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A snail’s eye view. February 29, 2008

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It’s “leap day,” proof once again that, even after several million years of trying, we humans still haven’t gotten the calendar right. But I digress.

Our friend Ben realizes that the title of today’s post may aggravate a few of you passionate gardeners out there. You may even feel that you’ve been had. Why, you ask, didn’t I call it “A shrimp’s eye view” or something? But please set aside your prejudices and read on. I wrote this especially for you.

Those of us who love plants and live in cold-winter climates have a problem: Trying to get enough green in view to make it through to spring. We cover every flat surface in our homes with houseplants of all types and stripes. We try to keep yet another *&%$#@!!! rosemary alive indoors through the winter. (Those of you who have no problems doing this, and our friend Ben knows several, just shut up and stop looking so damned smug.) If we’re lucky enough to have a greenhouse, we cram it with orchids, amaryllis, and all the container plants that graced our decks or patios during the growing season, creating the dreaded “incredible shrinking greenhouse” effect. But it’s still not enough.

Fortunately, there’s another way to get more plants into our snowbound lives. It’s small-space, low-maintenance, and requires very little in the way of specialized equipment. It’s a landscaped aquarium.

If you think of aquariums as showcases for trailer-park taste, with dayglow gravel and plastic pirate ships, I have news: It ain’t necessarily so. A decade or so ago, Takashi Amano set off a revolution in aquarium-keeping with his indescribably beautiful book Nature Aquarium World. In it, Mr. Amano showed how he created underwater landscapes, filled with gorgeous plants, exquisitely natural-looking, glowing with life. Suddenly, gardeners had a whole new realm to conquer, creating luscious aquatic landscapes they could enjoy in the heat of summer and the depths of winter.

If you want to be inspired, you can’t do better than order Mr. Amano’s fabulous book or its sequels. But if you want to try this at home, there’s a little problem: His beautiful aquascapes depend on close monitoring of tons of high-tech equipment, including CO2 injectors and high-powered lighting that could easily bring you a visit from your good friends at the DEA. Not to mention continuous micro-monitoring of pH, fertilizers, and so on.

Now, our friend Ben loves aquariums–I’ve had them all my life. But it’s my view that they should be fun, low-cost, mostly self-maintained worlds of wonder that don’t require a second job or a Ph.D. in chemistry. And fortunately for all of us, there is another way. And another book: Ecology of the Planted Aquarium. This book is as boring as its title–no photos, technical tone, design harking back to the age of mimeographs. Ugh. But its author tells in great detail how you can have a very low-tech, self-maintaining landscaped aquarium, and trust me, this is our goal. I recommend both books–one to inspire you and one to tell you how it’s done. But you really don’t need either.

Our friend Ben’s aquariums are as low-tech as they get. I don’t even heat them–the only heat the fish, plants and other denizens get comes from the lights in the lids, which came with the tanks and are certainly no big deal. (In fact, I’m convinced that the astounding longevity of my tropical fish, which can live for ten years easily, is due to the lack of heat and the fact that I “fast” them over the weekends.) Nor do I have bubblers or other aerators, undergravel filters, or the like. What I make sure to do is to create a balanced aquarium–lots of both rooted and floating plants, cute and colorful little freshwater shrimp and otocinclus catfish to keep algae off the plants, mini freshwater clams, snails, and corydoras catfish to clean the gravel and (in the case of the clams) help to filter the water, and, of course, I have the colorful tetras and other tropical fish we all love to add life and interest to the tank.

As a result, my aquarium maintenance is limited to feeding the fish on weekdays, pruning overly enthusiastic floating plants like anacharis (which I add to the outdoor container water gardens during the growing season and use to enrich the compost pile in the winter), rinsing off the filters once a month, and changing filters every three months (or so). I don’t even do the horrific water replacements that consitute aquarium-keeping drudgery for many; I just top off the tanks when the water level goes down. The water in my tanks is sparklingly clear; there is no algae on the rocks, plants, or tanks; the plants, fish, and other denizens are flourishing. Everybody’s happy.

