Don’t tread on me. September 16, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, critters, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Ben Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, Don't Tread on Me, General John Stark, Join or Die, Live Free or Die, rattlesnake, Rattlesnake and American freedom, Rattlesnake and American Navy, rattlesnake and Libertarians, Rattlesnake and Tea Party
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to explain why a rattlesnake became a major symbol of American resistance and independence. Our friend Ben recently asked me if the yellow flag with the coiled rattlesnake and “Don’t Tread on Me” motto hadn’t been created by our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin. Then Silence Dogood said, “No, Ben, that was the flag of the rebellion in New Hampshire.” Well, no.
Ben Franklin does get all the credit for promoting the rattlesnake as a symbol of the American spirit. In 1751, Franklin, publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, satirically suggested that, since Britain made a policy of sending criminals to America, America might return the favor by sending rattlesnakes to England. Then in 1754, during the French and Indian War, Franklin published the first-ever political cartoon, showing a rattlesnake cut into eight pieces to represent the 13 Colonies (all New England was compressed into the head) with the message “Join, or Die.”
This “cartoon” was so powerful that it was used in the opening credits of the marvelous TV docudrama “John Adams,” and it was what our friend Ben was thinking of instead of the “Don’t Tread on Me” coiled rattlesnake flag. During the vote to ratify the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Franklin echoed the sentiment in his famous statement “Gentlemen, we had better all hang together [i.e., ratify the Declaration], or we shall all most assuredly hang separately.”
So where did the “Don’t Tread on Me” (originally “Dont Tread on Me,” punctuation wasn’t that great in the Colonial period) flag originate? In South Carolina, Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden designed the flag, based on a concept initiated by the first American Marines, and presented it in 1775 to the first Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins, who flew it on his mainmast. No wonder OFB and Silence found it in the Naval Academy gift shop on a recent trip to Annapolis! Historians usually refer to it as the “Gadsden Flag” for that reason.
It’s easy to see why Libertarians adopted the flag as their symbol: They want to mind their own business and for the government to keep out of their private affairs. But when the Tea Party took it up, that sort of tainted it, turning it into a symbol of intolerance, bigotry, and reactionary thinking. How demoralizing for everyone who would like to display the flag as a comment on their personal feelings, without any connection to the Tea Party! It’s rather like when the Cross of Christ was co-opted as the masthead of the Spanish Inquisition. Many good Christians were tortured and died while being shown the very Cross that was the foundation of their faith.
So there you have it: What Benjamin Franklin began in 1751 and immortalized in 1754 with “Join, or Die” morphed into “Don’t Tread on Me” in 1775 and electrified the U.S. Navy into victorious action. By then, Ben’s snake cut into eight parts had indeed been united into one, coiled and ready to strike, with 13 rattles representing the 13 Colonies. More than any other symbol of American freedom, the rattlesnake ended up standing for us.
Incidentally, Silence’s mistake comes from New Hampshire’s official motto, “Live Free or Die,” penned by its Revolutionary War hero General John Stark. Do you know your state’s official motto?
Why eat out? September 15, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: dining out, eating out, reasons for eating out
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Silence Dogood here. Why do you go out to eat? Is it the convenience, a chance to get together with friends, a break from cooking, a “date night” with your spouse or partner (or a date, period)? Is it nostalgia for a neighborhood favorite that your parents took you to when you were growing up, the place you always went with your high-school sweetheart, or just a craving for fries, burgers, hotdogs, wings, milkshakes, and all the other bad-for-you things that you really, really love but would get a scolding for at home by the health police?
When I go out to eat, I sort of fall on the bad-for-you spectrum. My goal when dining out is to eat foods I would never make at home, and since I have a serious aversion to grease, that includes anything deep-fried or even shallow-fried. (Sauteing’s about my limit.) I’m also not a big fan of home baking, since it requires precise measurements and a lot of mess and cleanup. (Kneading, anyone?) Woking and the like aren’t exactly my specialty, either: The super-high heat and precision required are just too much for my nerves and poor coordination. Apparently, everyone else on earth can brown cubes of paneer (soft Indian cheese) and tofu effortlessly; when I try, they fall apart into pointless crumbles and never brown.
That’s why, when I go out to eat, I’ll get the baked spinach balls or flaming kasseri cheese or spanakopita or eggplant rollatini or crispy tofu triangles or tempura vegetable sushi or onion kulcha or something else that I’d never, ever make at home. None of it’s expensive, but it makes eating out such a luxury. And yes, every once in a blue moon, I’ll go for a veggie burger with crispy fried onions, barbecue sauce, and French fries. And I’ll enjoy every high-cal, deep-fried bite.
