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Of Westerns and wide open spaces. April 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been (very) slowly replacing our beloved video collection with DVDs. (Just in time for Blu-Ray! We’re Luddites, what can I say?) This week, we treated ourselves to the DVD version of one of our all-time faves, “Witness,” and of course had to watch it right away.

If you haven’t seen it—and you should—“Witness” is a drama set in Amish country, involving corrupt cops, murder, an Amish witness, the struggles of a tough Philadelphia homicide detective to adjust to the slow-paced Amish lifestyle, and the inevitable subplot romance, in this case doomed, between him and a young Amishwoman. (I suppose that, for some viewers, the romance would be the plot and the murder the subplot.) Harrison Ford stars with a superb ensemble cast that features an especially delightful performance by the Russian ballet dancer Alexander Godunov in his first film role.

There are many reasons why we love this film. Being Luddites ourselves, we’ve been fascinated by the Amish lifestyle since moving to Pennsylvania, home of the world’s largest Amish community in Lancaster County, where “Witness” was filmed. Our friend Ben’s shelves groan with books on the Amish, and I’ve read every one. Silence has Amish cookbooks, and we even have a couple of Amish-made quilts. We think that (except for the romance, of course) the film provides a great introduction to Amish life.

But what really sets “Witness” apart for us, and why we can watch it again and again (murder, after all, not being one of our favorite subjects), is the beauty of the film. The camerawork is just gorgeous. There are a lot of scenes simply of the countryside, the wind and light playing over the grain fields, a horse and buggy clopping slowly along, a water wheel turning. For us, it feels like the landscape itself is the plot, and the struggles and travails of the characters are simply textural elements.

Thus it was with amazement that our friend Ben watched the “special feature” included on the DVD, a five-part interview with the cast, director, producer, and director of photography. Our friend Ben regards all those “extras” included on DVDs as cynical marketing tricks that seldom enhance one’s appreciation of the film. But in this case, I was pleasantly surprised. The interviews were interesting and articulate, for a start. They also revealed that everyone, from the producer, director, and Harrison Ford on down, had immediately recognized that this was a special film and committed to it on first seeing the screenplay.

But two things in the interviews really struck our friend Ben: First, the director, Peter Weir, said that he and the director of photography had modeled the lighting for the film after Vermeer. Ha! What a brilliant idea. One could not do better than borrow from the greatest master of light the art world has ever known. No wonder the photography was so luminous! Our friend Ben was thrilled and astounded. (Our friend Ben feels that, in art, there is only Leonardo. But after Leonardo, Vermeer.) But the second thing was more astounding still: The producer had initially felt that Weir spent too much time on the landscape and not enough time on the plot. He complained, “You’re making a Western!”

Hmmm. A Pennsylvania Amish Western. Our friend Ben was dumbfounded, but also fascinated. The irony is that Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, produced the great Conestoga wagons (named for Lancaster’s Conestoga River) that opened the West to settlement. Fortunately, the producer let Weir have his head. The result is a movie about light and space, one of the most beautiful movies ever made.

If you’re fortunate enough to visit Lancaster County, as our friend Ben and Silence do several times a year, you too will be struck by the feeling of space expanding, stretching out around you. We love to travel out there via Route 23. To reach 23, we have to take Route 100, a typically noisy, congested, ugly road that’s notable only for its ability to get you from here to there. But once we turn right onto 23, the modern world drops away. It’s as though, with a turn of the wheel, we’ve time-traveled back to the 1800s.

Route 23 is an old ridge road that runs between two deep, broad valleys framed at the edge of vision on each side by mountain ranges. Towns, many dating to the 1700s and displaying gorgeous old stone houses, cluster on each side of the road, but the valleys are still agricultural, and the farms there are chiefly Amish. If you travel that road about now, in April, you can look down on either side and see the Amish plowing their fields with their four- or six-horse teams, the great draft horses, Percherons or Belgians, looking like something out of mediaeval chivalry. (Draft horses were originally bred to support a knight wearing full and extremely heavy armor in joust or in battle. The descendants of these fabled destriers have become pullers of Amish plows and Budweiser wagons.) Amish buggies travel the road alongside you, the carriage horses glossy in the harness of the plain grey buggies. Power lines are largely absent. Time drops away, and only space remains. Space, and the play of light and cloud across the valleys and mountains.

Coincidentally, our friend Ben is now reading William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, a travelogue chronicling the author’s cross-country trip along the backroads in the late Seventies. Least Heat Moon is a compulsive researcher, a finder of facts. He enfolds them into his narrative like those candied red and green cherries people put in fruitcake batter, and the reader bites into them, colorful surprises in the cake-brown sameness of the roads.

Our friend Ben read with interest about how the invention of barbed wire had ended the great traditions of the Old West, the open range that made cowboys essential and their skills driving and tracking cattle legendary. With barbed wire, ranchers could cheaply put up fencing that would keep their herds contained. The open range vanished, replaced by fenced-in ranchland, and the cowboys became fence-menders and rodeo riders. The era of the Western, which began in Lancaster County with the Conestoga wagon, ended in the rangelands of Texas and Nevada with the stringing of barbed wire.

Yet the romance of the Western, of the wide open spaces, endures. It endures in movies like “Witness” that celebrate the beauty of the open fields. It endures in travels like William Least Heat Moon’s where you just get in your car or truck or van and go, head out onto the open road, not really caring where it takes you. It is a romance of light and space that has been with humanity since we first emerged onto the sunlit savannahs of Africa, with their tall grasses blowing and bright. We have left our birthplace and travelled far. But in meadow or prairie or the great sunlit spaces of the sea, we have never stopped trying to come home.  

