Monday, February 1, 2016

Mountain or decide

The cattle in my neighbor's pasture are grazing a mountain.

It's not a mountain by New England standards and certainly not compared to the topography of the Great Rocky or Blue Ridge ranges. But for here in Central Florida, the weed-covered mounds of earth that protrude from a corner of my neighbor's field seem mountainous, at least from a bovine perspective.

They are actually the forgotten byproducts of construction projects. My neighbor, who has an earth-moving company, has deposited leftover road-building materials in that corner for years. Stacks of red clay stand alongside piles of sand, lime rock and gravel. Over time, wind and rain have melded those raw materials together until their separate colors, textures and shapes can no longer be differentiated one from another. To the cattle's eyes, and to mine as well, the entire corner appears as one large undulating mass of plant-covered ground, a rolling oasis in an otherwise level field.

It pleased me when I drove by to see the livestock chewing their way up and down the hilly terrain. Although the cattle may have conquered Mount Surplus before, this was the first time I'd seen them there. I pulled the car off the dirt road and shut off the engine so I could quietly watch the small herd of white, brown, black and spotted cattle doing what cattle do best — graze.

As I sat there wondering if the animals were enjoying the change in altitude, an all-black calf that had made his way up to the top of a mound suddenly ran awkwardly downward. Was he playing? Did he have fun? Did the hilly terrain present a pleasant change from the dull routine of grazing flat field fodder?

The cattle were too busy filling their bellies to pay attention to the youngster's antics, but I watched with interest as the entire herd found ways to enjoy their newfound bounty. While the two young calves were exploring the sloping trails, each adult member of the slow-moving herd meandered along until it found a spot — an individual grazing station — where it could chew off and consume new plant growth, overlooked stems, seedheads and leaves.

It was a bucolic scene. If I didn't know better, I could easily imagine a real mountain, or at least a series of rolling hills in New England or North Carolina, on which a herd of cattle contentedly grazed.

I sat watching the animals for quite a while before continuing home where, on our own acreage, I passed several large piles of woodchips in various stages of decomposition. We have no livestock to graze and explore our mountains-in-the-making but we do have grandchildren who, not unlike the little black calf, have fun climbing up and running down the sloping sides of our towering stacks.

I suppose it doesn't matter if you're a long-lashed bovine or a bright-eyed child, anything a little different is bound to get attention. 

The cattle in my neighbor's pasture were grazing a mountain. It may not have been a real mountain, but that didn't seem to matter. The old adage says not to make a mountain out of a molehill, but it doesn't say anything about not building one out of woodchips or surplus road-building materials.

Monday, January 25, 2016

A lizard that looks like a snake but breaks like glass

I was walking down the path from our beach house to the car when I saw a snake stretched out across the shells. At least I thought it was a snake.

When I squatted down for a closer look, something about its smooth, shiny body didn’t seem to fit any snake I recognized. I snapped several pictures of the foot-long, finger-thick fellow, who was completely unfazed by my presence, with the intention of doing some research later to learn exactly what kind of snake it was.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a snake at all. The slender bodied, legless animal I saw was a glass lizard, most likely an Island Glass lizard, one of four species of glass lizards in Florida.

Glass lizards belong to the scientific genus Ophisaurus, from the Greek meaning “snake-lizard.” Its common name, glass lizard, comes from the animal’s ability when being pursued to break off its tail into one or more pieces. After being severed, the appendage wriggles about, distracting enemies, which gives the lizard time to escape. As with many other types of lizards, glass lizards can regenerate severed tails. Doing so takes nine months or longer.

The critter I encountered didn’t have a severed tail. Its slender brown, black and tan, speckled body was completely intact. While its shape was almost wormlike — pointy at the tail, smooth and rounded at the head — it was far too long and colorful to be a worm. It was also the wrong size to be a skink, another type of lizard with a smooth, colorful and shimmery appearance but with four small legs. I simply assumed it was a snake.

A little research shed light on the subject.