‘Til next time,
The alien phone. September 14, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: blog humor, landline phones, malfunctioning phones, Steven Wright
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Silence Dogood here. Being a Luddite, I still use a land-line phone. (Our friend Ben was finally seduced by a smartphone.) But recently, my phone has malfunctioned, directing callers to voicemail on the first ring, buzzing rather than giving me a ringtone, not letting me answer incoming calls, make calls, or access voicemail. What’s the deal, was I late with a payment? (As the comedian Steven Wright said, “If you think nobody cares if you’re dead or alive, try missing a payment.”)
But this didn’t prepare me for last night’s drama. At 1 a.m., OFB and I were awakened by the unbearably loud barking of our giant black German shepherd, Shiloh, as she charged the front door. When OFB went to investigate (while I, of course, cowered in the bedroom), he found two police officers outside! They said my phone had been dialing 911, and they had come to see if anything was wrong.
The phone had been dialing 911 by itself. I quickly disconnected it so it wouldn’t continue to call officers to the scene, and wondered who else it had been calling. Rushing to my good friend Google, I found that this had happened to other people, and that the most frequent cause was a damaged outdoor cord that had allowed water to get in and short the phone out.
Believe that if you choose, but I have another theory: That an alien has entered our home, assumed the appearance of my old phone, and been trying to contact the Mother Ship. I’ll be pitching my story to The National Enquirer next week.
‘Til next time,
A three-part food disposal system. September 11, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, chickens, critters, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
Tags: chickens, composting, earthworm composting, food, food waste, not wasting food, saving food, using leftovers, wasting food
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Silence Dogood here. There’s nothing as demoralizing as wasting food, but we all do it. It’s not just a shame, but a sin, when people all over the globe, people in our own cities, are going hungry. Yet we’ve all had the experience of opening our vegetable drawer and finding produce that’s past its prime, or discovering a container of leftovers that makes us go “Eeeeewww!!!,” or looking forward to our morning toast and finding a moldy loaf of bread (sob).
No worries, this food needn’t go to waste. Our friend Ben and I have a three-part food-disposal system that takes care of pretty much everything. Well, actually, I guess it’s four-part. The first line of defense is our black German shepherd, Shiloh, and our yellow-naped Amazon parrot Plutarch. They do a pretty decent job of eating scraps of cheese, veggies, chips, nuts, and the like.
The second line of defense is our flock of six heritage-breed chickens. They’ll eat that moldy bread, overripe tomato, leftover rice or pasta, wilted greens, or what-have-you with relish. The only thing I’ve ever seen chickens reject is zucchini. If that’s not a statement, I don’t know what is.
Then there’s our earthworm composter. Earthworms also love leftover fruits, salad greens, and veggies, but they’ll also eat things like coffee grounds and tea bags, turning them into rich fertilizer for greenhouse and garden plants.
Finally, there are our compost bins. We can put anything in them, with these exceptions: diseased plants, meat, dairy, grease. Diseased plants will contaminate the compost, infecting whatever you put it on, while the other contaminants will attract rats and other vermin to your compost bins. I’d also advise against putting weeds, especially weeds that can harm you like poison ivy or aggressive weeds like thistle that can spread throughout your garden, in your compost bins. Sometimes, the trash can is the only option.
However, between pets, chickens, earthworms, and the compost bin, a lot of potentially wasted food gets returned to the earth and enjoyed. I love to cook and use fresh seasonal produce, but I never feel guilty about eating out. OFB and I make a point of bringing every single thing we don’t eat home. I’ll bring a meal home that’s big enough for the two of us for another supper. OFB will bring his leftover French fries and half a bun home for the always-thrilled chickens. With our pets, our chickens, our earthworms, our compost bins, and, well okay, ourselves, there’s never an excuse to waste food. As our beloved hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, would say, “Waste not, want not.”
‘Til next time,
What’s the deal with Jack the Ripper? September 9, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Aaron Kosminski, Jack the Ripper, was Aaron Kosminski really Jack the Ripper
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The internet has been on fire with the news that Jack the Ripper, Britain’s most famous serial killer, has finally been identified. Long thought to be a surgeon, an artist, or even the Duke of Clarence, the latest claims are that it was a Polish immigrant who set up shop in Whitehall, where the murders occurred. The claims are based on DNA analysis of the scarf of one of the victims, Catherine Eddowes. But longtime students of the case are dubious, and so is our friend Ben.
