Monday, August 30, 2010

Traditional map best guide for a trip through the past

Technology provides us with GPS units and online navigational tools, but if you're lost, sometimes a good old-fashioned map is the best way to get back on track

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 29, 2010)

During the past 10 months, my husband and I have lost all three of our remaining parents. My mother's funeral was Aug. 17 in the hamlet of Ellenville, N.Y., the town where she was born, grew up and met my father. I hadn't been back to Ellenville since my own childhood, when several times a year my parents and I would drive from our home in Yardley, Pa., to upstate New York to visit my mother's family.

Although most of my memories of those times are foggy, I can clearly recall the pretty countryside. When planning my trip north for the funeral, I made the decision to absorb as much of that beauty as I could.

"You flew into Allentown, Pa.?" my cousin asked. "You could have landed in Newark. It would have been so much closer."

My cousin was right. If I had flown into Newark, I would have had a shorter drive, but I also would have had to navigate through one of the ugliest parts of New Jersey. There would have been lots of traffic, noise, unpleasant odors and unattractive sites.

It might have been a more efficient route, but efficiency wasn't my goal. I was seeking serenity. I wanted to fly into a smaller, calmer airport. I wanted to drive down quiet country lanes. I was seeking as much peacefulness as possible to buffer what I expected to be a less-than-pleasant occasion, the funeral of a parent.

If it hadn't been for flight delays, things would have worked out as planned. Unfortunately, the plane to Allentown landed several hours late, dashing expectations of daylight driving. Instead, I set off in my economy-priced rental car just as the sun was setting.

I thought I was well prepared. I came with a Google Maps printout of my route and a portable GPS as a backup. Nonetheless, I managed to get confused. Google Maps told me one thing, while my GPS said another. Thanks to a kind storekeeper who gave me an actual map, I finally managed to get on the right road, but by then it was quite late and I needed a rest. I pulled into a small motel.

I had heard the term "fleabag motel" before, but until that night, I had never experienced one. For the outrageous sum of $57, I paid for a room inhabited by ankle-biting bugs. Too tired to realize what was happening in the dark, I discovered my predicament when I awoke in the morning.

Within minutes, I packed up my few belongings and was out the door. Despite ankles now covered with itchy welts, the morning drive was exactly what I was after. The countryside was beautiful. Colorful wildflowers lined the roads. Stone houses sat beneath towering trees. The small roads I had purposely selected wove their way through undulating mountains. It couldn't have been prettier.

I got to Ellenville with time to spare. I explored the town, browsing through shops and driving down side roads. The funeral was traditional. I saw relatives I hadn't seen since childhood. We all did our best to breach the years and rekindle old relationships. After a communal meal at a local restaurant, I said my goodbyes and left for Allentown.

This time, I was driving in daylight. I turned off the GPS, threw the Google Map printout on the car floor and relied entirely on a good old-fashioned paper map. My drive was delightful as I made my way through one pretty town after another. Two and a half hours later, my rental car was returned and I was back at the airport.

Funerals are never happy occasions, but I sought to make the best of this one by paying homage to the countryside where my mother grew up. Although not everything went as planned, I considered the trip a success. I reconnected with relatives, relived bits of the past and honored the place where my mother's life began.

My mother used to say, "If you have a mouth, you can't get lost," and she was right. With her advice in mind, I asked for a map and became unconfused. Even in death, a mother's wisdom rings true.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Antlions — clever predators of bug world

Conical holes in the sand trap ants and other bugs that happen to crawl by

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 22, 2010)

"Look at all the antlions you have," Tavares resident Mike Endres said, pointing at the sandy ground surrounding our bamboo gazebo. "You must know all about antlions."

Staring at the patch of pockmarked ground where he pointed, I said I knew absolutely nothing about antlions. Until Mike and his wife, Annette, visited our nursery, I had never even heard of them.

"I'm afraid I don't know what antlions are," I admitted.

"See all these conical pits in the sand?" Mike patiently explained. "Hidden under the sand at the bottom of each pit is a little bug called an antlion. It's called that because it eats ants that walk by and fall into its trap."

Image from

What a surprise. I had no idea insects had purposely created all the round holes surrounding the gazebo. I had noticed the holes — they were always there — but thought that drips of water had made them. I didn't realize they were actually the work of predatory larvae that were patiently waiting to devour their prey.

