of yellow dung flies and aphodiine dung beetles, but I held back in a rare show of prudence. No one wants to look desperate, not even former sex researchers.