Although they look alike, snakes and glass lizards have distinctive differences. Unlike snakes, glass lizards have moveable eyelids and external ear openings. Bones called osteoderms cause their bodies to be brittle, resulting in more rigid movement than snakes have when slithering effortlessly across the ground. A glass lizard also lacks a snake’s ability to unhinge its jawbones, which causes a diet restricted to invertebrates no larger than the size of its head.

I sensed a sudden interest from my husband Ralph when I told him what a glass lizard eats. To my vegetable-growing partner, any animal that helps control garden pests like grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars and snails is worthy of attention.

It may have taken a special hook to pique Ralph’s interest but the glass lizard fascinated me from the get-go, even before I knew what it was.

I only noticed the snake-like critter because I looked down while walking to the car. Some might say I wasted time by stopping, but I disagree. To me, little pauses in my routine often yield invaluable benefits like expanded empathy, knowledge and understanding of the world outside my door.

I never know what surprises will come my way on any given day. What I do know is that the best discoveries happen when I pay attention to my surroundings. If that means eyes to the ground when I take a walk, so be it. Exciting things are found when I take the time — make the time — to look around and enjoy the everyday wonders of simply living.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Strawberry season is here!

Bright and red. Sweet and juicy. Fresh, ripe strawberries are a fruit-lover’s dream.

But in recent years, that dream has faded as one local u-pick strawberry farm after another has gone out of business. Until recently, Oak Haven Farm in Sorrento was the only place in Lake County still offering families a chance to pick their own fresh berries. 

Now, however, another farm on the opposite end of the county has entered the strawberry-growing field. Lake Catherine Blueberries in Groveland has become the county’s second agricultural enterprise to offer u-pick strawberries to the public.

Known for its family-friendly u-pick blueberries and thornless blackberries, Lake Catherine Blueberries responded to customer demand for more types of u-pick fruit by adding 4,200 strawberry plants in 2015.

“Everybody was always asking what else we have growing,’’ said Jamie Godfrey Lowe. Lowe, her husband Dustin and Dustin’s parents, Clinton and Ann Lowe run the farm on family land that has been used for agricultural purposes for nearly 100 years. Clinton Lowe designed the elevated tiered system that enables pickers to pluck berries off the plant without bending.

“As the plants mature, the berries will cascade down until the entire structure is covered with strawberries,” said Jamie Lowe.

Clinton Lowe’s design is as unique as it is impressive. Traditionally, strawberries grow in the ground on rounded mounds. Pickers must bend over, squat down or crawl along the rows on their knees to gather fruit. At hydroponic farms, which became popular in recent years, fruit grows in nutrient infused water instead of soil and is raised above ground for ease of picking. Lowe’s design contains the best of both systems.

At Lake Catherine Blueberries, strawberry plants grow in soil in three horizontal troughs – one above the other – on eight rows of triangular frames. The bottom trough is about knee high, the middle waist high and the one on top is about five feet above ground. With this system — no matter how tall or small one is — ripe berries are always within easy reach.

Although Clinton Lowe designed the system, his son Dustin selected the variety of strawberry to plant in the troughs. After visiting strawberry farms throughout Florida, Dustin chose Radiance, a large form berry generally considered to be the juiciest of the cultivars developed by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS Communications

Since winter 2016 is the first time Lake Catherine Blueberries will be offering u-pick strawberries to the public, opening dates have yet to be set but the price of the berries will be $3/pound.

“Depending on the weather, we will be opening either the last week of January or in early February,” said Jamie Lowe, who suggested checking the farm’s Facebook page or visiting its website,

“We expect to be open one or two days a week and if all goes well,” said Jamie Godfrey Lowe, “we should have strawberries available into our u-pick blueberry and blackberry season in April and May.”

Sounds like a berry good plan indeed.


Lake Catherine Blueberry Farm — 5849 Lake Catherine Rd, Groveland, FL 34736;; Opening dates for u-pick strawberries to be announced.

