Monday, September 24, 2012

A new way to enjoy lakeside living

Tim and Ralph swim through the still water

Simply Living
September 24, 2012

Throughout September, my husband, son and I have been taking long swims in the lake.  The water this time of year is warm and silky.  A 30- to 40-minute swim produces a feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment without any chill involved.  It’s very refreshing.

We’ve enjoyed freshwater ever since we moved to the property in 1992 but until now, our watery excursions had been more like short dips than mini-marathon endeavors.  Most of the time what I called a "swim" was really a brief immersion.  When hot, I’d jump in to cool off, getting out soon after.

Occasionally, Ralph and I would swim out to the middle of the lake and back.  Sometimes we’d even venture the entire way across.  But even those swims of approximately 200 to 400 feet were nothing compared to what we’ve been doing of late.  Stroking along half of the lake’s perimeter follows a course about 10 times longer than across the lake and back.

At first, I was reluctant and admittedly scared.  What if one of us got tired, I worried?  And what about alligators?  Although I keep a close watch on wildlife and haven’t seen a gator in months, I’d be a fool to believe they aren’t there.  Waterside living in Florida means accepting and respecting the presence of aquatic critters, alligators included.  It also means becoming educated about alligator behavior and I knew enough to realize my fears were irrational.  To minimize danger we never swim without a partner, make a concerted effort to stay close to the shore and choose a time to swim when gators are less active. 

Once I overcame my concerns, I enjoyed the experience.  Long distance swimming in open water is different from anything I’d done before.  The buoyancy of the water takes much of the effort out of an exercise that strengthens every muscle group, improves cardio-vascular health and increases endurance. 

When swimming, even though I’m working hard, I’m also relaxing.  The silky smoothness of the water is soothing.  My mind drifts along with the clouds as I float on my back.  Ralph suggested I wear earplugs so I wouldn’t worry about getting water in my ears and I’m glad he did.  Swimming with earplugs is great.  Not only do they prevent me from getting water in my ears, they enable me to submerge my head, which amplifies the sound of my breathing.  As I do various modifications of the backstroke, I listen to my breath while looking skyward.  It feels very much like meditation.

When I’m not looking up at clouds, I’m watching the shore while doing the sidestroke or breaststroke.  Things look different when in the water instead of on it.  As I gently propel myself forward with steady strokes, I compare the view to what I would see if I were paddling along in my rowboat.  I notice things when I’m swimming that I might miss if I were rowing.  A dragonfly lands on a reed.  A school of minnows leaps out of water in front of me.  Up ahead two turtles appear then disappear just as quickly when they become aware of my presence.  In the water, I’ve become that alligator, the large predator moving swiftly through a liquid medium.

One day when we were on the return leg of our lengthy swim, it began to rain - no lightning and thunder, just a steady warm downpour.  How amazing it was to be in the water with giant bubbles erupting all around us!  When we arrived at the shore, it was too special to get out so we stayed in a little longer simply savoring the moment.

I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to continue our new exercise routine.  Right now, it’s easy because the air and water are warm but as the weather changes, getting wet will become more difficult.  I’ve never been a big fan of cold-water swimming.  Then again, until recently, I’d never been one to swim in the lake for more than a few minutes either. 

I’ve lived next to lakes for most of my life but it took me 60 years to realize the pleasure and freedom that comes from taking long swims in open water.  Rather than dwell on what I missed, I’d rather focus on what I’ve gained – new perspectives, improved health and a relaxing way to augment the joy of lakeside living.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Gone bananas

Bananas ripen when stored in a cool room

Simply Living
September 17, 2012

It had been such a long time since we’d harvested bananas I’d forgotten how heavy a hand of homegrown fruit could be.  That’s why I felt confident when I told my husband, “Go ahead and cut it.  I’ll catch it when it falls.”

Reaching high overhead, my husband trustingly chopped through the thick stalk supporting a cluster of plump yellow and green fruit.  Harvest is best when at least one banana is beginning to show hints of yellow but we had waited a tad too long.  About a third of the fruit were already ripe and ready to eat.

A hand of plump bananas about ready to pick

One final snip of the loppers and the hand of bananas fell into - and through - my waiting arms landing with a peel-splitting thump on the hard ground.

“Whoops!”  I said bending down to retrieve my now less-than-perfect cache.  “Guess that was a bad idea.”

Although the fall bruised several of the ripest bananas, most survived intact and undamaged.  Determined to redeem myself, I grabbed the bunch by the stalk in an attempt to heft it nonchalantly over my shoulder. 

Nope.  That wasn’t going to work either. 

Instead, I picked up our weighty bounty to lug home in my arms.  The hand of bananas must have weighed 25 pounds and contained close to 60 3- to 4-inch long plump fruits called fingers. 