Certainly, the current suspect, Aaron Kosminski, lived in the vicinity where the murders took place. And, as a barber, he’d have had access to and known how to use sharp objects like a straight razor and scissors. But the five victims definitively associated with the Ripper were stabbed multiple times, and in several of the cases, an organ was removed (in Eddowes’s case, a kidney; in others’, the uterus). The deft use of the knife sounds more like the fictional Mack the Knife than a barber. And the removal of the organs certainly sounds more like the work of a butcher or surgeon.
But to our friend Ben’s mind, something more was going on. The Ripper clearly loved publicity and sought to stir it up by publicizing his crimes with letters. But he never sent any of the organs he removed to the press or Scotland Yard in little boxes or anything. Unless he was Hannibal Lecter and was enjoying them with a fine chianti, what happened to them? Why did he remove them?
But even more to the point, why did he stop his killing spree? Why would someone who was obsessed with serial killing, and the “fame” such killing brought with it, simply stop? The five murders that can definitively be attributed to the Ripper occurred in 1888. A couple of murders occurred earlier, and more occurred up to 1891, but Scotland Yard thought the style of them suggested either copycat murders or murders that coincidentally took place in the vicinity. Kosminski died in 1919. If he was really Jack the Ripper, why would he have suddenly stopped his serial-killing rampage? Not to mention that witnesses in Whitechapel at the time described a robust, fair-haired man, hardly the picture of the slight, dark-haired Kosminski.
But whether he was, or wasn’t, Jack the Ripper, or whoever was or wasn’t, it would take quite a compulsion to power that spate of serial killings. What would make someone start? And what would make someone stop just as suddenly? If you believe that insanity was the cause, would the person suddenly have become sane? Are we talking about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Dr. Frankenstein and his monster? The only answer that makes sense to me is that Jack the Ripper died in 1888, so he couldn’t continue with his “work.”
I haven’t checked the deaths of the Duke of Clarence or famous Harley Street physicians of the time or the like; our friend Ben isn’t a Jack the Ripper fan, my only contact with him has been through a couple of Sherlock Holmes films, since I am definitely a rabid Holmes fan. But if you are a Ripper fan, I suggest that you start looking at the death dates of probable suspects and draw your conclusions from them.
Pet your dog, don’t praise him. September 7, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
Tags: dogs, dogs and people, interacting with dogs
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One of our friend Ben’s favorite cartoons is a “Far Side” classic that shows what we say and what our dog hears. Basically, the man is saying “Ginger! Bad dog, Ginger! Why did you do that when you know I’ve told you not to, Ginger? What a bad, bad dog, Ginger! Shame on you, Ginger!” Then it shows what she hears: “Ginger… Ginger… Ginger…”
Apparently, the same is true in real life, according to recent research. The scientists compared the reactions of shelter dogs and strangers and pet dogs and their owners when the dogs were praised or petted. Then the process was repeated with dogs being praised, petted, or ignored. In all cases, the dogs responded strongly to being petted, but their response to verbal praise was the same as being completely ignored.
Good grief! Then what is that rush of attention, the brightening of the eyes, the licking of your hands and arms and biting of your clothes, trying to get as close to you as possible, when you speak to her? They say the brightest dogs can recognize 250 words. Our beautiful and beloved black German shepherd, Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special (that’s just Shiloh to you), certainly understands what we’re saying to her, whether we’re talking about treats, toys, or going outside, or about leaving her in charge while we’re out and how long we expect to be gone, or pretty much anything else, including “thank you.”
Of course, Shiloh loves to be petted, too. And we love to pet her. But it’s combining action (giving her a piece of bell pepper or a green bean or a dog treat or a toy) with words, or even special songs we’ve made up for her, that gets that tail going windmill-style and the happy tongue hanging out. We think she loves interacting with us on many levels, not just one. Do you think that about your dog? In any case, don’t forget to pet him!