Oak Haven Farms & Winery – 32418 Avington Rd, Sorrento, FL 32776;; Normal picking hours for strawberries from January thru March are Wednesdays and Fridays from 12 to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., but customers should call to be sure berries are available.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The acoustic sounds of January in Florida

During a month when our Northern brethren are stomping through snowdrifts in boots and parkas, we’re lolling around green expanses in sandals and short-sleeve shirts. Instead of skating over frozen lakes, some of us are gliding through silky water in kayaks or rowboats.

Kayaking through calm water on a foggy afternoon

We might even go swimming. At 72 degrees, the Atlantic Ocean was two degrees warmer last week than it was at the peak of summer on Cape Cod, and during yesterday’s sunny afternoon, my husband Ralph swam across our lake.

Swimming in the lake

The ability to garden during a month when the ground is frozen in other parts of the country is another reason why Floridians like January. Rather than shoveling the white stuff into piles, Florida gardeners are sowing seeds into rows. January is prime planting time for cold-weather crops such as lettuce, potato, broccoli and bok choy. There are strawberries to harvest at u-pick farms and fresh oranges to squeeze into juice.

Despite wearing a hat and long sleeve shirt, January is prime gardening time for my husband who tends to young seedlings of Asian Greens in his raised container garden

Instead of eagerly awaiting the appearance of the first crocuses on a bleak landscape, we find ourselves already surrounded by an abundance of blooms. Yellow allamandas, red bottlebrush, sweet-smelling jasmine and colorful bougainvilleas are among a multitude of flowers that fill the January landscape with beauty and fragrance.

The yellow blooms of Carolina jasmine cover a trellis

But there’s another reason why Floridians look forward to the first month of the year, and it has nothing to do with the scent of flowers, the taste of fresh-picked produce or the warmth of the water. It’s all about sound — the sound of music. January is when a cadre of beloved folk singers flee cold New England winters to entertain us with the sweet sound of acoustic songs.

The fun starts Saturday January 16 at 8 p.m. when Cindy Mangsen and Steve Gillette return to Lake County for their annual performance of traditional and contemporary folk music at Trout Lake Nature Center as part of the Lake Eustis Folk 3rd Saturday House Concert series.

Traveling, recording and performing together since 1989 under the banner of Compass Rose Music, the Mangsen-Gillette duo is a well established part of the American folk music scene. Although I have been attending their performances for many years, I never tire of listening to their beautiful harmonies, mellow tones and humorous takes on everyday situations.

The Mangsen-Gillette duo at a 2003 concert in The Villages

And while I love their songs — many are on my personal playlist of all-time favorite tunes — I also appreciate the gentle graciousness with which the pair approaches their audience. I find it a pleasure to listen to songs sung clearly with beautiful melodies that stay with me long after the concert has ended.

Preceding Saturday evening’s event is an optional 7 p.m. potluck supper, a casual gathering of fellow folk music aficionados. For those who choose to attend the pre-concert meal, it’s also a chance to mingle with two down-to-earth performers in a friendly, low-key environment. Following the concert, an after-concert jam ensues in which music-making attendees bring out guitars, fiddles, dulcimers and other instruments to take turns making more music. It’s yet another chance for those of us who don’t play to sit back and enjoy the talent of others. The entire evening is available for a donation of just $10, a small price to pay for a large serving of food, fellowship, fine songs and good old-time fun.

Like Mangsen and Gillette, David Roth is another soothing voice in a noisy world. A Chicago native transplanted to Cape Cod after several years living and performing in Seattle, Roth entertains audiences with his unique ability to combine offbeat observations with moving stories that often are humorous, as well as powerful statements on contemporary issues.

David Roth

Although Roth’s bookings rarely bring him to Lake County, he’s a regular winter performer in Central Florida. This year, his final stop on a 9-day tour across the Sunshine State will be a 6 p.m. concert on Jan. 24 at the University Unitarian Universalist Society in Orlando for a donation of $15 per person.

While Lake County is home to a great number of talented local acoustic musicians who perform all year long in intimate settings throughout the region, I consider it a special treat to be able to attend small-venue concerts by special performers who only visit our stomping grounds in the month of January.