        

What is it about yellow? April 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about the color yellow. I was over at Hawk’s Haven the other day visiting with our friend Ben and Silence Dogood and admiring their goldfinches, when I was suddenly struck by a thought. Lots of birds—goldfinches, of course, but also warblers, meadowlarks, parrots, blackbirds, orioles, tanagers, and so on—display that brilliant crayon-box yellow plumage. Insects also come in true yellow—bees (and the hover flies that mimic them), wasps, hornets, butterflies and caterpillars—and so do spiders, like the common orb-weaving garden spider. Snails, frogs, salamanders, snakes, and lizards also display true yellow. So, okay, why don’t mammals come in crayon-box yellow?

Some mammals are yellowish, of course. Leopards and Palomino horses come to mind. Cats can have yellow eyes. Humans can have blond hair. But there is no primary yellow in the mammalian world. Why? What advantage does the color yellow confer on other creatures that it doesn’t confer on us?

I can imagine that brilliant yellow might help birds and bugs blend in among the flowers, and it might help frogs and salamanders blend into a moist woodland floor or rotting log with its yellow fungi. Perhaps the yellow of stinging insects, poisonous snakes, and biting spiders could be seen by other creatures as a warning: Leave me alone or else! But I’d also think it would make birds like goldfinches more conspicuous, easy prey for predators like cats. Then again, the Hawk’s Haven outdoor cat population completely ignores the goldfinches swarming over the feeders, as though they didn’t even see them. And maybe they don’t! Cats don’t see color as we do, so perhaps yellow is invisible to them, or transformed into a muted grey, green, or brown that blends into the landscape.

Since I started wondering about all this, I’ve done a little research and made a few phone calls, but haven’t come up with any answers. I’m still no closer to understanding why field mice aren’t bright yellow or why our own skin isn’t brilliantly spotted or striped. Maybe some of you can help me out here!

Meanwhile, here’s a little entertainment in the form of some great yellow-related quotes:

“There is no blue without yellow and without orange.”—Vincent Van Gogh

“The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.”—Randall Jarrell

“Silence is not always golden; sometimes it is yellow.”—Anonymous (Sorry, Silence! I’m sure he didn’t mean you.)

“Spending an evening on the World Wide Web is much like sitting down to a dinner of Cheetos, two hours later your fingers are yellow and you’re no longer hungry, but you haven’t been nourished.”—Clifford Stoll

And my all-time favorite:

“Any man can turn the sun into a yellow ball. Ah, but to turn a yellow ball into the sun!”—Pablo Picasso     

The human touch. April 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood decided to keep a few tube feeders up all year here at Hawk’s Haven this year so we could enjoy watching the goldfinches in their brilliant yellow fair-weather plumage. Usually, by the time they moult from their drab winter plumage into their courtship plumage, we’ve put away the feeders for the year and only catch the occasional glimpse of them dancing over our cultivated wild meadow at the back of the property. We’ve kept up the two feeders outside the home office window, so we can look up from the keyboard for some visual refreshment, and the feeder outside the deck door, since our kitchen table is there and we often sit out on the deck. (Besides, it provides some extra entertainment for the parrots!)

Needless to say, our friend Ben has been enjoying the antics of these colorful, fearless little birds very much. There’s a sizeable flock hanging out at Hawk’s Haven, maybe as many as two dozen, so the feeders are always busy. And of course, goldfinches aren’t the only ones who’re enjoying them. House finches, chickadees, and the occasional sparrow and nuthatch also perch on the tubes to eat the black-oil sunflower seeds we put out for them. And cardinals, blue jays, grackles, and mourning doves patrol the ground below the feeders for spilled seed, while the robins, who ignore the seed, also amble around, apparently just to see what’s going on. (Our friend Ben can imagine them saying, “Gee, looks like a party, but where are the earthworm canapes?!”)

Our friend Ben loves birds of all types and stripes, even to the point of taking an ornithology class after first arriving in Pennsylvania. But I consider myself to be a birdwatcher—someone who loves to watch birds for pleasure—rather than a birder, someone who considers watching birds a competitive sport, keeps a life list, and etc. Yes, I have binoculars, and will pull them out to admire our resident Cooper’s hawk or to check out something unusual that appears on the property. And of course I have lots of books and field guides on birds. But no, I can’t identify a bird by its call, and no, I can’t identify every single sparrow that turns up at Hawk’s Haven, and no, I don’t plan my vacations around birding hotspots. There are so many birds I haven’t ever seen, such as all the hummingbirds besides our native ruby-throated, and all the marvelous blue jays and hawks that live far from the East Coast. (I did once see a golden eagle in the Columbia River Gorge, a heart-lifting experience I’ll take with me to the grave. But it was a chance encounter, not a birding expedition.) Even after a lifetime of observing birds, enjoying birds, and reading about birds, my knowledge of them is casual indeed.

Which brings me (finally!) to the point of this post. As you know if you’re lucky enough to have goldfinches on your property, they have white bars on their wings, which are especially dramatic against the black wings of the yellow males. As our friend Ben has been enjoying the close-up views of goldfinches at our feeders, I’ve been noticing white bars on the wings of some of the house finches, too. Now, our friend Ben did not recall seeing white bars on house finch wings ever before. Could they have been interbreeding with the goldfinches to create hybrid finches?

The internet has made online research as easy as a click of the mouse. As an editor and writer, our friend Ben is as dependent on Google, Wikipedia, and specialist sites as anybody else. The day never goes by that I’m not online researching something. And the library here at Hawk’s Haven contains literally thousands of books on every conceivable subject, so I have in-depth resources at my fingertips as well. When this particular question came up, our friend Ben’s first instinct was to go to the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is not only a marvelous resource but also archives the Project FeederWatch findings, to see if they had anything to say on the subject. (The link is on our blogroll and we highly recommend it. Check it out!) Or I could Google “house finches” or head to my in-house library and see what I could turn up. Easy!