Bowers Chile Pepper Food Festival. September 6, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: 2014 Bowers Chile Pepper Festival, Bowers Chile Festival, Bowers Chile Pepper Food Festival, Bowers PA Chile Pepper Festival, James Weaver, Meadow View Farm
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Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and our friend and fellow blog contributor, Richard Saunders, are very excited to once again be attending the annual Bowers Chile Pepper Food Festival today, September 6th, in nearby scenic Bowers PA at their very nice community park. The festival is free and open from 9 am to 6 pm. It features tours of the hot pepper fields at nearby Meadow View Farm; the tours are horse-drawn, since the Weavers, who own Meadow View, are Old-Order Mennonites who don’t drive cars. Yet James Weaver, who owns Meadow View and like most Old Order Mennonites probably has an 8th-grade education, is one of the foremost and most respected experts on hot peppers in the country, and the reason there’s a chile pepper festival in Pennsylvania that draws people from as far as Jamaica.
The festival features every kind of hot-pepper dish and jarred good you can imagine, as well as fresh, homegrown hot peppers in an unimaginable range of colors and heats and heirloom tomatoes in all colors and sizes. You can buy every imaginable kind of salsa, hot sauce, hot pickled produce (look for the amazing Kamikozee hot green tomatoes), hot chocolate bars, garlic vinegar (yum, so good), hot everything. We always buy the Kamikozee green tomatoes, the Rolling Hills garlic vinegar, Chef Tim’s salad dressing, and any salsas and sauces we can’t resist. Today, there’s lots of live music and a jalapeno-eating contest as well. And you can buy tons of hot-pepper-themed items like tee-shirts and necklaces, and even get spray-on pepper tattoos (we’re sure Silence will get one, she can never resist).
Within easy walking distance of the festival is one of our favorite local restaurants, the Bowers Hotel. We won’t be eating there because we’re sure it will be mobbed with festival-goers. But if you do happen to drop by, we recommend their famous spinach balls, an appetizer we can never resist.
At any event, we hope to see you today at the festival! Just don’t try to fight us for the last of whatever.
Where have the houseflies gone? September 3, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: facts about houseflies, houseflies, housefly decline
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Our friend Ben was busy in our home office when I noticed a small, winged insect buzzing around. At first, I thought it must be a young housefly, those annoying nuisances that always seem to find their way into the house in warm weather, no matter how hard you try to stop them. (Thus flyswatters, flypaper, and the like have been with us for a very long time; try as we might, we just can’t seem to keep the critters out.)
Eventually, I realized that the buzzing noise wasn’t housefly-like; the insect was something else. But it made me realize that, unlike past years, I hadn’t seen a single housefly, in or out of the house, this year. Not one. I wondered if America had been struck with housefly decline. For once, global warming couldn’t be to blame, since the flies love hot weather, but maybe last year’s super-cold winter killed them off. Or maybe, like the poor honeybees, they’d been struck with some dreadful malady. Our friend Ben decided to head to my good friend Google to find out.
“Housefly decline” didn’t bring up anything, so I went on Wikipedia to see what it had to say about houseflies. Yowie kazowie! I learned three things I didn’t know about houseflies. First, that the females can lay 9,000 eggs (yes, you read that right) over a lifetime, producing many, many generations in a single year. (So, where are they?!) Next, that once flies emerge from their pupal cases, whether they’re huge or tiny depends on how much food they got as maggots (which feed on rotting food and rotten or decaying flesh, as well as manure, yum). In other words, little flies don’t grow into bigger flies; little flies just didn’t get enough to eat in their maggot (sickening white, worm-like) stage. And last, that houseflies can carry diseases like cholera and tuberculosis (and plenty of others).
That’s sort of the opposite of all those movies like “Gladiator” where you see maggots eating away at rotting flesh on living men and saving them from infection, gangrene, and death. Which reminds me of the fourth thing I didn’t know about houseflies: They’re not just here in the good old USA, but occur around the world, and apparently always have.
So what’s become of them? Have you noticed fewer (or no) houseflies in your home this year? Let us know. I have to say, this is one creature I wouldn’t mind seeing on the decline.
Emergency preparedness: Buy toilet paper. September 2, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
Tags: disaster preparedness, Disaster Prevention Day, preparedness, stocking up for emergencies
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There may have been something funny about the theme of this year’s Disaster Prevention Day in Japan, “Let’s stockpile toilet paper!” But there’s nothing funny about the disaster that prompted Disaster Prevention Day, held every September 1st. One Spetember 1, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck an area of Tokyo and killed more than 140,000 people. Most of the lives were lost due to fires sweeping through the area and burning down the closely packed buildings, which were made of wood, bamboo and paper and used flames for cooking, heat, and light. In a country prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, being prepared for a disaster makes a lot of sense.