While there are those who object to all the snowbirds who come south when temperatures dip low, I say, bring ’em on. Especially snowbirds that sing, because I for one, intend to be in the audience, absorbing the stories and singing along to the sweet sounds of Florida winter from a folk music perspective. Hope to see you there too.

Here is where you can get details on the performance:

David Roth:

Cindy Mangsen and Steve Gillette:

UUU Society of Orlando: 11648 McCulloch Rd, Orlando, FL 32817, 407-737-4018.

3rd Saturday concert in Eustis: Trout Lake Nature Center; 520 East County Road 44, Eustis, 352-408-9800 or email

Monday, January 4, 2016

A New Year without resolutions

The first few weeks of January are an optimistic period. Fresh starts dominate. Goal setting ensues. Minds are aflutter with dreams and expectations.

I know the feeling of unbridled enthusiasm for New Year resolutions. In years gone by, I’ve written down goals and worked hard — at least for a while — to achieve them. Although some plans reached fruition, others faded away in the twilight of good intentions. Overall, step-by-step and year-by-year, positive strides have been achieved. Progress, though slow, is progress nonetheless.

This year, however, I’m doing things differently. Instead of pensively striving to contemplate tomorrows, I want to meet the future without tethers or ties. I have no printed list of proposals. No resolute statements or carefully mapped out plans. I want to see what it’s like to experience the next 11 months unleashed from a list of grand promises and ideals.

If it sounds like an excuse for not making New Year resolutions, maybe it is, but for a planner like me it’s also a scary proposition. I’ve always considered goal setting an essential part of personal growth. In my mind, plans and accomplishments go hand-in-hand. Without hard work and determination, I’ve always believed dreams stagnate and aspirations dwindle.

For decades, the beginning of January found me writing down a list of goals for the year ahead. I would review them regularly, dating and placing checkmarks to indicate when expectations were met.

And yet, there comes a time in life when it feels right to take a break. Instead of working so hard to have more — more material objects or more achievements — it seems important to work harder at enjoying what you have. That’s what I want to do in 2016. I want to do less and enjoy it more. I want to be listless in the sense of being free from expectations and penned-out plans. At the same time, I want to be open to whatever opportunities and experiences come along.

This year, I’m taking a break from tradition. I’m allowing myself a little leeway and letting go of expectations. If you are among the multitude making New Year resolutions, I applaud your efforts. I hope you attain as many of your objectives as possible and for those resolutions that fail to thrive, I hope you don’t fault yourself harshly. It’s important to remember that sometimes we learn as much — if not more — from our failures as we do from our successes.

As for me, I’m flying free for the first time in years. The first few weeks of January are an optimistic period and I’m excited to see what each new day brings.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 was quite a year for wildlife encounters

Over the past year, I have had some memorable wildlife encounters.

Bluebird, bobcat and coyote sightings thrilled me in January while one highlight of February was videotaping several crows harassing a bald eagle on its pine tree perch.

I photographed coyotes again in March along with woodpeckers, sandhill cranes and a puffed up male peacock trying his best to impress several uninterested females.

Some of my most memorable wildlife finds in April were a complete surprise. While walking through Oakland Nature Preserve just west of Winter Garden, I chanced upon zebras, wildebeests, ostriches, antelope and long-horned cattle grazing the grass at Briley Farm, a private exotic animal farm abutting the preserve.

Nesting bluebirds, fluttering butterflies and a wild beehive discovered by my 5-year-old grandson were among May's highlights while June yielded a wild turkey sighting, the discovery of a cardinal nest, more bluebird action and concern over the presence of too many seed-stealing squirrels at my birdfeeders.

July was a month filled with fluttering and buzzing. I wrote about, videotaped and photographed numerous butterflies, bees and beneficial wasps fluttering around plants like African blue basil, tropical milkweed and scarlet salvia.

Sweet little chickadees brought smiles to my face in August even as I frowned over a seemingly unstoppable invasion of tawny crazy ants to areas directly around our house.