Speaking of other denizens, let’s talk about snails. Our friend Ben has always loved snails, with their beautiful spiral shells. I’ve collected saltwater specimens and enjoyed encountering land snails in the wild and, yes, even in my yard. (Mind you, where I live, they are seldom seen and not voracious.) I remember fondly the beautiful pink snails of my Nashville youth. So it’s not surprising that I’d enjoy snails in my aquariums. I’ve had many kinds over the years, but my favorites are the big, bright yellow snails (the shells are yellow, but the bodies can be white or black) that add bright spots of color to the aquascape. They work hard, too, cleaning debris off the tanks’ bottoms, and best of all, they don’t eat the plants! Our friend Ben urges you to give them a chance in your own aquarium. Try them, you’ll like them!

Incidentally, if it’s hard to find a good selection of plants, shrimp, snails and the like in your area, a wonderful mail-order resource is Arizona Aquatic Gardens (www.azgardens.com). Check out their “Shrimp Factory” for a wonderful rainbow assortment of freshwater shrimp!

An easy-care aquascape is a delight for the whole family. If you have cats, they’ll enjoy watching “fish TV” as much as you do. And what a joy to see the warm light, lush plants, brilliant fish, and entertaining shrimp, clams, and snails when it’s bitter and snowy outside. Aaaahhhh…     

Ben’s Top Ten February 28, 2008

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame. It’s a bitterly cold morning here in Pennsylvania–perfect weather for warming up with a steaming mug of coffee and some homespun wit and wisdom. As you may know, my mentor, Benjamin Franklin, wanted to make my almanac a witty and valuable read, since besides the Bible it was pretty much the only book many Colonial-era Americans owned. So he’d make up clever, punchy little sayings and sprinkle them throughout the pages of each year’s edition. You’re sure to have heard some of them yourself: “A penny saved is a penny earned,” “God helps those who help themselves,” and “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”*

So today I thought I’d give you a rundown of Ben Franklin’s best. They’re still worth bearing in mind as we go through our own days. See how many you know! And just to keep things interesting, I’ve thrown in two sayings that weren’t written by Dr. Franklin. Can you guess which ones they are? No cheating, now!

Ben’s Top Ten (Plus Two)

1. A  man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.

2. A place for everything, everything in its place.

3. An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.

4. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

5. Absence sharpens love, presence strengthens it.

6. Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man. 

7. All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.

8. There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

9. Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one.  

10. By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

11. Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.

12. Half a truth is often a great lie.    

Did you guess the two quotes that weren’t by Dr. Franklin? They’re # 4 and #8. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” is by Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of President John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy, and “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it” is by the great Irish wit, Oscar Wilde.

* Ever wonder why going “early to bed” would make a man healthy, wealthy and wise? It might seem like burning the midnight oil would be a better path to success, but Ben Franklin had very practical reasons behind his famous saying. In his day, people lit their homes with candles, and boy, were they expensive, especially the better ones that didn’t smoke and reek of sheep fat. (See for yourself: Turn on a lamp with a 100-watt bulb and see how many candles you have to light to make an equivalent amount of light. And that’s just one bulb!) If you went to bed early, you’d save money on candles. But that wasn’t the only good reason for retiring early. The popular evening pastimes in Colonial times were drinking and gambling. After supper, people would head to a tavern or gaming house or over to a friend’s home and bet money on card games like vingt-et-un, silver loo, and faro. You could lose everything in a night, especially if you were drinking the whole time, which pretty much everyone was. Alcohol consumption in Colonial times was astoundingly high because sanitation had become a lost art, and people rightly believed that it was safer to drink alcoholic beverages than the bacteria-laden water near populated areas. So that’s what they drank from morning ’til night: beer, hard cider, wine, and hard liquor. If you went to bed early, not only would you avoid the national pastime of gambling (it wasn’t just us–it was also all the rage in England and the rest of Europe at the time, and had been imported by the colonists), you’d also avoid one hell of a hangover the next morning. Staggering out of bed and lurching through the day in a fog wasn’t a great way to earn an income, as Ben knew.  

