Monday, October 26, 2009

A sweet journey back in time

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 26, 2009)

I just finished eating a candy apple. October is my birthday month, and indulging in treats that I usually don't eat is one of my birthday traditions. This year, not only did I enjoy eating a bright red candy apple, I traveled to Pennsylvania to get it. Another birthday gift to myself was a return to my hometown, coinciding with my 40-year high school reunion. For my 58th birthday, I traveled back in time to my youth, revisiting old friends, driving down winding country roads and stopping by some of the businesses I frequented in my childhood.

My friend Megan picked me up at the airport, and we used the 45-minute drive from Philadelphia to Yardley to fill in the gaps since we last saw each other 23 years ago. After driving past both of our childhood homes, we stopped at Cramer Bakery, where I was hoping to find the pecan crescent cookies I was so fond of as a child. Unfortunately, the bakery — which looked amazingly the same as it did in 1969 — had sold out of those particular cookies. That's probably just as well. One lesson I learned from my birthday trip is that edible remembrances of times gone by are often sweeter than the treats themselves.

Megan drove me to the home of Mary Ann, another classmate I had known since kindergarten. Because Megan had opted out of attending the reunion, my plans were to stay at Mary Ann's house for the weekend and go with her to the reunion activities. Mary Ann and her husband, Harry, live in the small town of Wycombe in a historic home that they have lovingly restored. Even though we hadn't seen each other for four decades, meeting Mary Ann had none of the awkwardness one would expect after so much time. Despite the years, our interests and lifestyle choices were remarkably similar. We caught up with each other quickly and felt immediately at ease.

Mary Ann and I attended several pre-reunion gatherings with former classmates. A few of us met one morning at Styer Orchard, where I bought the candy apple. Like Cramer's, Styer's was around when I was a child, and memories of going there in autumn for pumpkin pies and candy apples flavored my youth. Another old familiar haunt was Goodnoe Farm Dairy Bar, an ice cream parlor where I worked as a teen. Although I rarely eat ice cream anymore, for old time's sake I ordered a sugar cone topped with a generous scoop of cherry vanilla ice cream.

All of our outings weren't about food. About a dozen classmates gathered at Bowman's Tower, a 125-foot-tall stone tower near Washington's Crossing that we used to frequent. Although we obeyed the rules and rode the elevator to the top (an elevator that wasn't there during our high school years), some of us opted to take the stairs back down even though a sign told us the stairway was off limits. We were, after all, the class of '69 — once a rebel, always a rebel. Another outing was to the artistic community of New Hope along the Delaware River, where we listened to the Sonic Falcons, a band made up of former classmates. Even though people there were friendly and the music was fun, I felt out of the loop at that gathering. The venue was loud and smoky, two qualities for which my 58-year-old body has minimal tolerance.

The reunion dinner itself was anti-climactic, in part because the chief organizer of the weekend events, a classmate named Sharon, fell ill at the last minute and couldn't attend.

My birthday trip to Lower Bucks County provided no shortage of treats. I saw about a dozen deer and hundreds of geese. The leaves on the trees were in full autumnal splendor, something I haven't seen in such richness and intensity for many years. As we drove along picturesque roads, we passed beautiful stone farmhouses surrounded by harvested cornfields. Yes, I ate a candy apple, but far sweeter and longer-lasting than any of my edible treats were the friendships I rekindled. Getting to reconnect with Megan, Mary Ann, Sharon, Tom, Ron, Suzanne, Coreen, Bev, Betsy and so many others was far more special than any taste of artificial sweetness.

They say you can't go back in time, but this year, for my birthday, that's exactly what I did.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Aptly named beautyberry thrives

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 19, 2009)

Beautyberry earns its name in autumn. As a small deciduous shrub, Callicarpa americana is a blaze of brightness in an October woods. The fruit is the plant's most striking feature. Clusters of tiny berries the color of passion — a pulsating pinkish-purple — cling to leaf axils like beads on a necklace. In verdant woods, where greens predominate, catching sight of a beautyberry bush is like chancing upon an unexpected gemstone — its color dazzles.

Eighteen years ago, the property we live on had none of the attributes beautyberry requires. As an understory plant, Callicarpa americana likes a semi-shaded location where accumulated plant litter has turned the natural sandy or clay soil into a lightly enriched loam. When we first moved here, there were only a handful of trees and the soil was a rough and barren patchwork of clay, sand and peat. It took years of aggressively planting but eventually a forest developed and with that forest came an assortment of shade-loving plants, not the least of which is the lovely beautyberry. I can't remember when I discovered the first plant but I remember how excited I was to chance upon the berry's unusually colored fruit.