I learned about assassin bugs in September, which despite their name, are not harmful to people. My spotted beebalm plant provided hours of entertainment as I watched a wide range of pollinators visit its nectar-producing flowers.

During my birthday month of October, I made a short movie of an immature ibis awkwardly trying to balance on a utility wire and fretted over the discovery of a large rat in one of my flowerpots after returning home from a week at the beach.

In November, I took pictures of a belted kingfisher fluffing his feathers and photographed spider webs glimmering in the morning dew.

One day, as I was coming home from town, I chanced upon a giant rattlesnake on our driveway. Seeing such a large and beautiful specimen is a rarity considering how quick most people are to kill snakes, especially venomous varieties. I left my find alone to live long and prosper in the forest understory.

November was also the month when I first spotted feral hogs on our property near Groveland. Unlike the rattlesnake, which I never considered killing, knowing that a passel of hogs has discovered our lakeside home has created an ethical struggle. Initially, I was excited to see such large mammals on our property. But as the weeks went by and more and more land was uprooted, I began to question my views on hunting.

I was distraught by the slaughter of 295 Florida black bears — hunting was permitted in October for the first time in 21 years. Killing them seemed wrong for so many reasons, but wild hogs are different. Unlike the black bear, with a small population hovering around 3,000, the number of feral pigs is huge. A half-million or more of these disease- and parasite-carrying critters roam the Florida countryside digging up land, wallowing in mud and polluting waterways such as our clear, clean lake.

Learning to coexist with nature has always been important to me, but sometimes coexisting is simply not possible. In December, I watched as a black boar swam through the water in our lake. When he stepped out on land, I realized I'd had enough. Seeing our shoreline torn up was one thing, but sharing the water in our lake with this bristly fellow and his friends was more than I could bear. The boar and I took a good long look at one another before he turned and ran away.

I've learned to live with alligators. I'm not scared of snakes. I appreciate spiders, bees and pollinating wasps. But feral hogs are singular. They pose unique problems.

According to the Chinese calendar, it won't be the Year of the Pig until 2019. And yet where I live, the Year of the Pig already happened. It took place in 2015 when a sounder of swine discovered our property. I intend for 2016 to be different. One way or another the porcine population must leave our landscape. As much as I treasure wildlife encounters, I refuse to be hogtied by a feral pig invasion.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sherry's BLFs (Best Literary Finds) of 2015

As a reader with a voracious appetite for the written word, I always find it a pleasure to discover new authors. I’m especially thrilled when I chance upon writers who have been hard at work for years, producing one novel after another.

During the past 12 months, my literary fortune has been enriched by the discovery of several new-to-me novelists. Jojo Moyes, Joseph Monninger, Jeffrey Stepakoff, Deborah Smith, and Juliet Blackwell are all contemporary writers with large bodies of work that, until this year, I didn’t know existed. How glad I am to have made their acquaintance through the pages of their books.

Meet my 6 new BLF's (Best Literary Finds) of 2015

Moyes is a British author with 13 titles under her belt while New Hampshire resident Monninger has written 22 books including one memoir, two non-fiction titles, many young adult books and three wonderful novels for adults that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I liked Moyes’s work so much that after reading the first book I picked up – One Plus One, which was released in 2014 - I went on what I call a ‘JoJo Jubilee.’

Since January, I’ve read six more of Moyes’s novels and enjoyed every one. Because Moyes writes with a British accent, her stories include many phrases, terms and colloquialisms that were unfamiliar to me, but I liked that about her stories. In addition to positive outcomes, relatable characters and captivating plots that kept me turning pages late into the night, I enjoyed learning new terminology and being transported through print into different cultures and ways of seeing the world.

While Moyes writes from a British perspective, Monninger’s three adult fiction books come from a New Englander’s viewpoint. The first Monninger novel I read was the deeply touching Eternal on the Water (2010), which is set in Maine. From there I went on to read his two other fiction titles as well as two of his young adult books.