A little taste of spring February 27, 2008

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Silence Dogood here. We’ve had a mild and beautiful winter here in our corner of Pennsylvania–snow geese in the fields, little Hawk Run burbling happily away beside the deck, and all the shades of gold and rust and brown and grey and deep, dark green that punctuate a blessedly undeveloped, hilly area, backlit with one gorgeous skyscape after another. When an area is beautiful in winter, you know it’s beautiful, period.

Still, being gardeners, we’re hungry for spring. We keep looking for the cheerful snowdrops and sunny yellow winter aconites that herald its arrival, but so far, our only blooms are the green-flowered (I refuse to call them by their true name, which is “stinking”–it must be true, since the botanical name is Helleborus foetidus, but I’m not sticking my nose in a bloom to find out) hellebores, which remain in bloom here all winter, even when frozen. 

We’re also hungry for spring in a more literal sense. We’ve enjoyed the heavy, warming comfort foods of winter, such as the Curried Pumpkin Soup I gave you the recipe for in an earlier post and our friend Delilah’s incomparable Crock-Pot Mac’n’Cheese. (If enough of you ask, I’ll post that recipe, too–it’s the best mac’n’cheese we die-hard macaroni lovers have ever tasted.) But now our thoughts are turning to warmer weather and the inevitability of shedding clothes and exposing our ever-expanding selves to the world in shorts and tee-shirts or, God forbid, a swimsuit.

To prepare for that evil day, it would be wise to start lightening up on our dishes’ calorie counts. So, while we wait for spring and the first tender greens, green onions, asparagus, and radishes to make an appearance in our gardens, here are a couple of recipes I just invented to kick-start the season. Try them, you’ll like them!

Silence Dogood’s Casbah Salad

There’s a wonderful Middle Eastern stand at the local farmers’ market that offers all kinds of delectable treats, from the best fresh-made feta cheese and baba ghannouj to homemade pita and fava bean hummus. When I saw that they were selling ready-to-eat falafel patties, this salad was born. Quantities are inexact, since the only thing that matters is pleasing your palate–the salad is very forgiving.

The base for this salad is a large bag or container of super-fresh spring mix. Put the greens in a big salad bowl and top them with liberal amounts of sliced green onions (aka scallions; we love the green Vidalia onions that are available in some stores in this area and are pretty spicy; slice the whites into the salad as well as the greens), chopped yellow tomato (you can of course use red if you can’t find yellow), red bell pepper (use yellow or orange if you’re using a red tomato for color contrast), kalamata olives (warn guests if they’re not pitted, please), and crumbled feta. Crumble falafel patties (the “croutons” of this salad) over  the salad. You could also add chopped snap peas for an additional spring touch.

Dress the salad with a simple vinaigrette of olive oil (extra-virgin organic if you can get it–it’s such a gorgeous green), white balsamic vinegar, and dried oregano, basil, and thyme. We love Real Salt and add it enthusiastically, but we also love Herbamare and Trocamare, and you could use either of those instead of salt if you’d prefer, or simply skip the salt. As for the white balsamic vinegar, we love full-bodied “regular” balsamic, but a friend who finds most vinegars too acidic recommended the white to us. He claims that Alessi is the mildest, sweetest brand, and we can’t dispute that, since it’s the only one we’ve tried; let me know if you’ve found other brands that you enjoy.     

Silence Dogood’s Ginger Snap Soup

Despite the slow-cooker revival, I confess that my own ancient Crock-Pot sat, hidden away, for eons, and might still be hiding in obscurity to this day if it weren’t for my friend Delilah and her famous mac’n’cheese. But after enjoying success with the macaroni, I was determined to branch out to other forms of slow-cooker cuisine. Chili and soups came to mind.