"We used to call them doodlebugs," Annette added. "Maybe you know them by that name?"

Unfortunately, I did not.

The name "doodlebug" comes from the insect's meandering trail, which leaves visible, doodlelike designs in the sand. Once the crawling larva locates a suitable spot, it creates an ant-trapping pit by "drawing" a series of concentric spirals. Each spiral is a bit deeper than the previous one until the entire construction becomes a slippery, cone-shaped hole about two inches deep and three inches across. Clueless ants that wander into these clever traps rarely escape.

When the Endreses left, I knelt down next to the pit-filled ground to look more closely at my newfound friends. Any critter that eats ants earns automatic endearment. I was determined to learn as much as I could about these helpful predators with the underground homes.

Upon close inspection, I saw activity in the holes. In each pit, an almost completely buried antlion was either repairing its trap or capturing prey. While I watched, ants wandered by, slid into the holes and suddenly vanished. Antlions are just over a half-inch long, but their strong mandibles make fast work of hapless insects that fall into their lairs.

I consider myself a keen observer of wildlife, but somehow I had managed to live 58 years without even knowing that doodlebugs existed. To make up for lost time, I began to do research.

Antlions belong to the Myrmeleontidae family — insects that progress through a complete metamorphosis. The adult form is a four-winged bug called a lacewing-antlion that looks somewhat like a dragonfly. The lacewing-antlion stays in its winged stage for only a few months — long enough to lay a series of small, white eggs linked together in a horseshoe pattern on building eaves, plant leaves and even the underside of lawn furniture.

Image from

The eggs hatch into larvae, which are fierce-looking creatures with spindle-shaped bodies, flat heads, large, pincerlike jaws and three pairs of short legs. They transport themselves on these stubby appendages to sheltered, soft, sandy areas where they can doodle their way to dietary delight. While lacewing-antlions don't last long, the larva stage lasts for up to three years.

At some point, instinct triggers another transformation, and ant hunting gives way to the business of building a cocoon. Using a mixture of sand and its own silk, the larva constructs a globular cocoon beneath the sand, where it remains for about a month. At the end of the month, a sexually mature lacewing-antlion emerges to begin the cycle again.

I had no idea how much was happening in the ground surrounding my gazebo.

The day after Mike and Annette Endres introduced me to these small, sit-and-wait predators, another customer brought them up. For 10 years, people have visited our nursery without a single mention of antlions. Suddenly, in two days, two customers zoned in on the ant-eating insects.

This second customer was a mom who had brought along her three children. As I was explaining to her husband the differences between clumping bamboos and running bamboos, I overheard the mother teaching her elementary-age offspring.

"Do you see those circular pits in the sand? Down in the bottom, hidden beneath the sand, is a little bug called an antlion," she explained. "It's called that because, like a lion, it hunts for food, and the food this lion likes to eat are ants."

I may have not have known about antlions two weeks ago, but thanks to two customers, I am familiar with them now. No matter how long you live somewhere, you'll never know everything about your environment. There will always be surprises. There are new creatures to discover, plants to learn about, unfamiliar areas to explore.

This time it was antlions. I wonder what it will be next time?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lunching and learning with a lizard

A green anole on a broccoli leaf

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 15, 2010)

I was eating my lunch on the porch. On the other side of the screen, a lizard was having lunch too.

I was sitting at a small, round wooden table, a placemat beneath my bowl, a cloth napkin on my lap. My meal was an assemblage of fresh veggies and leftover noodles with generous dollops of homemade pesto sprinkled with Romano cheese. Not only was it an aesthetically pleasing portion, it was a gastronomically appealing one as well.

The little green anole's meal was much less elaborate, but perhaps — from a lizard's point of view — it was equally appealing. While I ate sitting down, the lizard was eating on the run. Like a hungry diner at an all-you-can-eat buffet, the 6-inch-long reptile worked its way steadily from one feeding station to another. A tasty gnat here, a mosquito there — the anole ate until it was sated, at least for the moment.

I found myself so mesmerized that I could hardly concentrate on my own food.

To me, lunchtime is like a meditation. I try to eat in peace. I don't want to talk about work or projects or solve problems while I'm eating. In fact, I don't really want to talk at all. I just want to sit quietly, eat slowly and enjoy my food. Stress-free dining is what I'm after, and most days, that's what I get.

