Sunday, November 27, 2011

learning is messy, distinguishing hemlocks from spruces, and tree turds

I took 161 pictures this afternoon, most of which are lousy, but that’s OK. I’ve been playing with the Lumix lately, daring to move beyond the confines of either the Intelligent Auto or the default automatic settings in the mode that allows me to use the macro zoom. Today’s experiments were with the white balance, the ISO setting, and whether or not the flash engages. I didn’t think to mess with the shutter speed. There’s always next time for that.

On a day like today – flat light, overcast, only occasional sun filtered through high clouds – it’s hard to get a decent shot of anything, particularly if the background is snow. I have a zillion underexposed and overexposed shots. But I had fun messing around with the settings, and also observing what the camera would do when I let it decide all of these variables.
Along the way, I refreshed my memory on the difference between hemlocks, balsam firs, and white spruces. I shouldn’t be a tease: I haven’t found a balsam fir. But hemlock and white spruce?  Yes, ma’am, we have those.

First up, hemlock. We’re up in the woods.

An adorable baby hemlock. Scraggly, but optimistic.

Flat needles, green on top…

…with racing stripes on the bottom. Also?

Those little stalks at the base of each needle mean that when you find a twig that has no needles…

…it’s bumpy. And this is an example of a crap photo.

Another excellent thing about hemlocks is their fantastically cute cones, but I didn’t see any today, so just put that on your wish list and the Universe will provide.

Incidentally, if this were balsam fir, you’d have the same flat needles with racing stripes on the bottom. But the leaves would come straight out from the twig with no leaf stalk (which is called “sessile”), and that means a twig with no needles would be smooth. Plus, balsam firs smell awesome.

White spruce, on the other hand. Spruce needles are not flat – they’ve got maybe four or so sides.  If you’re not sure you can see it for yourself, try rolling a needle between your fingers. If you can roll it, it’s a spruce. 

White spruce needles look blue-ish green, which I realize doesn’t seem to be the case in this picture, but trust me.

It’s a good year for the white spruce. Lots of cones. Naturally, from a distance, these look like tree turds.

A good day is one where you come home looking like this.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

they don’t look barren to me

The New Jersey pine barrens are no such thing. There’s all sorts of great stuff going on in there.
First, a general view. The trees are mostly pitch pine (Pinus rigida) and black-jack oak (Quercus marilandica).
The pines are well adapted to fire: the cones only open after a fire.

Plus they have this neat trick of being able to launch branches any old place, just straight out the side of the tree.

Incipient amber.

Apparently, the oaks are starting to succeed the pitch pine because of wildfire suppression.
OH! We found several of these. This is an oak, leaf, obviously, and it’s got this puffy sphere attached to it, about 2.5” in diameter.

Here’s one that had broken open.  I’m assuming it’s a marble gall, the baby-house of a type of parasitic wasp.

That’s the exit hole. Wikipedia informs me that oak galls contain tannic acids, and that “traces of iron-gall ink  have been found on the Dead Sea scrolls”. Wow.
One more tree, and then we’re going to ground level.
Holly. Festive holly. This stuff grows in trees at least 20 or so feet tall.
Lichen, right on the sandy ground.



I wasn’t kidding when I said the ground was sandy.


A type of lichen in the Cladonia family, usually called “cup lichen”. I like Kevin’s name better, though: “golf tee lichen”.
This next one completely stumps me. It looks like a cross between a mushroom and an herbaceous plant. WTF?!
As I took picture after picture of this stuff, a family with a brown lab walked by. You can see him in the photo below.
See his golden eye? Just about now is when he barreled into me to say hello.

Not bad for an hour or two.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

one of my patented recipes.

I habe a code. I’m one of those people who at the slightest sign of a cold, I make it go away through sheer force of will. “Nope, sorry, not going to happen,” I say. But I missed the bus on this one – Kevin’s been out of commission with what turns out to be bronchitis, and over the weekend, as I decompressed from a couple of intense weeks, I let down my guard and the little %^&*@# virus got past the gate.

Normally, I’d stay home from work and not inflict myself on the general populace, but a girl’s got to earn a paycheck somehow, particularly after six days of jury duty, so I headed in. Since I work at a yogurt factory – not in production, I do officey stuff – there is an emphasis on hygiene and hand sanitizer everywhere. I think I was coated in hand sanitizer by the time I got home. Mmmmm….hand sanitizer. I hate that stuff, but it seemed like the polite thing to do.

Why am I telling you this. Apparently because I don’t have anything else to say. No new photos. No home renovation projects – at this time last year, we were renovating the downstairs bathroom. (In desperation, I was going to do a “one year ago today” post. I made my first ever apple pie with a crust from scratch on this day last year, woo hoo.)

Sheesh, it’s bedtime already.

Happy thanksgiving, loved ones. Oh, inspiration strikes! here we go, I’ll share my favorite Thanksgiving dish recipe! A true classic, in that we only ever ate this on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and nobody else I’ve ever met has ever heard of this. I might have changed the name of the dish. Sorry, Mom!

A Holiday Favorite: Eyeballs in Cheese Sauce

Step 1. if you are my grandmother who originated this recipe, don’t read this. Oh right: you aren’t likely to read this. See, Grandma apparently peeled the tiny onions by hand. Screw that!

Step 2: Go get yourself a bag of Bird’s Eye pearl onions. Cook them following the instructions on the bag, which generally involves boiling them in some water for like, I dunno, ten minutes or so. The goal here is to have them all thawed out and not clumped together in an unattractive lumpy pile of ugliness. You’re looking forward to this, aren’t you?