I’m an intuitive cook–I like to read a slew of recipes on a dish I’m planning to make, then take the best elements and create my own–and usually end up with something delectable. But I admit, the slow-cooker defeated my early attempts. “Soups” came out as gelatinous masses that ended up in the chicken yard. (Unlike us, the “girls” loved them.) Clearly, I couldn’t add as much rice, lentils, or what-have-you to a slow cooker as I could to a Dutch oven on the stove. Finally, after numerous attempts, I came up with a warming and flavorful but lighter and brighter soup that is great in a slow-cooker. And I’m convinced that its spiciness boosts the metabolism so your hard-earned exercise time will really pay off. (At least, I’m hoping…) See for yourself!

1 large sweet onion (WallaWalla or Vidalia type), diced

1 or 2 leeks, halved and sliced (white and light green parts only)

2 green onions (scallions), sliced

large carton veggie stock (I’ve tried at least four brands and they’re all good–organic, too–though some are paler than others; if you end up with a pale one, a dash of turmeric will bring out that rich, inviting golden color without adding an off-taste)

carton super-firm diced tofu

sliced mushrooms (button, crimini, baby bella, shiitake, or a mix), about a cup sliced or to taste

1/2 cup (or to taste) wild rice mix (I use one mixed locally that has wild rice, long-grain brown rice, sweet brown rice, wehani rice, and black Japonica rice–whew!–but you could just use brown rice in a pinch)

fresh ginger, peeled and minced, 1 tablespoon or more to taste

ginger paste (available in groceries here in tubes in the lettuce aisle)

ginger chutney

red miso

Thai seasoning (you can substitute Thai curry, Indian curry, garam masala, or Chinese 5-spice blend if Thai seasoning isn’t locally available)         

hot sauce (I like Pickapeppa)

Real Salt, Herbamare, or Trocamare

extra-virgin olive oil for sauteeing

Sautee the onion, leeks, and mushrooms in olive oil until onions have clarified. Add salt, Thai seasoning, miso, hot sauce, ginger paste, and ginger chutney (I tend to favor a heavy hand, so use a heaping tablespoon of spices, miso, ginger, and chutney, with a generous dash of hot sauce and salt), stirring to mix; add veggie stock as needed to prevent burning. Add tofu cubes and stir to coat thoroughly.

Transfer cooked ingredients to the slow cooker; add veggie stock to fill, stirring well to blend. Rinse the rice in a sieve and add it to the soup, stirring it in. Add the minced fresh ginger, cover the slow cooker, and cook on low for 6-8 hours. (Basically, make it in the morning and serve it for dinner.) Taste and adjust seasonings if needed when soup has been cooking for 3-4 hours. It’s wise to have a second carton of veggie stock on hand to refill the slow cooker if the soup cooks down, but water will do in a pinch. Stir well before serving. Add sliced green onions to the top of the pot just before serving or use them as a garnish on individual bowls. This soup keeps well and makes a great light lunch, too.    

  

Read ‘em and reap. February 26, 2008

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Our friend Ben had an old friend over for supper the other night, and he asked me to recommend a few good books. Now, this friend will remain anonymous for his reputation’s sake, since his exact words were “I’m sick of reading about gardening and birding”–gasp!!!–“and want to broaden out.” Of course, our friend Ben was happy to oblige, and I think some of the books actually weren’t about gardening or birding. Well, let’s say they didn’t have gardening or birding in the title, anyway.

Thinking about these books cheered me up, so I’m going to give you a short list that will cheer you up, too, should you choose to read them. They’re not only good reading, they’re life-enriching. So check ‘em out! I’ll save my overtly garden- and bird-oriented favorites for another day.

  • Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle describes her family’s adventures after they decide to eat locally for a year, limiting their food choices to within a 100-mile radius of their rural Virginia home. (Of course, she takes a few trips cross-country to check out others who are eating locally, and also travels to Italy for food and fun, and we get to tag along.) If you have a hard time getting through the self-consciously “writerly” first chapter, just keep going: Barbara soon loses herself in her story, and so will you. I really enjoyed this book, and I know you’ll find it as inspiring as I did: If you haven’t started eating locally, it will be just the push you need, and if you’re already making a conscious effort to eat locally, it will have you checking the organic milk cartons in your local store to find the brand that’s made in your state, or better still, heading for that Mennonite-run raw milk dairy a few miles down a backroad. (Or, like our friend Ben, once again obsessing about getting a couple of dairy goats.) 
  • The Plain Reader is a collection of essays about the virtues of small-scale, meaningful, consumer-averse, morally aware, community-based living. It includes pieces by some of our friend Ben’s favorite authors–Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, David Kline–and is about as far from the self-conscious preciousness and consumption-driven values of glossy hypocrisy like Real Simple as it gets. (“Go green! Throw out all your non-PC possessions and replace them with these fabulous, environmentally correct pieces for only…” Gag.)
  • Speaking of Wendell Berry, his novels are some of my favorite books of all time. They follow many generations of farmers in the fictional community of Port William, Kentucky, and they speak powerfully to the value of place, and of one’s history within that place. Having spent many happy hours with my maternal grandparents in small-town rural Kentucky, riding horses and hunting fossils on their farm, our friend Ben finds these characters and the place itself totally authentic and familiar, but even if you don’t, I defy you not to love these books. Start with The Memory of Old Jack, and you’ll have many hours of reading pleasure ahead.
  • Now that I’ve managed to cunningly work fossils into the dialogue, let me recommend an entirely different kind of book, Trilobite. As its title suggests, it’s a journey of discovery, following these endearing fossils from the present to back in the long-distant day when they ruled (or at least dominated) the seas. If you love fossils like our friend Ben, you’ll get a kick out of this quirky book. And, like the other books in this list, it will make you look at the land in a whole new way.
  • Donald McCaig’s book An American Home Place traces the history of the farm he and his wife bought in Virginia back as far as he can go, and it’s a marvelous reverse-travel trip. (He’s also the author of a truly great travel book, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men, about his adventures in Scotland looking for a Border collie for his farm.) Reading it will make you want to find out more about your own place, and following the McCaigs’ own story on their place is a lot of fun. But the poignant loss of farmers and farmland underlies the tale, and the McCaigs’ increasing isolation reminds our friend Ben of the experiences of Scott and Helen Nearing homesteading in Vermont in the 1930s.
  • Which of course brings us to Scott and Helen Nearing, the founders of modern homesteading. If you haven’t read their classic books, Living the Good Life and Continuing the Good Life, shame on you! Run out and get them right now. These wonderful true tales of how a couple of city sophisticates moved to the backwoods and made a go of it inspired the back-to-the-land movement of the Seventies. The books are interesting and inspiring, but also endearing because of the Nearings’ collectively prickly character and evident foibles, such as their need to justify every personal like and dislike on moral grounds. (If they liked potatoes, growing and/or eating potatoes was virtuous; if they didn’t like carrots, there was something morally suspect about growing and/or eating carrots. The unintentional humor in this approach lightens up the didacticism which tends to distract one from what great books these really are.) The Nearings’ books, along with Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening magazine, were our friend Ben’s favorite escapist reading in graduate school. They remain a pleasure to this day.

Okay, that’s plenty for one day. It’s time to head out and feed the chickens, fill the birdfeeders, water the greenhouse, walk the dog, and do all the myriad chores of daily life that have to happen before the “real” day’s work begins. Meanwhile, if you have a favorite book, please share it with our friend Ben. I’m always looking for uplifting, informative reading!      

And then, they wrote a book February 25, 2008

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Our friend Ben has been struck by the prolific bookwriting efforts of our presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton has written two books; Obama, three books; McCain, five books; Ron Paul, six books; and Mike Huckabee, the winner as of this writing with eight authored or coauthored books. Now, our friend Ben has also written books–I’m a writer and editor by profession, and that’s how I spend my time when I’m not gardening, visiting the chickens, cooking, birdwatching, reading, or otherwise having a good time. So I can say with some authority that book writing takes time, thought, research, and concentration.