On this day, however, my eating patterns were askew.

The kitchen, where I normally dine, was anything but quiet. Ralph was on a speakerphone having a frustrating conversation with a series of tech-support people. It seemed never-ending. I tried to be patient and wait out the call, but my stomach was grumbling. My bowlful of food beckoned, and my need for escape time was growing greater by the minute. I went onto the porch to remove myself from noisy chatter.

The anole appeared right after I sat down. Often mistaken for a chameleon because of its ability to change color, the American anole, Anolis carolinensis, is a familiar sight around Southern homes. At any given time, I can walk outside and see an anole perched on a plant stem, scurrying across the sidewalk or clinging to the screens, like the one by the porch.

Anoles survive on a diet of small insects, spiders and moths, and because these territorial creatures often inhabit the same environments as people, they are easy to observe.

From my perch on the porch, I could see the lizard's entire body. I watched its stomach expand and contract as it breathed in and out. I could make out each of the five toes on its four feet as it clung to the screen with uncanny ease. Its long, thin tail and pointy nose formed a straight line as it silently gauged its next stop. When it sensed an insect, it sprang into action. Moving swiftly, it captured and devoured its prey.

As I lifted a forkful of noodles to my mouth, I considered the life of untamed creatures. It can't be easy to spend time every hour as anoles do, finding and eating food. Yet despite a near-constant need to eat, lizards are not fat. For that matter, I can't recall ever seeing any wild animals seriously overweight. Like all wild animals, lizards have predators to avoid and harsh weather to endure. Then again, they don't have to deal with frustrating tech-support calls or the myriad of modern problems that pepper our domesticated lives.

I went onto the porch to eat a peaceful meal and returned to the kitchen when my meal was over. Thanks to an unexpected dinner guest, not only was I physically well fed, I was emotionally nourished.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Use good sense, not fear, with alligators

Feeding alligators causes them to lose their natural fear and act aggressively toward people

Simply Living

August 9, 2010

"Are there alligators in that lake?"

People who visit our lakeside property and bamboo nursery have asked me that question countless times.

I always answer: "Yes."

At  all times, in any Florida lake — man-made or spring-fed — at least one  gator is likely to be present. Alligators are aquatic animals. Although  they nest in marshy areas and travel over dry land, these descendants of  prehistoric predators spend most of their time in or around water. I  find that fascinating. Many people find it frightening.

"You don't swim in the water, do you?" is the usual follow-up question.

I most definitely do, and so does Ralph, our children and now our year-old grandson, Atom.

Swimming  in a clean, clear, silky-smooth lake is one of life's simple pleasures.  The fact that at least one alligator may be in the lake, too, doesn't  stop me from enjoying the water. It just makes me more aware.

I'm  not a particularly brave, brazen or foolish person. I'm just someone who  has always liked swimming in lakes,  strives to understand her  surroundings and  appreciates and respects the critters that share her  world. Awareness and education are essential when confronting any of  life's many dangers.

The more you learn about potential problems, the easier it is to avoid them. Alligators  are large, scary-looking animals with a mouthful of sharp teeth, a  powerful tail and the ability to stay under water for long periods.  Although their potential to inflict great harm is undeniable, most of  their energy is directed toward the fish, turtles and small mammals that  make up their diet.

Fatal alligator attacks on people are rare.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has documented 22  alligator-related deaths in Florida since 1948. Figures from the  National Weather Service show that more people in Florida were killed by  lightning in the past four years than by alligator bites in the past 62  years.

I find such statistics reassuring — especially when I'm  floating in the middle of the lake or taking an evening dip to cool off  after working in the garden.

Alligators were a part of Florida  long before people. Their ancestors swam in lakes like the one in my  backyard 80 million years ago. An animal that has remained relatively  unchanged for such a long time must be doing something right. People may  not like alligators because they are so large and potentially  dangerous, but it's hard not to admire an animal that has so  successfully survived and adapted to an ever-changing world.

Although  I have no desire to have a one-on-one encounter, I respect alligators  and enjoy seeing them in the wild. Anyone who can get past the fear  factor will find these  armored creatures captivating to watch. But  watching them is all that should be done. Under no circumstances should  anyone ever feed a wild alligator. Not only is feeding these  large-bodied, small-brained animals illegal, it's what causes them to  lose their natural fear and act aggressively toward people.