A few days ago when I was walking through the woods, I realized that our forest was no longer home to a solitary specimen of Callicarpa americana. Thanks to the efforts of birds and small animals, dozens of beautyberries have taken root in the forest's fertile soil. Unlike the thousands of slash pines, bamboos and assorted ornamentals that Ralph and I laboriously planted, we didn't play any part in the propagation of beautyberry bushes. Animals did the hard work for us. Armadillos, fox, wood rats and raccoons nibbled on the berries along with bobwhites, thrashers, cardinals, mockingbirds, robins, towhees and woodpeckers. The bush's abundant and long-lasting fruit is a dependable food source while some other animals, like white-tailed deer, prefer nibbling on the plant's tender leaves.

Because so many animals eat the berries and, in the process, help spread the seeds, some people think beautyberry is a nuisance weed. I'm not among them. I'm fond of volunteer plants — especially pretty ones with interesting features. I like the way they surprise me with their presence.

Although I have never done more than look at and appreciate the berries, Callicarpa americana does have medicinal and edible qualities. A tea made out of the plant's roots is purported to relieve colic, dysentery and stomachaches while old time Floridians made jelly from the extremely astringent fruit. Native Americans added fresh beautyberry leaves to sweat baths as a remedy for rheumatism and fever and some people use the bark from stems and roots to relieve itchiness.

I'm too lazy to attempt jelly making and more likely to munch on a piece of candied ginger if my stomach feels unsettled than I am to dig up a beautyberry root to make tea, but I like learning about a plant's history and the different ways it is used by people around the world. I also like watching my woods fill up with uniquely colored botanicals. The fruit of Callicarpa americana is different than any other color I have found in nature. It is not quite purple or pink but some entirely different shade. I call it passion pink, the color of excitement.

Beautyberries in autumn are an exciting addition to the changing landscape. These compact, symmetrically formed, drought-tolerant bushes are one of Florida's best excuses to take a walk in a late October woods. Callicarpa americana berries last until midwinter, when they eventually shrivel up and dry on the stems, but don't wait that long. Beautyberry fruit are at their peak right now. Visit a park or wilderness area. Go for a walk in the woods. Discover the passion this Florida wildflower inspires.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Autumn comes home to roost

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 12, 2009)

Seasonal indicators abound. Over the past few weeks, the goldenrain tree has burst into bloom, showering the sky with color. The deciduous tree's gold-to-coral display is one of my favorite signs that a seasonal shift is under way. Summer is on the wane. Autumn has arrived.

On the ground, stiff brown sycamore leaves have begun to gather beneath increasingly bare branches while a noticeably cooler breeze blows across the feathery faces of goldenrod plumes. Whatever bright-orange persimmons the raccoons missed now dangle from leafless branches. On loquat trees, fragrant white blossoms have emerged, promising a hefty harvest in February. And the other day, for the first time in several months, I actually had difficulty submerging myself in the lake.

"Gosh, the water has gotten cooler," I said to Ralph as we headed into the lake after being outside for a while. "I haven't had this much trouble getting in since last April."

All summer long, dipping into the silky smooth water has been as easy to do as snuggling under the covers. The lake has been a delightful escape from the intense summer heat, but now that the air temperature has dropped, the lake has cooled correspondingly. I did manage to ease my way in yesterday, but I did so with more reluctance than I'd felt in months.

I'm not complaining. The loss of one pleasure is just an opportunity for another to take its place, and my most recent delight has come from observing an osprey that I hadn't seen all summer.

I first noticed the large fish hawk on our lake last November. Throughout the fall and winter and into the spring, the white-bellied raptor perched on a bamboo pole sticking out of a submerged peat island in the middle of our lake. Every morning when I woke up, I saw the bird sitting there and, although it left during the day, it returned at dusk to spend the night on its precarious perch. The osprey became such a fixture that after a while I stopped paying attention to it. I suppose I took its presence for granted. Maybe that's why we were well into summer when I realized it was no longer there.