But suddenly, our friend Ben had what a friend’s mother immortally referred to as a rush of brains to the head. Or maybe, in this case, to the heart. You see, our friend Ben is lucky enough to have a good friend who’s a renowned birder. Someone who’s extremely well respected in the birding world, has gone all over the world to see birds, has written extensively about birds, has spent a great deal of time keeping up with developments in ornithology and bird ecology. Someone, in short, who really knows his birds. It occurred to our friend Ben that, instead of researching on my own, I could use this opportunity to reach out to another real, live human being. To have a conversation rather than a solitary experience. To use this as an occasion to create community, to reinforce human bonds, rather than seeing it as an isolated search for knowledge.

Instead of reaching for the mouse, our friend Ben reached for the phone. I had a good time catching up with my friend. And of course he knew the answer right off the bat (house finches do have white-barred wings, I wasn’t seeing hybrids). Rather than acquiring simple information, our friend Ben had enjoyed communication.

The facts are always with us. Information is useful, but human contact is priceless. The next time you need to know something, our friend Ben suggests that you think about who you know who might enjoy sharing his or her expertise in the subject. Could Uncle Don give you some pointers on building that deck? Does your friend Jen have a special touch with banana bread? Is one of your neighbors renowned for his grilling prowess? Do the women in that little yarn shop on the corner know more about knitting than anyone in town? Let your quest for knowledge become not just an opportunity for you to learn, but for someone else to share. You’ll both be richer for the experience.        

Plutarch and Lola: A Love Story April 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets.
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HELP!!! PARROT IN TREE!!! HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Our friend Ben can recognize a crisis when I see one, and the headline of this e-mail from our friend Mary clearly qualified, especially since our friend Ben knows that Mary and her family don’t happen to own any parrots. The e-mail went on to say that Mary had been doing yardwork, and suddenly a voice started speaking, singing, and whistling to her from a nearby tree. After recovering from the initial fright, Mary went over and discovered a large grey parrot with a whitish breast and a bright red tail in the tree. She wanted to know what it was, and if she should try to catch it and contain it in a cat carrier while trying to locate its owner. She was so disconcerted by the discovery that she’d misplaced the Hawk’s Haven phone number and was now praying that our friend Ben would be checking e-mail. Fortunately, I was.

I quickly called Mary and explained that she had one of the legends of the parrot world, an African grey, in her tree. There are two types of African grey parrot—the larger Congo grey, which was the species in Mary’s tree, and the smaller, somewhat less colorful Timneh grey. These birds are renowned for their intelligence—the famous Alex, the “genius parrot” studied by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, was a Timneh grey—and they cost thousands of dollars. Nobody who’d gone to the effort of buying and training one would have simply released it. Clearly, it had inadvertently escaped.

But no, Mary shouldn’t simply send her husband or son up into the tree after it. A parrot that size can crack a nut with its powerful beak. You wouldn’t want a frightened parrot to use your hand for target practice. Our friend Ben suggested that Mary set out a dish of chopped fruit and try to lure the parrot down, then throw a towel on it and put it in the carrier with the fruit and some water while calling the local vets to see if someone had reported a missing parrot.

What if the owner didn’t turn up? Our friend Ben happens to have a huge cage in our storage shed, the first cage used to house our very own Hawk’s Haven mascot, Plutarch the Pirate Parrot. I offered to bring the cage over and set it up with dishes, toys, etc. if Mary and family decided to keep the stray parrot.

But I also know that parrots are not for everyone. Parrots like Plutarch, a yellow-naped Amazon, and African greys were once considered to have the intelligence of two- or three-year-old human toddlers. Our friend Ben has now seen estimates of equivalence to five-year-olds. Like a human child, parrots can be temperamental, loud, and prone to tantrums. They’ll do pretty much anything for attention. Their own attention spans are short, so they’re always in need of new toys and entertainments. And they can live for a hundred years. Three-year-olds are certainly endearing, but not everyone wants to live with a perpetual three-year-old for the rest of his or her life. Big gulp: Our friend Ben told Mary that, if her family couldn’t find the owner and didn’t want to keep it, our friend Ben would find a place for him or her here at Hawk’s Haven. (Let’s hope Silence isn’t reading this!)

Our friend Ben loves birds. I have had birds literally since before I was born—my parents bought a parakeet, Philomelia the Elegant Fowl, for me while my mother was still pregnant with our friend Ben, and I have never been without a parakeet since. Parakeets (budgies) are marvelous, with big parrot personalities in small, colorful bodies. If anyone out there in the blogosphere is considering getting a bird as a pet, our friend Ben enthusiastically recommends them.

However, a number of years ago, our friend Ben felt that it was time to add a bigger bird to the Hawk’s Haven menagerie. I went to a pet store that specialized in birds, and was standing at an open play station admiring all the colorful avian characters climbing all over the play equipment. Suddenly, I realized that the one bird I’d completely ignored, a big, homely green parrot, had marched up to my eye level and was staring me pointedly in the eye. This was surprising to our friend Ben, especially given the intentness of the stare, rather as though the parrot were sizing me up rather than vice-versa. But our friend Ben is a sucker for color and beauty, and this bird had neither. Besides, I wasn’t interested in a big parrot. I moved around to the other side of the play station and continued to enjoy the antics of the smaller, more colorful birds.

But our friend Ben’s appreciation of the other birds was once again interrupted by the appearance of a homely green head in my line of vision. The big green bird had followed me over, and was again giving our friend Ben an appraising look. It was a look that was entirely human, and it pierced our friend Ben to the soul. Our friend Ben recognizes that sometimes we choose the hands we play, and sometimes we play what we’re dealt. The hand of fate was clearly in play here, and our friend Ben bowed to the inevitable. I went off to find a store clerk and buy the big, homely green bird.

Sticker shock!!! That homely bird was the most expensive thing in the store. That’s because he turned out to be a yellow-naped Amazon parrot, widely believed to be as smart if not smarter than the African greys. Our friend Ben left the store parrotless, with the big green bird staring poignantly after me and muttering to itself. But I couldn’t forget the parrot that had looked at me with human eyes and a totally human understanding. After agonizing (and saving up) for a few months, I returned to the store. Either the big green bird would still be there or it wouldn’t. It was in the hands of the gods.