Our friend Ben also approves of stockpiling toilet paper, tissues and the like for emergency purposes. The Japanese government suggested keeping a month’s supply for every household member in reserve; in Japan, they sell special emergency rolls that are something like 460 feet long and are rolled so tightly they look like those big rolls sold in the U.S. I wish we had those here!
I’d take this even further. Of course you could blow your nose with toilet paper if you ran out of tissue. But if you’re dependent on a well for all your water, as we are here at Hawk’s Haven, if the electricity goes out, your water stops running. Normally, we try to never use “picnic products” like paper plates and bowls, paper or plastic cups, and plastic knives, forks, and spoons. But we keep a supply on hand for emergencies, and actually used some of them when the power went off for almost a week last winter. When you have to drink bottled water, use it to brush your teeth, and use it to flush the toilet, you don’t want to waste it washing dishes! Paper towels and napkins are lifesavers here, too. Not to mention extra toothpaste, soap, and so on.
Even if you’re on a sewer and get city water, if something contaminated your city’s water supply so the water was basically unusable for drinking, bathing, etc., you’ll want a backup supply of bottled water. Those big gallon jugs are great for flushing the toilet, but we find that, over time, they deteriorate and spring leaks. We use them in our greenhouse and to water our raised beds and container plants, but always keep an eye on them and recycle any that spring leaks. We also keep some on hand for the toilet, but keep an eagle eye on them to make sure they’re not leaking on our mudroom and laundry room floors! For permanent, leak-proof water storage, our friend Ben recommends those perfectly clear plastic jugs that a lot of “spring water” is sold in. They’ll never leak unless you step on one. And for drinking water, we get cases of real spring water in glass jugs, which we’ll also use for tooth-brushing in an emergency.
Besides toilet paper, the Japanese government recommends stores of food and water, a portable toilet, and a first-aid kit. I don’t know what they mean by “portable toilet,” but our friend Ben doubts that it’s a Port-a-Potty. Instead, it’s probably one of those sturdy buckets with toilet seats that are sold at camping, hunting, and sporting-goods stores like Cabela’s. You put a plastic bag (like a plastic grocery bag) inside the bucket, anchoring it with the lid, then go when you need to go and toss the bag when it’s full.
If you have a lawn and garden, you might think about buying a chamber pot (a porcelain receptacle for urine) at a flea market and pouring the nitrogen-rich urine on your lawn and flowers (not your food garden!). Urine has been known for eons as an excellent natural fertilizer.
Here in scenic PA, we’re in the path of the aftereffects of major environmental disasters rather than on the front lines. We won’t have to face off against earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, or other terrible acts of nature. But we could certainly suffer their effects, as well as terrible droughts and winter ice and snowstorms. It’s always best to be prepared.
We always have a cord of wood curing for our woodstove, since if the power fails it could mean the difference between frozen pipes (and frozen us) and reasonable warmth. Our gas stove can be lit by matches if the electricity goes off, so we can have warm food, even in winter (you can also use your outdoor grill if you have one). But we also have canned food that we can eat cold if we must, along with food that’s durable and fine at room temperature like crackers, nuts, dried fruit and cheese.
Since we’re not in the eye of a storm or other catastrophe that would force us to abandon our home, we’ve basically tried to disaster-proof our home so we could continue to live in it in the face of a power disruption, ice storm, or whatever. But we have stocked our cars with durable emergency items (including first-aid kits and space blankets, toilet paper, bottled water, tissues, sani-wipes, condiments, utensils, etc.) just in case.
Last but by no means least are your pets and critters, who’ll find themselves cut off just like you. Making sure you have extra food (and litter, in the case of cats) for your pets on hand at all times just makes sense. We keep our cat, dog and wild bird seed in big pest-proof tins and our parrot and parakeet food in pest-proof glass jars. The chickens’ scratch grains and egg-layer pellets are stored in metal garbage cans in the chicken yard, safe from invasion.
“Be prepared” is more than a Boy Scout motto. It could be a lifesaver!
Monarch butterflies: The next passenger pigeon? August 31, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, wit and wisdom.
Tags: butterflies, butterfly plants, monarch butterflies, monarch butterfly extinction, passenger pigeon, passenger pigeon extinction
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Our friend Rudy sent us a wonderful article about passenger pigeons (this year marks the 100th anniversary of their extinction). It was packed with fascinating facts about these once-plentiful birds, such as that they once numbered in the billions, comprising as much as 25 to 40% of America’s total bird population, and that their flocks, numbering millions of birds, could blot out the sun for hours. (People who’d never seen a passenger pigeon flock before, hearing the thunder of millions of wings and watching darkness blot out the sun, feared that the End Times were upon them, or at least that a tornado was bearing down on them and making their personal end time imminent.)