The summer of 2009 was so full of weddings, new babies and writing projects that I didn't have time for prolonged pondering about the osprey's whereabouts. Occasionally I wondered why it had gone away, where it went and when it would come back. I missed watching the broad-winged bird circle the lake, dive to catch fish, then devour its catch while balancing on the bamboo perch. I even missed hearing its piercing cry — the osprey's warning when I approached too close.

The day I realized it had come back was the first cool day in October. Before then, it had not occurred to me that seasonal changes had anything to do with the osprey's whereabouts. Because I was used to seeing ospreys year-round, it didn't dawn on me that some fish hawks are migratory, traveling thousands of miles annually to return to good fishing grounds.

I have no doubt that the bird that recently returned to our lake is the same osprey that was here last November. Ospreys are creatures of habit, and once a bird has claimed a suitable habitat as its own, it comes back every year.

I don't know where the osprey in my lake spent its summer, but I do know that its return is yet another indication that the seasons have changed. Autumn in Florida is a wonderful time of year, and having a resident osprey to observe only makes it better.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Work-of-art web vs. Web? Easy choice

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 5, 2009)

Ralph had just completed the first loop in his daily walk around the lake when he opened the door, stuck his head inside the house and called out.

"Come see this spider that has built a web in the pine woods. And bring your camera."

Not one to dally when a wildlife encounter is imminent, I pushed away from the computer, slipped into a pair of Crocs and grabbed the camera.

As we headed toward the woods, I asked, "What kind of spider is it?"

He responded with a single word: "Huge!"

Although many people are terrified by spiders, I'm not among them. Quite the contrary, I find the eight-legged creatures fascinating. I like the way spiders look, how they act, the type of structures they build and the way these patient predators capture and eventually consume their prey. On many occasions, I've asked Ralph to join me in observing a particularly beautiful specimen as it went about its bug-catching business. There are more than 700 kinds of spiders in Florida, and I have yet to see one that hasn't been interesting to watch. Knowing my enthusiasm, Ralph was eager to show me his find.

As we walked through the bamboo nursery to get to the piney woods, I paid attention to all the spiders we were passing. Arachnids seemed to be everywhere. Interwoven among plant leaves and branches were spiny orb weavers with their tiny, colorful, crablike carapaces. I saw black and yellow argiope spiders, easily identifiable by the bright white zigzag stitches in the center of their webs, long-jawed orb weavers and one green lynx spider that blended in so convincingly with the leaf it was sitting on that I almost didn't notice it.

When we approached the woods, Ralph put out an arm to stop me from walking farther.

"Look ahead," he commanded, pointing toward the shady path.

There, sitting in the middle of a magnificent web, was one of the largest spiders I had ever seen. It was a female golden silk spider, Nephila clavipes, with a body at least 3 inches long. Even more impressive than its massive size was the architectural wonder this consumer of dragonflies, moths and lizards had constructed.

Using secretions released from spinnerets attached to its abdomen, the spider had woven a silky tapestry that spanned a 12-foot-wide path. Anchored in several places to two slash pines, one on each side of the path, the intricately woven web billowed in the breeze like a gold-threaded sail. Toward the center were two spiders — the extremely large female with her bright yellow body and her much smaller, dull-colored, opposite-sex counterpart.

"Are you sure that's the male?" Ralph asked as he stepped closer to the web.

I knew it was, but my husband's doubt was justified. At first glance, the smaller spider looked more like a trapped bug than another Nephila clavipes. However, upon closer inspection, Ralph could see the resemblance. The nondescript, diminutive male hovering at the periphery of the web's hub was really a miniature version of the female. As with most invertebrates, female spiders are generally larger and more colorful than males.

We stood in the woods observing the spiders for quite a while. Although my interest was still piqued, I knew that Ralph was getting antsy and was eager to continue his walk.

"Go ahead on," I told him as I clicked off yet another picture. "I just want to take a few more shots."

Ralph isn't as patient as I am when it comes to observing nature, but neither of us has the patience of spiders. It must have taken hours for that golden silk spider to construct her amazing web. Once it was built, she had to have spent more time waiting for her golden snare to ensnarl a meal. If Ralph hadn't been so observant during the first loop of his walk around the lake, he would have walked into the web and destroyed the spider's work. Instead, his sharp eyes enabled him to avoid a sticky situation and provided me with another opportunity to observe one of nature's beauties.

If I had to choose between a spider web and the World Wide Web, it wouldn't be much of a contest. I'd push away from the computer every time to watch one of nature's most fascinating creatures spin a little magic. I just wish more people would