As noted, this is my profession. However, it’s been my understanding that our candidates’ profession has been to represent we the people in the Senate, House, or Governor’s Office. And our friend Ben has always assumed that these were full-time, high-level, super-intense jobs, where one was always in meetings and/or enacting law, catching up on legislation and national and international news, being briefed and debriefed, etc., not to mention occasionally checking in with one’s constituency. So I have to ask myself, when do our candidates find all this time to write?

Perhaps they’ve discovered some secret of physics unknown to us mere mortals that lets them compress two days’ worth of time into every one. (I suspect Martha Stewart and Oprah have already discovered this.) Perhaps they’ve simply abandoned such useful human pursuits as sleep, eating, spending time with their families, and, say, doing the morning crossword, shopping at the local farmers’ market, or taking a walk in the park.

Perhaps abandoning what it means to be a well-rounded person is required of those who choose to run for office, and is why so few of us are willing to do it. But for all our sakes, I hope our candidates don’t forget what it is to be fully human, or it will take more than a village to put us all back together again.   

Not again. February 24, 2008

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Our friend Ben is in a distinctly grouchy mood today. I never enjoy seeing an election descend into the dirt–as Dr. Franklin noted, “He who lies down with dogs will rise up with fleas”–and this one’s already too dirty for my taste. Clinton v. Obama, Obama v. Clinton, McCain v. New York Times, Conservatives v. McCain, Clinton, and Obama, and pretty much everyone v. poor Ron Paul. Ugh. Grow up, guys!!! But our friend Ben was keeping a pretty tight lid on things until this morning, when Yahoo! informed me that that *&%$#@!!! Ralph Nader had once again decided to declare his need for more media attention, aka his candidacy.

Now, Nader has been my #1 choice for “candidate I’d most like to run over repeatedly with a pickup truck” ever since he destroyed Al Gore’s chances in 2000. It wouldn’t have galled me so had Nader’s campaign been based on promises like “a dead whale in every pot” or “a Wal-Mart in every yard.” But the loathesome, self-aggrandizing hypocrite dared to suggest that he was pro-environment, meanwhile causing the most overtly pro-environment candidate we’ve seen since Teddy Roosevelt (if you don’t count Lady Bird Johnson) to lose to the most anti-environment candidate since the days of the robber barons. Nader’s mask of concern certainly came off in that election, revealing a face only a reality TV contestant could love. “It’s not about the environment, it’s about me!”

Presumably Gore’s subsequent renown and Nobel Prize have been some consolation to him, but there’s been damned little to console our friend Ben. Then again, maybe this year Nader’s candidacy will draw the derision it and he so richly deserve.  It’s about time.  And if not, there may yet be a place for him on, say, “The Biggest Loser”…      

Chickens acting up, serious seed starting February 21, 2008

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If you enjoy chicken antics, our friend Ben suggests that you take a stroll over to the Backwoods Home website and see what one of magazine publisher Dave Duffy’s Barred Rocks has been up to. You’ll find a description and before-and-after photos in his latest blog post, and it is hilarious! If you’re trying to get excited about starting seeds for this year’s garden, check out Jackie Clay’s blog (also on the Backwoods Home site) and Nan Ondra’s excellent recommendations on her blog at Hayefield House. Links to both are here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. 

Global what? February 19, 2008

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, back today to talk about the weather. February was always the coldest month in this part of Pennsylvania–bitter winds, high snows, iced-over windshields, highs in the teens (if you were lucky). But the past few years, Februaries have been milder. And this year, it hardly seems like February at all. Yesterday’s highs were in the 60s, and I was running errands outside in a tee shirt.

I know a British physicist who maintains that global warming is an illusion, that we’re simply in the warming cycle that also occurred from about 800 to 1400, enabling the flowering of the Middle Ages, followed by the little ice age that caused famine, disease and depopulation and culminated in the French Revolution. Well, fine. But when the weather is palpably warmer from year to year, it doesn’t seem like a natural cycle, which I’d think would be more gradual. In fact, it doesn’t seem natural at all. I’d say we’re holding Mother Nature’s toes to the fire, and I’ll bet she doesn’t like it one bit.