As it turned out, apparently nobody else had wanted a homely, hugely expensive parrot, either. There he was. At the sight of me, he began doing joyous flip-flops, calling excitedly as though to say “I knew you’d come back! I knew it!!!” And so Plutarch the Pirate Parrot came home to Hawk’s Haven. Over the years, he’s become less homely: He developed the bright yellow bandanna-shaped patch of feathers on the back of his neck that gives his species its name. His wing feathers are actually glorious, with bands of brilliant red, blue, and black or yellow, scarlet, and olive against the Romaine-lettuce green of the rest of his plumage, but you can only really see their splendor if he spreads his wings.

Plutarch was already saying a few things when he arrived here, and he picked up English quickly and grammatically. (Our friend Ben: “Plutarch, you’re a big green bird!” Plutarch: “I’m a big green bird!”) He also loved singing, making up his own eccentric, tuneless songs as well as singing enthusiastically along with his favorite rock bands (Jethro Tull is a big favorite) and displaying enormous enthusiasm for any film that features lots of gunfire and explosions (Plu’s a huge James Bond fan, and sings along with the Bond theme song). When we eventually brought home Marcus Hook, our junior parrot, Plutarch realized that he couldn’t understand a word that Marcus (a bronze-winged pionus) was saying, and taught him to speak English in two weeks. (I’m sure that he regrets this, since the first words out of Marcus’s mouth, uh, beak, were “Be quiet, Plu!”)

Obviously, our friend Ben could go on (and on) about Plutarch, Marcus, and parrots in general. I think parrots are appealing because they’re so much like us. They stand upright like us. They use their “hands” to hold and eat things like us. They’re ingenious tool-users and are easily bored, like us. They use sight to navigate their world, which is to say that they have what are called “sighted brains,” like us. (Unlike dogs and most animals, who use hearing and smell to navigate the world, with sight as a backup.) Their senses are identical to ours: They see what we see, hear what we hear, smell what we smell, taste what we taste. If you’re experiencing something, you know that your parrot can also experience it—a color, a flavor, a song—and in exactly the same way. They have a sense of humor. And, of course, they speak our language. We love our cats, dogs, and other pets for themselves. But we love our parrots on a different level, because they are so much like ourselves. It truly is a different order of relationship.

But let’s get back to Mary and that poor parrot lost and up in a tree. Our friend Ben waited anxiously to hear what was happening. Night was coming on, which would leave the parrot prey to great horned owls. Besides, how would the poor bird fare out in the open like that? And would Mary and her family try to catch the parrot, and if so, would they or it be injured in the attempt? Would that simply scare it off into parts unknown?

As it turned out, the story had a happy ending. Mary went out to check on the parrot a final time, and saw a middle-aged man standing under the tree crooning to the bird. He said her name was Lola, and some men working on electric wires had told him they’d seen a parrot on Mary’s road, so he’d been walking around calling for her. She had escaped because he and his wife hadn’t clipped her wings, since they’d just gotten a new dog and Lola didn’t like him. With her wing feathers grown in, she could fly away from the dog. But unfortunately, while they were spring cleaning, she’d apparently found herself outside and flown off. Lola flew gratefully down into the man’s arms, and he called his wife to come over while cradling his beloved parrot in an old sweatshirt. While they waited for his wife to arrive, the man told Mary that Lola knew 90 words, songs, and whistles. Her avian vet refused to call her Lola, instead referring to her as Einstein.

When the man’s wfe arrived, she began sobbing at the sight of Lola safe in her husband’s arms. She’d apparently been praying the rosary for Lola’s safe return before getting the call. Such is the love we can feel for our parrots. Unlike our dogs, cats, and other pets, whose lives are cut off long before we’re ready to part with them, this is truly a relationship, a love story, that endures for all our lives.             

Why don’t cats have brown eyes? April 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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100 comments

Admiring the huge, adorable, clueless, seagreen eyes of our cat Linus the other day, it struck our friend Ben that, of all the cats I’ve ever known or seen (and trust me, I’ve been to my share of cat shows), I’ve never seen one with brown eyes. Orange, amber, yellow, every shade of green, blue, even violet (Liz Taylor, eat your heart out)—yes. But brown? Never.

As you all know from high-school biology, brown is the most common eye color. With very rare exceptions (usually among Huskies and Australian shepherds), dogs have brown eyes, though they range from near-black through chocolate to red-brown like our golden retriever Molly’s beautiful eyes. Cows? Brown. Horses? Brown. Guinea pigs? Brown. A quick chat with our friend Ben’s good friend Google puts the number of humans with brown eyes between 85 and 95%. So what’s the deal with cats?! If you know, please help our friend Ben out here.

Our friend Ben unearthed some fascinating data about human eye color while checking the stats for this. Our friend Ben’s eyes are blue, which as you’ll also recall from those high-school biology lessons is a recessive trait, so it can easily disappear if a more dominant color is present in either parent. But even so, our friend Ben didn’t realize that blue eyes are disappearing from the American scene until I read an article called “Don’t it make your blue eyes brown?” that originally appeared in the Boston Globe in October 2006. This article tracks the relatively abrupt and extremely steep decline in blue eye color in the U.S. over the past century, and gives some compelling reasons why it’s happening. The research was done by, of all things, an epidemiologist, which makes our friend Ben wonder whether I should now consider myself an endangered species or a highly contagious disease. Apparently, the highest percentage of blue eyes in the U.S. can now be found in nursing homes, and within another couple of generations, they may disappear from the scene entirely.

But this was only the beginning of the astonishing things our friend Ben turned up. Thanks to genetics, scientists have determined that all blue-eyed people are descended from a single ancestor who lived between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Before the genetic mutation that gave him blue eyes, apparently all human eyes were brown. If you have blue eyes today, you also have this genetic mutation. Wow. In the millions of years of human history, 6,000 years seems like an eyeblink (if you’ll pardon the expression in this context). The authors of the study pointed out that blue eyes are as (relatively) common as they are today because the mutation was apparently a hit. By mediaeval times, blue eyes were considered a sign of beauty and fertility, and blue-eyed women were the most sought-after. Blue eyes had become a reproductive advantage.  