Step 3: Make a white sauce with about 3 T butter, 3 T flour, and a cup or so of hot milk. You’ve never made a white sauce before? Oh, this is easy. You melt the butter. You get the milk hot (nuke it, whatever, just get it hot). Sprinkle the flour in the butter and whisk it for a bit. Let it cook. Don’t let it get brown – that’s something else entirely.

Add the milk slowly, whisking every so often, until it starts to thicken.

Step 4: Now add a bunch of grated cheddar cheese. Say…a cup and a half. Let it get all nice and melted and well incorporated.  Add the secret ingredients: a bit of dry mustard powder, and a splash of Worcestershire sauce. (Ingredients I have no other use for than this dish.) If you’re feeling super fancy, put in a dash of white pepper.

Step 5: Combine said sauce with drained, cooked onions in a baking dish. Sprinkle the obligatory paprika over the top. Bake it for, um, say a half hour to 45 minutes at 350. I don’t think you need to cover it.

That’s it! Enjoy!

P.S. For other tried and true recipes, you might want to check out my recipe for butternut/squash soup – also known as “how to dirty every pot and surface in your kitchen”. Or my recipe for chocolate brain damage sauce, which generates a lot of blog traffic, I think because people think I’m actually going to tell them how to prepare heroin. Honestly, people.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

sartorial splendor, bug calligraphy, belles at the ball

Striped maple twigs:  I want to design a whole clothing line this elegant.

As the branches age, they develop the characteristic stripey look.

A mature striped maple.

In other news, I discovered a cache of calligraphic runes, inscribed on downed branches by either fairies, or insects.
P1170151 P1170148
P1170149 P1170150

This moss-covered stump or rock – probably stump, but the sponginess was pretty deep – is playing host to three ash seedlings that have buried themselves, business-end first.
It’s not unreasonable to expect those seedlings will have enough for at least a start on life – this mushroom looks pretty content.

Ditto the baby fern.

And this little guy. Either hemlock or balsam fir – I forgot to check which. 

Belles at the ball. Milkweed seeds.

Each one a beauty.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

on the restorative properties of chocolate, vs a macro lens

I’ve got the bends: I’m decompressing from the week of jury duty, and the main symptom, as of right now, is irrational anger. It’s not the content of the trial itself, as heinous as that was (more on that in a minute). It’s the effects of several-days running of being trapped in windowless rooms, with no opportunity to ramble and explore. As I joked with my fellow jurors at the time, as we cooled our heels in our deliberation room while the attorneys and judge squabbled, for the nth time, about how to proceed through the quagmire of evidentiary rules, sometimes you just have to go into airport mode. You’re not in control of things, so sit back, put your feet up, and enjoy a good book. This sufficed for me to get through the week as it was happening, but the pent-up frustration built up under the surface. Hence, today’s crankiness.
I just got inside from about a half hour in the woods. I would have stayed longer, but the camera battery died.
Whew. OK, much better, already.
This is an ash seedling that’s dive-bombed into a moss-covered stump.

The turkey-footed casing of a yellow birch seed. The seed itself is to the left.

I’m pretty sure this is club moss – Lycopodium – and these are the reproductive bits. Those specialized leaves contain spores.

A decaying maple leaf. Reminds me of coming in for a landing at Any Airport, USA that’s surrounded by subdivisions and tract housing.

Moss’s fruiting whatsis.

A snuggling convocation of same.

This kind of moss looks like baby ferns. Two points if you spot the yellow birch seeds.

Gasp. A striped maple. This is where my camera battery gave up – I need to go back so I can show you the incredible colors of the twigs on this guy.
So do you want to hear about jury duty? Brace yourself: it took chocolate chip cookies, as well as a double shot of brownie sundae, to clean my soul when it was all over. The soul is best cleaned with exposure to nature, but chocolate’s restorative powers are not to be underestimated.
The defendant was charged with three counts of sexually abusing his daughter, starting when she was in elementary school, and continuing until she was about to enter high school. We heard three days of testimony, followed by a morning of closing arguments and instructions from the judge. Finally it was ours to deliberate on. A particular detail in the evidence came up on the second day that sealed the deal for me, but I listened carefully, with an open mind, for the rest of the trial. 
When it came time for our first straw poll, there were four or five of us who felt no hesitation in saying we felt the defendant was guilty. The remaining seven or eight were unsure, and wanted to replay some of the testimony. We trouped back into the courtroom and listened to the audio recording of certain parts of the trial. When we gathered again, I found myself explaining what I made of this testimony. I hesitate to describe it in too much detail here, but essentially, I argued that the worst possible case scenario was that the witness in question (not the complainant) was a flat-out liar. I showed how it didn’t matter, given other testimony from other people we had established were credible. We could toss this witness right out the window, and it wouldn’t make a difference. We took another straw poll, and only two people were now unsure.
I wondered if I should have followed my ninth-grade ambition to be a lawyer – an ambition that lasted maybe a week.
Another hour or so passed while we mulled things over. Our foreman had us vote officially, and there we were: unanimity. Guilty on all three counts.
It was only the next day, when I read about it in the local paper, which, unsurprisingly, had major, simple facts of the case wrong, that I learned that the defendant could be sentenced to up to life plus 25 years. They don’t tell you that ahead of time.
The whole experience was, on the one hand, a logistical and financial hassle (the pay is well under minimum wage). But on the other hand, it was a privilege to get to do this. I mean, what’s the alternative? Just one judge? No thanks. Vigilante justice? Perhaps more viscerally satisfying, but I’ll take “presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” any day. 
In Vermont, you have to serve either three draws, or three trials, whichever comes first. This trial was actually my second: the first was the week before, and the defendant settled the morning of the trial. My next draw is in late February, with associated trials all during March. Until then, I’ll enjoy not having to ask an armed deputy permission to go outside.