Monninger, who lives in New Hampshire and teaches English at Plymouth College, infuses his novels with his deep passion for nature. His characters are kind, sensitive and attuned to their surroundings. As a former New Englander myself, the settings in Monninger’s stories were familiar. I could easily imagine canoeing down a river in Maine (Eternal on the Water), skating over a frozen river (The World as We Know It) or gazing out of a farmhouse window at the falling leaves (Margaret from Maine).

Although North Carolinian Jeffrey Stepakoff is the author of four novels with over a million copies published in 20 languages, he is perhaps better known for his decades-long career in film and television as a screenwriter, producer and developer of television series, films and major motion pictures. Some of his notable work includes shows such as Dawson’s Creek and The Wonder Years and movies like Disney’s Brother Bear and Tarzan.
During the past year, I read three of Stepakoff’s four novels and found myself especially taken with his 2010 novel, The Orchard, a love story with an unexpected romance set in the north Georgia and Carolinas countryside.

Like Stepakoff, author Deborah Smith also bases many of her stories in the Appalachian Mountains where she was raised and still lives. As the author of 35 novels in romance and women’s fiction, Smith calls her novels "big, romantic, southern family stories."

I appreciate her portrayal of strong female characters overcoming obstacles and often defying societal conventions. Of the three Smith novels I’ve read so far this year, my favorite was Sweet Hush, the story of a southern apple farm and the ‘bushel’ of trouble that suddenly surrounds it.

Author Jenny Colgan, who has written 20 novels over the past 15 years, divides her time between homes in France and England. 
Both countries are reflected in her 2013 book, The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris, which was the first of four novels I read last year by Colgan. In this book main character Anna Trent relocates from northern England to work in a small but famous chocolate shop in Paris.

As Trent learns more about her new trade, I too found myself absorbing knowledge not only about the making of chocolate confections, but also about French life in present times as well as during the last century. 

Juliet Blackwell is the author of 22 books but so far, I’ve only read one - her 2014 novel The Paris Key, which I discovered last month. Like so many of the other wonderful stories I read this year, I couldn’t put it down. I found myself staying up late at night to read just a few more pages. 

Blackwell skillfully combines French history with architectural facts. She mixes in numerous French phrases – which I enjoyed asking my husband to interpret for me - and included fascinating facts about locksmiths and the importance of keys to unlocking the secrets of not only of rooms but of life itself. 

Any book that teaches me about subjects I previously knew nothing about while also serving up generous helpings of plots, different cultures and determined female characters is a book that warrants reading and sharing with others.

As 2015 nears its end, I’m grateful for the talented writers whose printed words have taken me on so many imaginative adventures as well as the public libraries where I found most of this year’s reads. If you have favorite books from the past year, please share! Together we can begin 2016 with a reading list of our own.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Beachcombing in the woods

It was a perfect late December day.  Cool enough for a fleece vest but warm enough to go without a hat, gloves or socks.  As I walked the path along the lake, brightly colored leaves lay on the ground. I picked up several and put them in my pocket.  My collection grew until I came to the stump.  It seemed like the perfect place to arrange a display.

From bottom center going clockwise:  

The heart-shaded, yellow leaf in the bottom center fell from one of the ubiquitous fox grapevines that grow throughout the woods.

To its left is a small, crisp, brown oak leaf.

Above to the left are four black peppervine berries still attached to the stem.  Like grapevines, peppervines creep and weave their way across the forest floor climbing upward whenever they can.

A pinecone is above the peppervine berries and the red leaf above the pinecone comes from a laurel cherry tree.  A yellow and another red laurel cherry leaf are in the middle of the picture.

I'm not sure what kind of leaf is in the top center.  It is almost black and very dry and crisp.  It might also have fallen from one of the many oak trees.

One more cherry laurel leaf - this one an orange-red color and to it's left are three Alba biden or Spanish needle flowers.

Just below the white Alba biden blooms is a pretty scarlet swamp maple leaf and below that is a golden raintree seed still attached to a very thin, papery brown sheath.

It was a good walk in the woods.