And that’s not all. Scientists have found that, even today, blue-eyed men prefer blue-eyed women over all others, finding them far more attractive. Studies have shown this to be true not only in the abstract, where the men were asked to select women they found most attractive from a range of faces, but also in real life, where blue-eyed men choose blue-eyed partners much more often than partners with other eye colors. Not only do men with other eye colors not factor eye color into their choices, but blue-eyed women are also colorblind when it comes to choosing partners based on eye color: It isn’t a factor.

Our friend Ben would have simply thought these findings were somewhat curious had I not read on. You see, it’s been our friend Ben’s observation that people in general do tend to find people who look most like them to be most attractive. (Whether this springs from cultural conditioning or simple narcissism, I couldn’t say.) But the authors of this study threw a pitcher of very cold water on our friend Ben’s theory. They concluded that blue-eyed men preferred blue-eyed women because then they could determine their children’s paternity. That is to say, if a child born to a blue-eyed couple did not have blue eyes, then the husband was not the child’s biological father. So marrying blue-eyed women would give blue-eyed men a reproductive advantage in the Darwinian sense. (Of course, the men wouldn’t consciously be aware that this genetic imperative was driving their choice of mates.)

This was all very interesting, but it wasn’t the end of our friend Ben’s discoveries. Yet another article posited that blue-eyed people were considered especially attractive because pale irises allowed others to easily see when one was experiencing pleasure or excitement (in both cases, the pupil dilates). Because these are considered attractive and desirable states (remember those unfortunate women in Regency England who put laudanum drops in their eyes to enlarge their pupils and make themselves more attractive?), being able to see them confers desirability on the person whose eyes are, literally, telling all.

Our friend Ben was reminded of a conversation with a friend in grad school who claimed that he could never tell what our friend Ben was thinking because of my blue eyes. But of course our friend Ben found it much easier to “read” blue and green eyes than the dark eyes of my friend, and a lively debate ensued. In light of all this, our friend Ben would like to dispense a bit of advice: If you have blue eyes, remember that you may be giving away more of your feelings than you think. And if you have dark eyes, you may need to be a bit more demonstrative to let people know how you’re feeling.

One last thing: Blue eyes are not the rarest color. Green eyes are! Only 1 to 3% of the world population has green eyes, and as you’d expect, most of them live in Ireland, where the percentage jumps to 20%. But our friend Ben would bet that in the cat world, green is the dominant hue. It certainly is around here!  

“E” is for Excellent, “L” is for Luddite. April 25, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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10 comments

Aunt Debbi of the super-fun and entertaining blog Aunt Debbi’s Garden was kind and generous enough to confer an “E is for Excellent” award on Poor Richard’s Almanac last week. Of course, this posed several instant challenges for our friend Ben. First, being a Luddite, I had no clue as to how to actually put the award up on our blog. Fortunately, the more techno-savvy friend who got our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders posting this blog in the first place again came to our rescue, and we are now displaying our “E” award for all to see.

But this posed another problem. You see, when an “E” is conferred on you, it is expected that you’ll in turn nominate ten blogs for the honor. Our friend Ben is not usually shy when it comes to the “Ben Picks Ten” category, as you know if you’ve read my earlier posts on music, fantasy, Southern comfort foods, and tomatoes. But in the case of great gardening blogs, our friend Ben thinks that ten is both too few and too many. I could pick one or two; I could pick twenty-five. But ten?!

However, it’s encumbent upon me to take a stab at this. But being a true Luddite, I don’t even know how to link to the blogs I’m nominating. (And Silence and Poor Richard are no help, believe me. Our hero and mentor, the great Dr. Franklin, who was the inspiration for this blog and would no doubt have founded Google and Microsoft had he been alive today, must be spinning in his grave. Sorry, Ben! We’re really doing our best.)

Okay, let’s start with some deserving blogs that I’m not nominating. Uh, say what?! You see, some of my favorite blogs have already earned this award multiple times, or, if they aren’t displaying the award, must have chosen not to do so for their own good reasons. But of course I have to mention them and the bloggers behind them anyway: Frances of Faire Garden (http://www.fairegarden.blogspot.com/). Melissa of Zanthan Gardens (http://www.zanthan.com/gardens/gardenlog/). Robin of Robin’s Nesting Place (http://robinsnestingplace.blogspot.com/). Melanie of Old Country Gardens (http://melaniesoldcountrygardens.blogspot.com/). Jodi of bloomingwriter (http://bloomingwriter.blogspot.com/). Joy of GardenJoy4Me (http://gardenjoy4.blogspot.com/). And of course Aunt Debbi herself (http://auntdebbisgarden.blogspot.com/). These blogs are great. If you don’t know them, spend some time visiting. You’ll love them as much as we do, and are sure to become regulars. They’re addictive!  

Now, on to the blogs I simply have to nominate for my “Ben Picks Ten: E for Excellent Garden Blogs” awards. Guys, gals, if I mention you here and you actually want to display the “E” on your blog, gulp. If you’re technologically savvy enough to copy it from my blog, great! Go for it. If not, I have Aunt Debbi’s directions to copy it to Blogger, if your blog’s on there, and will happily send them to you if you let me know. But if you’re on WordPress like me, I don’t have a clue. (Thank God it’s not an award for tech savvy or I’d never have won one.) In that case, good luck and God bless! Our friend Ben understands if you choose not to display the award, too. I simply have to mention you in my Top Ten because I love your blogs, and I hope Poor Richard’s Almanac readers will make the effort to discover them, too.

So here goes:

1. Hayefield (http://hayefieldhouse.com/). If I could only read one garden blog, Nancy Ondra’s would be it. It has it all: great photos, sound information, great writing. And it’s funny as hell, too. Nan is one of the most modest people I know, and she’d probably squirm if she read this, but dammit, she has everything it takes, and her blog is fantastic. Read it! You’ll be so glad you did.