Three  times in the past 19 years, we've had to have aggressive alligators  removed from our lake. When we were swimming, these rogue gators swam  toward us rather than away. When we tried to scare them off, they  ignored us. Behavior like that is not normal and indicates potential  problems. Fortunately, the fish and wildlife commission is there to  help. (The commission's Nuisance Alligator Hotline is 1-866-FWC-GATOR,  or 1-866-392-4286.)

The commission considers an alligator a  nuisance if it is at least 4 feet long and poses a threat to people or  pets. The agency sends out a licensed trapper to remove the animal. If only it were as easy to remove nuisance people...

When it comes to  alligators, our imagination gets us in trouble. Allowing fear to replace  common sense may be easy to do, but it's not particularly helpful.

If  we spent half as much energy evaluating facts as we spend concocting  scary scenarios, we'd be safer, saner and more in tune with nature. We'd  also enjoy swimming in clean, clear, silky-smooth lake water without  unnecessary worry and fear.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sights, sounds of twilight a sensory delight

Colorful cloud formations are one of many twilight pleasures

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 2, 2010)

In summer, 8:30 p.m. is neither day nor night. It's in-between time when the sun has already set but darkness has not yet settled in. Although twilight lasts but a moment, it's a magical moment. At a time when people are usually winding down, nocturnal animals are gearing up. It's one of the only chances we daylight dwellers have to peek into the world of night.

I like to be there when the night show begins so I try to go outside at dusk. If I'm tired, I may only step out the door, look up at the sky and listen, but if I'm feeling energetic I might jump on the trampoline, go for a swim or row in the lake. When I'm doing any of those things, my body is busy but my eyes are free to observe my surroundings. There's so much to see if I take the time to look.

On a recent night I was bouncing. I'm always amazed how much wildlife I see while jumping up and down on a taut webbed surface. As I jumped, one, two and then three bats appeared out of nowhere. They circled overhead in their swerving, irregular flight. I watched as they swooped and dove and dove again in their dizzying dance for dinner. I imagined all the mosquitoes they were catching and it made me smile. A single bat can eat up to 3,000 insects a night and I was watching three bats dine on the pesky bugs. It's no wonder mosquitoes have never been a bother even though we live next to a lake. I gave the bats a silent "thank you" and bounced a bit higher.

A few moments later — much to my surprise — an owl flew by. I have no idea what kind of owl it was, where it came from or where it went. The owl flew low and passed right in front of me but it swept by so fast, it was all I could do to take in its distinctive shape.

Other birds soared past more slowly. A pair of sandhill cranes — diurnal animals, active during daylight hours — crossed overhead toward their evening roost. Another daytime bird, a white heron, flew solo toward its nighttime perch. Off to the east, several nighthawks appeared whooshing their way up and down over the lake — more bug hunters relishing the smorgasbord of insect delights. Frogs also became active. As I rhythmically jumped up and down, small and medium size frogs hopped across the lawn and into the garden beds.

I didn't see any large mammals on this night but sometimes I do. Occasionally, I catch a glimpse of armadillos shuffling along in search of grubs, or raccoons hoping to score an easy meal in the compost pile. Although big animals tend to avoid people in their nocturnal wanderings, raccoons and armadillos seem less concerned with human encounters than with where their next meal is located.

As I continued bouncing, wildlife wasn't all I observed. I had an entire sky-show to behold. The shifting cloud formations, the darkening tones, the fading hues of blue and red added up to a sensory delight. To top things off, the moon rose slowly over the lake — a full moon, big and round, reflecting moonlight on the still water.

By the time I finished bouncing, less than 15 minutes after I'd begun, the sky was almost completely dark. Whichever insects managed to avoid capture by nighthawks, bats or frogs filled the air with chirps and buzzes. I went into the lake for a quick dip and by the time I returned to the house, the air was reverberating with the sounds of insects and frogs.

I'm not a night person. Being outside at dusk is about as much nighttime exposure as I'm likely to have. That doesn't stop me from enjoying it to the fullest. From bats to bullfrogs, owls to nighthawks, sunset to moonrise, there's magic in the moment too special to miss.