Bananas are native to Southeast Asia where they have been cultivated for thousands of years.  Although introduced to Florida in the 16th century, the state’s semitropical climate makes commercial banana growing less viable here than in more consistently hot parts of the world.

On our property, we have four stands of bananas scattered about in the hope that at least one location provides the right environment for fruit production.

The most productive one of four stands of bananas on our property 
For optimal fruiting, bananas need hot weather, a rich, well-drained soil and regular rainfall or irrigation.  These fast-growing herbaceous plants develop from underground rhizomes or corms that look similar to (although are much larger than) gingerroots.  Gingers and bananas are related.  Both are of the botanical order Zingiberales.

It is out of these multi-eyed rhizomes that aboveground trunks sprout.  It takes between 10 and 15 months for a flower stalk to develop from a newly planted rhizome.  By the time the purple-red flower head develops, the trunk sports two to three dozen long, broad, green leaves, which lend a tropical look to the landscape. 

For the past four years, I resigned myself to expecting little more from our banana plants than a scenic impression.  Winter temperatures below freezing kick the gusto right out of tropical plants, turning green leaves brown and causing burgeoning bunches of potassium-rich fruit to wither on the stalk.

But this winter was different.  Mild temperatures and the lack of a hard frost enabled many of our more cold-sensitive plants to avoid winterkill.  After years of waiting, we could realistically anticipate enjoying multiple clusters of tasty fruit. 

After severing the fruit-bearing stalk from the mother plant, bananas ripen when placed in a cool, dark location.  We chose our pantry and it seems to be working out fine.  Each day when I check, more fingers have ripened.  There are more than enough bananas on that one hand to satisfy our needs and still have extras to share with family and friends.

At least four more clusters of fruit are developing on the same stand as the one we picked.  A few of the others locations show promise too.  It takes about five months for harvestable hands to develop from a flower stalk and since it is September now, that means I have two to three months left to improve upon my catch-a-bunch-of-falling -bananas technique. 

The next time I tell my trusting husband to “Go ahead and cut it,” I’d like to be able to hold up my end of the bargain. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

The tale of a giant rattler

Coiled and ready to strike, an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes warns its enemies with a loud persistent rattle

Simply Living
September 10, 2012

I’ve encountered quite a few snakes during the 25 years I’ve lived in Florida.  The vast majority has been harmless black racers, corn snakes, king snakes, garter snakes and rat snakes but occasionally I’ve chanced upon a venomous water moccasin along the lakeside in the tall grasses.  Although rattlesnakes live in Central Florida too, I’ve seldom seen them. 

Until last week.

I was walking down the dirt road that leads to our driveway when I noticed the distinctive track a snake makes in sandy soil.  The track, which looks like a series of elongated attached S's, stretched from one side of the road to the other.

“Hmm,” I thought to myself, “I wonder what type of snake made that track and where it is now.”

I followed the serpentine trail with my eyes into the bamboo thicket at road’s edge and suddenly realized the snake was still there.  And it was HUGE!

I was looking at the tail end of what appeared at first glance to be monster reptile.  The part of its body that I could see was thicker than my arm.  

My first thought was “Ball python.”  Then I heard the rattle.

“Oh my gosh!” I said to myself as I rapidly backed away.  “It’s a rattlesnake.  An immense rattlesnake with an incredibly loud rattle!”

I had my camera with me and began to take pictures, albeit from a safe distance (thank you, zoom lens!).  I also had my cell phone and immediately called Ralph.

“Get into the car and come out here now,” I commanded.  “There’s a gigantic rattlesnake just outside the entry!”

Moments later, my husband appeared with the car, which I gratefully got into.  We opened the windows, drove alongside the spot where the snake - an Eastern diamondback - posed coiled and rattling with intensity.

“Can you believe it,” I said.  “All these years we’ve lived here and never seen a rattlesnake and now we come upon the mother of all rattlers.  If this snake stretched out, I bet it would be at least six feet long.  Do you see how thick around it is?”

My husband shared my amazement not only of the animal’s girth but also of the sound emanating from its nether region.  Until that day, neither of us had ever heard a rattlesnake rattle in the wild.

“It sounds like cicadas,” Ralph said and I agreed.

A rattlesnake’s rattle is composed of hollow, interlocked segments of a tough protein called keratin, the same material that forms human fingernails and animal hooves.  When the viper senses danger its muscles contract – around 50 times a second – causing the tan-colored keratin segments to knock against each other.  The resulting noise is a loud rattle that can last up to three hours.

Ralph and I didn’t wait three hours but the sound lasted far longer than we expected.