Another thing our friend Ben learned from the article was that, unlike something like, say, the ivory-billed woodpecker, people knew exactly when the passenger pigeon became extinct. Martha, the last living passenger pigeon, died at a Cincinnati zoo in 1914 and was shipped to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for preservation and study. Poor Martha! From billions to just one. Then none.
Human behavior drove the passenger pigeon extinction. People had always eaten the abundant birds, a cheap (or free, if you were a good shot) source of protein. But Dan Greenberg, one of the experts quoted in the article, blamed their extinction on two inventions that would appear to have nothing to do with birds: the telegraph and the railroad. The two had to come together to make the extinction happen: the telegraph, because its miles of wires gave the birds a convenient place to roost, which they would do in huge flocks. On the wires, they were easy to find, and they perched so close together that a single shot could down multiple birds. And the railroad, because the birds could be packed on ice and shipped to major urban areas, guaranteeing an insatiable market of poor urban laborers desperate for some cheap meat.
The extinction of the passenger pigeon, and the awareness and acknowledgment that human actions were responsible, helped launch the conservation movement, and probably saved the buffalo (hunted for their tongues, considered a delicacy on the East Coast) and the beaver (whose fur was used for fashionable top hats) from a similar fate. So at least the pigeon didn’t die in vain.
But the aspect of the article that really snagged our friend Ben’s attention was when the interviewer asked another expert, Steve Sullivan, what he’d consider to be today’s passenger pigeon. And he answered, “the monarch butterfly.”
You probably used to see monarchs all over the place, floating through your yard, drifting along roadsides. I’ve even seen them migrating south at nearby Hawk Mountain alongside the hawks and other raptors. You might even have been lucky enough to see one of their beautiful sea-green chrysalises, in which the monarch caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. But in recent years, I’ve seen fewer and fewer monarchs, and I’ll bet you have, too. (Unless, like our friend Mark, you mistake the brown-and-orange admiral for a monarch.)
The catastrophic decline of the monarchs is also directly related to human activity, and also to a one-two punch like the one that brought down the passenger pigeon. Every year, more and more herbicides are dumped on farm fields, lawns, and gardens. GMO crops are specifically bred to withstand the ever-increasing use of these poisons, so vast acreages of corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, and the like can take even stronger herbicide applications. What can’t withstand the herbicides are the “weeds,” which is to say, the diversity of plant life. And some of the weeds that herbicides kill are milkweeds, the only source of food for monarch butterfly larvae.
Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood make room for plenty of milkweeds here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. But even so, our monarch populations have dwindled to the point where I think I saw one so far this year. (We also have pawpaws for the zebra swallowtail larvae, which are totally dependent on them.)
I urge everyone to have a butterfly garden in their backyards, or in containers on their deck or apartment balcony, to try to save our beautiful butterflies from the onslaught of herbicides. Milkweeds have gorgeous flower clusters that last a long time (Asclepias tuberosa, the very popular “butterfly weed” that brightens sunny, well-drained gardens and wildflower meadows with clusters of yellow, orange, and red flowers, is a milkweed). Butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) sport beautiful plumes of blooms in colors from white through mauve and purple to maroon, and during their summer bloom season, there’s lots of added color from visiting butterflies. (We planted one called “Miss Molly” on our beloved golden retriever Molly’s grave.) And there are many, many more.
But monarchs aren’t just threatened by America’s obsession with herbicides. As you doubtless know, they migrate south for the winter and cluster by the thousands on the trunks of trees in pine and fir forests in their wintering grounds near Mexico City—trees that are being decimated by illegal logging. The monarchs depend on their winter habitat being there. After all, they’ve just flown thousands of miles to get there, and they have a collective memory of the forest where they overwinter and return to it. What if it isn’t there?
Monarch populations have crashed in recent years due to this combination of herbicides and loss of winter habitat. In 1995, they covered 44.5 acres of trees in their wintering grounds in Mexico. Last winter, their population was so reduced that they only covered 1.65 acres. How much more will they have to decline before the last “Martha” is on display in some zoo’s butterfly conservatory?
Please plant butterfly-friendly plants, refrain from herbicide use, and try to urge your neighbors and your community to do the same, to create corridors where butterflies can move and eat freely, as safe from herbicides as any of us can be in this day. Let’s hope it’s not too late.