2. Gardening Gone Wild (http://gardeninggonewild.com/). Another great blog with some of the best in the field contributing posts. Interested in containers, landscaping, garden photography, plants, nuts’n’bolts gardening tools and techniques? Get on over and make yourself at home!

3. Kate smudges in earth, plants and life (http://katesmudges.typepad.com/). Kate’s another one. Like Nan, she’s probably been nominated for this honor thousands of times and has simply been too modest to accept it. But let me just say, her blog is priceless and unique, earning its wide following in the garden blogosphere. On Kate smudges, plants and even bugs speak for themselves. A modern-day Beatrix Potter? Our friend Ben wouldn’t presume to say. But read Kate and you can’t help but love her and her garden world.

4. Bamboo Geek (http://bamboogeek.blogspot.com/). Sean, aka Mad Man Bamboo, endears himself to all of us at Poor Richard’s Almanac because he really, really believes in being green, and he clearly believes in practicing what he preaches. Read his blog and you’ll learn about cutting-edge developments in green living as well as great info about bamboos and other plants. Go, Sean!!!!

5. Future House Farm (http://futurehousefarm.blogspot.com/). Meg and Kelly are trying to garden organically and raise chickens in a rented house outside Philly. This alone would warm our friend Ben’s heart (chickens! organics!!!). But it’s just skimming the surface of their fantastic blog, which is a real favorite here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. First, there’s the pirate flag flying proudly over their blog (aaarrr!!!! yarrr!!!!). Then, we don’t know anyone who can caption photos so succinctly and memorably. Every time we look at their posts, we start laughing. Love them, love them, love them!!!!

6. The Deep Middle (http://deepmiddle.blogspot.com/). Like our friend Ben, Benjamin Vogt of The Deep Middle is a poet as well as a gardener. His blog bravely reveals his gardening and poetic triumphs and tragedies. It’s somewhat comforting to our friend Ben to know that I’m not the only one who hasn’t won a MacArthur “genius” award or the Yale Series of Younger Poets award. Benjamin’s posts are always good reading, guaranteed, even if you’re not a poet and haven’t read any poetry since high school. Promise!

7. Tomato Casual (http://www.tomatocasual.com/). Aunt Debbi also nominated Tomato Casual, and I’m sure she’s not the first. If you love tomatoes, this blog is simply a must-read. Reggie, Michael, Kira, and the rest of the Tomato Casual team should get endless awards for their funny, fabulous, informative posts. Reading the day’s Tomato Casual post is simply one of the best and most inspiring ways to start any day!

8. Cinj’s Chat Room (http://cbmvwag.blogspot.com/). Our Poor Richard’s Almanac contributors love Cinj for her relentless honesty. Yes!!!! Cinj posts about gardening and crafts, topics near to our hearts, but she doesn’t shy away from tackling heavier issues, either. You go, girl!!! This is real life, and somebody needs to be talking about it.

9. Barbee’s Blog (http://barbeeslog.blogspot.com/). Barbee’ blogs in Lexington, Kentucky, one of our friend Ben’s favorite cities. Her garden photos and posts put her squarely on our friend Ben’s radar. Check out her blog, you’ll love it!

10. Weed Whackin’ Wenches (http://www.weedwhackinwenches.blogspot.com/). Curmudgeon and Wing Nut enliven the gardening blogosphere with their adventures and misadventures. Aunt Debbi nominated them also—probably plenty of others have, too—but if you haven’t discovered them yet, you owe it to yourself to check out their blog (and their marauding raccoon!). Go wenches!!!!

So that’s the story here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. There are plenty of other blogs we adore. But there seems to be something about the number ten. Our friend Ben is in no position to complain! So please, start clicking the links and checking out our picks for yourself. You’ll be so happy you did!            

      

The ultimate mac’n’cheese. April 25, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
Tags: , ,
8 comments

Silence Dogood here. This week, our fabled Friday Night Supper Club is gaining a few more members as a friend’s relatives drop in from out of town. (See our earlier post, “The Friday Night Supper Club,” to find out all about this excellent weekly gathering.) We were conferring about what to make as the main dish when a plaintive cry arose: “Make your macaroni and cheese!!!”

Now, mac’n’cheese hadn’t been uppermost in my mind when I was contemplating today’s menu, but hey. Who doesn’t love mac’n’cheese? Deliciously satisfying in winter, yummy with a crisp salad or cole slaw and iced tea in warmer weather, it’s the ultimate comfort food. And this is without doubt the ultimate mac’n’cheese recipe. So, since I’m going to make it anyway, I thought I’d share the recipe with you.

Credit where credit is due, though: This is not a Silence Dogood original. Instead, it’s the brainchild of our good friend Delilah. So I don’t even have to strive for false modesty when I tell you that it is without question the best mac’n’cheese any of us have ever eaten. And better still, it’s made in a Crock-Pot (that’s a slow cooker, for you benighted souls who use a different brand from the one and only original), so it takes no more time and effort to make than mac’n’cheese out of a box. (Fans of mac-in-the-box, you know who you are.) Cook the pasta, put it in the Crock-Pot, stir in the other ingredients, turn it on, get along with your day. Talk about fix it and forget it convenience! But trust me, no one’s going to forget it once they’ve tasted it.

Before we get to the recipe, though, let’s take a moment to discuss what distinguishes great from gross when it comes to macaroni and cheese. In the gross category: Mac’n’cheese that’s pretty much all mac and no cheese. Mac’n’cheese that’s soupy. (Lonely elbow-fish swimming in a sea of sauce just does not work for us. Eeeewwww!) Mac’n’cheese that’s a lurid orange, a color dreamed up in the mind of some mad scientist for something called “processed cheese product.” Keep your products to yourself, please. Mac’n’cheese that’s tasteless (in this case, we’re referring to flavor, not to the Day-Glo orange color just described). Mac’n’cheese that’s gummy. Mac’n’cheese that’s bitter (a failing of many an otherwise lovely mac’n’cheese made by well-intentioned folks using globs of orange Cheddar). Mac’n’cheese with under- (ouch!) or overcooked pasta (eeewww, this is macaroni, not pudding, people). And finally, mac’n’cheese with a crust so hard it can chip your teeth and knock out your fillings, because, face it, you know that’s the best part and you’re going to try to eat it anyway.