The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest and heaviest rattlesnake species in North America.  With a lifespan of 10 to 20 years, it can achieve an average length of 3.5 to 5.5 feet but the rare specimen measures in at 7.5 feet and weigh up to 15 pounds.  The preferred habitat of these predatory creatures is dry upland, pine forests, palmetto flatwoods as well as marshy lowlands.  They often frequent the same territory as gopher tortoises.  They even use gopher tortoise burrows for shelter. 

Unless threatened, rattlesnakes are surprising non-aggressive toward people.  The person who foolishly prods, pokes, or otherwise provokes a rattler sets himself up for attack while individuals wise enough to heed warning signals can, like Ralph and I did, walk away unharmed.
Not so lucky are rats, mice, birds, rabbits and squirrels.  Eastern diamondbacks masterfully practice the art of ambush.  Using highly sensitive glands, these stealthy stalkers detect scents, perceive body heat and respond to vibration.  After finding and trailing potential prey, the well-camouflaged snake waits patiently for the animal to appear before striking.  Diamondbacks can strike one-third of their body length injecting venom lethal to small animals.  Once bitten, prey wanders off to die.  The snake follows to consume its meal.

Although I was only vaguely aware of pit vipers when I encountered the rattlesnake, I immediately knew I had stumbled upon an amazing survivor.  Ralph and I observed an animal that has managed to avoid human interaction long enough to grow to a most impressive size.  The first thought of many would be to kill it before it hurts someone but I simply felt honored to have witnessed such an amazing creature in the wild. 

Knowing that a snake of such awe-inspiring girth, length and potentially lethal powers is living nearby has caused me to be more aware but not to feel cowed.  The way I see it, snakes have as much right as we do to live on the land.  Some neighbors just want to be left alone.  I understand that because I feel that way too.

There are approximately 311 million people living in the United States today and every year venomous snakes bite about 7,000 of us resulting in an average of 5 deaths.

By comparison, dogs bite 4.7 million people annually resulting in 800,000 hospitalizations and an average of 15 deaths.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The birds and I share a late-season surprise

Black mulberries!  Yum!

Simply Living
September 3, 2012

Some people think of crows as harbingers of doom but in my yard, the sight of several large black-feathered birds gathered beneath a mulberry tree heralds something decidedly upbeat:  There are ripe berries to pick!

Upon noticing the birds, I grab a bowl, slip on some shoes and head out to the one tree in our yard producing a bumper crop of late-season berries.

As soon as I’m out the door, the crows fly off.  I’ve interrupted their food fest to indulge in one of my own.  We both know ripe mulberries at the end of summer are an out-of-season surprise.  Although none of the other trees is producing a second crop, that’s not a problem.  One tree produces enough berries for all of us to share.

Enjoying an unexpected bounty of late-season berries

That wouldn’t be the case if was early in the season.  In March, when Florida mulberries normally ripen, flocks of cedar waxwings can decimate an entire orchard worth of fruit.  They’ve done that on our property many times over the years.  I’ve watched helplessly while waxwings fly in by the hundreds, descend upon the mulberry branches and methodically devour every berry in sight.  No amount of shooing, hand waving or foot stomping makes a bit of difference.  If cedar waxwings decide to dine on the fruit you planned to pick, you might as well toss your plans aside.  There will be no mulberries left to bake into pie or to stir into your breakfast oatmeal.  Cedar waxwings will have eaten them all.

Crows are much larger than cedar waxwings but not nearly as greedy.  They also have a more varied diet.  While waxwings feed almost exclusively on berries, crows are omnivores willing to swallow just about anything digestible.  Crows seem to view the late season berries the same way I do - a tasty treat to supplement other edibles. 

I have no idea why this one mulberry tree is producing a second crop six months after normal harvest time but, like the crows, I’m an opportunistic feeder.  If berries are ripe, I seek them out and consider myself lucky.  Why waste time wondering why they are there when I could be filling my bucket with delectable tidbits.

Eventually, I would have noticed the ripe mulberries on my own but the crows sped up the process.  They also made me feel more connected to the land.  Reading signs of nature used to be the norm but few of us do that anymore.  Nowadays instead of looking to see if the birds are gathering in the orchard, we leaf through supermarket fliers to see what’s on sale, browse farmers market stands or join a CSA. 

Those of us who are technologically savvy, might even rely upon an app.  Hold that melon you’d like to buy up to your iPhone, give it a good thump and the Melon Meter (; $1.99) will let you know if it is ready to eat.  Another called Harvest (;  $1.99) will answer questions about how to select the best in-season vegetables and fruit while the free app Locavore ( offers users customizable daily updates on the availability of favorite foods. 

I’m a little late to the party when it comes to technology.  I’ve yet to buy a smart phone so I have no apps.  What I do have, however, is an appreciation for nature and sensitivity to the world outside my door.  

It doesn’t matter if a gathering of crows or an app leads the way.  The discovery of unexpected bounty is always a welcome turn of events.