As for people like our friend Ben who hate dealing with snow and ice and feel like cheering for global warming every winter, let me just say that cold is good. It’s good for our plants, ensuring that they stay safely dormant instead of breaking dormancy too early, then being killed or damaged by a late frost, or being heaved out of the ground by repeated thawing and freezing. And it’s good for us, as well as our plants and animals, because cold weather kills insect pests and diseases. Mild winters tend to mean a lot more illness going around. Our ancestors were also aware of this. Back in the day, they had a saying we’d do well to remember, especially in these days of antibiotic-resistant strains: Warm winter, fat graveyard.

One more thing about warmer winters: If the winters are getting warmer, it follows that the summers are getting hotter. If this keeps up, North Dakota may be the Pennsylvania of tomorrow…

Whatever became of lightning rods? February 18, 2008

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Our friend Ben has returned to cyberspace after a brief hiatus caused by a horrendous ice storm, during which I was booted from the internet and spent a lot of time skittering around the instant ice rink that was once my yard performing my most incessant outdoor chore, pick-up sticks. (And, in a few cases, tree-sized branches as well.) All this toil and turmoil seemed to justify some well-earned indulgence, so yesterday I headed off to one of my favorite, almost unbearably eccentric antiques shops in the nearby townlet of Krumsville, via one of the most breathtaking ridge routes imaginable.

Maybe it was something about being vulnerable and exposed on the ridge top, or perhaps it had more to do with seeing an antique glass globe from a lightning rod in the antiques shop. Or it could simply have been a flashback to the ice storm, spending a long, sleepless night hearing what sounded like cannon fire but was in fact branches splitting off their trees from the weight of the ice and force of the wind, not to mention the brilliant blue, ball-shaped light explosions, presumably caused by transformers blowing up somewhere nearby. But whatever the cause, I found my thoughts turning to lightning rods.

You may recall that the original lightning rod was an invention of the incomparable Dr. Franklin himself, and at the time, it was considered his greatest invention, saving houses and whole cities from destruction. I often encounter antique lightning rods with their glass globes in antiques stores around the area. But it occurred to me last night that I can’t recall seeing them on houses now–only the occasional fine old stone barn with the original 1800s lightning rods still in place. Urk! I thought. Surely lightning hasn’t stopped striking (looking nervously up at my own rodless roof). So why don’t we all have lightning rods today?

I wondered if modern technology had created a sort of invisible lightning rod that was standard equipment on everyone’s home. But a quick chat with my friend Google revealed that this is not the case. In fact, it appears that one now must have an 11-part “lightning protection system” installed professionally all over one’s home in order to keep lightning at bay, and it sounded like a very costly operation. Our friend Ben does not think that any previous owner of Hawk’s Haven, nor any owners of any homes I know of, installed such a system.

So…  where does that leave us? Does homeowner’s insurance make us feel invulnerable? Whatever happened to the cheap, simple lightning rod of old? Poor Ben Franklin must be rolling in his grave. If anyone knows anything useful on this topic, please enlighten our friend Ben!  

Waiting for snow February 12, 2008

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The weather guys are calling for a horrific snow/sleet/freezing rainstorm to strike here at our friend Ben’s home, Hawk’s Haven, this morning. Of course, our friend Ben has many homestead chores yet to do, not to mention errands in the tiny nearby towns of Kutztown and Trexlertown and urgent deadlines involving bookmaps yet to mail off. So I’m looking nervously at the sky and wondering if those are flakes I see or simply a cobweb on the window. No, they’re definitely flakes. The chickens, who hate snow, will not be pleased with this turn of events, and temperatures in the single digits the past few nights have been causing their eggs to freeze and crack in the nestboxes, a sad return for their efforts. (Of course, my golden retriever disagrees with this view–she gets any cracked eggs with her breakfast.) But a flock of brown-headed cowbirds turned up at the feeders yesterday, which my friend and ornithological guru Rudy says is a sure sign of spring. Our friend Ben can only hope–and get moving with those chores!

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