Moving on to what makes a good mac’n’cheese great: Lots of yummy, crunchy (as opposed to hard) crust to contrast with the creamy interior. Plenty of luscious flavor of the cheesy, buttery, creamy variety. Elbows cooked just right, so they’re fully done but still hold their shape rather than disintegrating. And finally, a sauce that’s the right texture. This is key, in my opinion, and in fact is key to all great pasta sauces: It has to cling to the pasta rather than floating, concentrating the flavor thickly around each elbow, but there has to be enough sauce so it isn’t simply absorbed by the pasta, leaving a dry mac’n’cheese that pleases nobody. The closest I can come to describing the perfect mac’n’cheese sauce texture is to say that if you’ve ever eaten an exquisitely prepared corn pudding (the ones served at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky come to mind), you know the texture I mean.

If your mouth’s not watering by now, you must’ve forgotten to put your teeth in this morning. So let’s get back to the recipe. But first, I have to play Moses (or at least Chef Boyardee) for a minute and give you the Four Mac’n’Cheese Commandments: 1. Thou shalt not cook this dish on high or the cheese will burn. 2. Thou shalt not use sweetened condensed milk instead of evaporated milk. 3. Thou shalt not use fresh milk, because it curdles in the Crock-Pot. 4. Thou shalt not cook this dish for more than 4 hours or the pasta will disintegrate. Okay, let’s do it! (Confession: This isn’t Delilah’s exact recipe, it’s the Hawk’s Haven version, which we of course think is even better. But we’re eternally grateful to her for passing along the original, so we’ve named our version after her.)

            Delilah’s Crock-Pot Macaroni and Cheese

1-pound package of elbow macaroni, cooked al dente (I have to admit that I find that regular macaroni holds its texture better in this recipe than any of the “healthier” versions, and I keep trying different ones in the hope of proving myself wrong.—Silence)    

2 12-ounce cans evaporated milk

1/3 cup butter, melted

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

4 cups (2 packages) shredded sharp white Cheddar (use extra-sharp if you want more flavor)

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 to 1/2 cup grated Parmesan

Paprika

Set aside 1 cup of the Cheddar, the Parmesan, and the paprika. Stir all other ingredients together in the Crock-Pot. Top with reserved Cheddar, Parmesan, and a hearty sprinkling of paprika to give the top a lovely warm color. Cook on low 3 to 4 hours. (I like to cook it for the full 4 hours for a crunchier crust.—Silence)

That’s all there is to it, and boy, is it delicious! Of course, you’re free to try your own variations once you’ve enjoyed the basic recipe. Our heat-loving friend Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame thinks adding sliced jalapenos would be nice. I myself contemplate replacing some or all of the Cheddar with grated Swiss or Gruyere for a different taste, but haven’t tried either yet. (Why mess with perfection?) I could see adding sauteed mushrooms, sweet onions, and/or red or gold peppers, too. If you try any variations, please let me know how they turn out! And if you have a favorite mac’n’cheese of your own, please share it with us. Maybe some day we’ll do a Great Mac’n’Cheese Cookoff!

                         ‘Til next time,

                                        Silence

             

Pied Beauty April 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: ,
6 comments

When is a plant a fish, a butterfly, and a poem? When it’s a trout lily, of course! It’s trout (lily) season here at Hawk’s Haven, and our friend Ben would like to sing the praises of these adorable little plants.

Trout lilies are spring ephemerals, which means they pop up briefly in spring, then go dormant until the next spring wakes them briefly once more. The species that’s native to our friend Ben’s Pennsylvania garden is Erythronium americanum, and it’s the one that gives the genus its name. That’s because its leaves, which form a flat, ground-covering mat, are not only shaped like trout, but bear the muted red stippling of a brook trout over their silver-green surface. Though fleeting, these troutlike leaves are delightful. They always remind our friend Ben of a favorite poem, “Pied Beauty,” which I’ll give you in a minute.

But first, let’s talk about butterflies. Trout lilies are true lilies, in the lily family, as they remind us when they bloom. The primrose-yellow flowers hang like bells at night, then open to downward-facing but upturned (or reflexed) lilies during the day, rather like tiny versions of their larger cousins the Canada and Turk’s cap lilies. But because of their small size and the strongly reflexed petals (which are technically tepals, but we’re not going there right now), and the way they’re borne singly on slender stems that vanish against the green background—not to mention the way they quiver in the slightest breeze—they look like a cloud of yellow butterflies hovering over the garden floor.

Hawk’s Haven is blessed with large colonies of these enchanting little plants in both the enormous island bed that defines the front yard and in the wildflower garden that grows alongside our little creek, Hawk Run, in the back. We also have an expanding clump of the hybrid Erythronium ‘Pagoda’ in the front garden. It has taller clumps of handsome rounded green leaves and larger, more striking flowers. Grown alongside the native trout lilies, it simply adds to the clouds-of-butterflies effect. (‘Pagoda’ is widely available; Brent and Becky’s Bulbs and White Flower Farm are two sources.)

The emergence of trout lilies coincides with the running of brook trout and the appearance of the first butterflies of spring, a happy coincidence. They are fascinating plants—they literally trick ants into planting them, for example, and there are many other interesting things that set them apart.

A quick visit with my good friend, Google, turned up a marvelous post on trout lilies on Jennifer Schlick’s blog, A Passion for Nature (http://www.winterwoman.wordpress.com/) and a feature on them among other spring ephemerals on the website of the Pennsylvania Native Plant Society (www.pawildflower.org). Our friend Ben encourages you to check them out. And if you, too, are lucky enough to have these little gems on your property, get out there now and enjoy every moment you can spend in their company! Before you know it, they’ll have disappeared for another year.

Okay, I promised you a poem, and this one’s a doozy. Our friend Ben loves the poems of the English priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and “Pied Beauty” is one of my favorites. Like our friend Ben, Hopkins was intoxicated by words—the sound, the brightness, the force of them. If you read “Pied Beauty” aloud, it will intoxicate you, too. Too bad Hopkins couldn’t have known the trout lily when he wrote this marvelous piece!  But I can’t read the poem, or see a trout lily, without the one bringing the other to mind. (Please forgive our friend Ben my Luddite failings here; I simply cannot figure out how to get WordPress to close up these lines. Sorry!)  

                          Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                                                    Praise him.

 

Love your Mother. April 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to give you a little food for thought in honor of Earth Day. (And I agree with the bumper sticker that says “Earth Day is every day.” For all our sakes, it had better be!)

I’ll start out with some excerpts from the famous speech made by Chief Seattle of the Suquamish in 1854. There are several versions of the speech, and a great deal of argument about what Seattle actually said. But to me, this is detracting from the point, which is the soul-piercing nature of the great leader’s comments. So let’s forget the controversy and listen to the words:

“Man did not weave the web of life—he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.

“Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.

“This we know: the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.

“The earth is precious to Him [God], and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.”

(Our friend Ben, who is once again here reading over my shoulder, feels especially strongly about this last point. Our friend Ben doesn’t understand how someone can claim to worship God Creator on one hand while desecrating the creation on the other.)

As you might imagine, Mahatma Gandhi also had a point to make in this regard. He said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Food for thought, eh? Let me end this post with a great quote from a bumper sticker offered by the Northern Sun catalog (www.northernsun.com), a compendium of truly great earth-friendly merchandise: “Don’t bite the land that feeds you.” I think that pretty much says it all. But if you all have any great earth-friendly quotes to share, I’d love to hear them! So please write in with your faves.   

Necessity is the mother of, um, something. April 22, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: ,
5 comments

Faithful readers may recall that our friend Ben had a rather bad day a couple of weeks ago, when I’d finally decided the weather was settled enough to set out the lawn ornaments, and a high wind promptly came up and smashed the silver gazing ball in the front island bed. Now, this bed is what passersby see as they drive past my home, Hawk’s Haven, and it’s definitely at its peak in spring when it’s literally awash with color from Siberian squill, chionodoxa, crocus, daffodils, ranunculus, trout lilies, bloodroot, toothwort, and Dutchman’s breeches.

So of course our friend Ben was mortified to see the beautiful seagreen column on which the gazing ball formerly resided sticking up out of the island bed like a latter-day Greek ruin. (Silence Dogood had quite a bit to say to our friend Ben on the subject as well, yet again belying her name.) As a result, last weekend saw our friend Ben trundling off to the local garden center to buy a replacement gazing ball.

Sticker shock! Even the plainest of gazing balls cost a mind-numbing sixty dollars. After an unfortunate encounter with my income taxes on April 15th, our friend Ben was not inclined to cough up $60 for lawn art, which after all is a discretionary item. (I suspect the IRS would take a somewhat dim view if I attempted to write it off as either a dependent or a business expense.) But returning empty-handed meant still looking at the topless column every time I looked out the window or went into the front yard, and it also meant a rather biting ongoing series of one-liners from Silence. Frankly, our friend Ben could see her point.

Finally, after several days of mental paralysis, our friend Ben had what a friend’s mother immortally called a rush of brains to the head. Our friend Ben’s sister, who fortunately not only lives far away but is even more of a Luddite than I am, never even going near a computer, is a big fan of local potters in her hometown in Alabama. Unfortunately, she attempts to show her support of these struggling artists by bestowing the fruits of their labors upon our friend Ben on every possible occasion.

Now, our friend Ben loves handmade ceramics. I attend every pottery show in my area, and can’t seem to stay out of crafts shops, whether they’re local or, like the Allenstand Craft Shop at the Appalachian Folk Art Museum in Asheville, North Carolina, are an integral part of a vacation elsewhere. From historic Pennsylvania redware to exquisite Pueblo and Mata Ortiz pottery, our friend Ben enthusiastically loves and purchases these marvelous pieces. In fact, no trip to visit friends is complete without a visit to a local craft gallery (or many, in the case of Asheville and Charlottesville, Virginia).

But my sister’s taste is not mine. Our friend Ben is partial to pieces with an evident usefulness: pitchers, vases, bowls, platters, even (and especially) humble mugs. My soap dishes and toothbrush holders are handmade; so are my birdbaths and cat and dog bowls. My sister, by contrast, loves large, imposing, and totally useless ceramics, which our friend Ben has attempted to integrate into the small cottage venue of Hawk’s Haven with dubious success.

So it was with real joy that our friend Ben recalled a huge, melon-shaped turquoise ceramic piece that had been hiding since its arrival in a dark recess in the pantry. Said piece is now proudly centered on the seagreen column, adding a beautifully contrasting color and the appropriate shape, if not the reflective quality that gave gazing balls their name. Thank you, Elizabeth! Pondering this further, it dawned on our friend Ben that we also have a gorgeous, palest primrose yellow pumpkin that formed an integral part of last fall’s harvest display and is still entirely intact in the mudroom. (Our friend Ben had never seen a pumpkin of that color, and of course could not bear to compost it or feed it to the chickens while it was still intact.) It, too, would have been exquisite on the seagreen column.

Those of you who have read my post “The gazing ball thief” will know that I have more than a passing interest in gazing balls. If you happen to have an unused silver gazing ball lurking somewhere in storage on your property, please think of our friend Ben and that seagreen column. But until someone kindly bestows a gazing ball on us, the turquoise ceramic will fill a void.        

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