Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sailing down my golden river...

I don’t like obituaries. Instead of waiting until after someone dies to sing their praises, I feel it’s important to tell people how much they mean while they’re still here to listen.

When Pete Seeger passed away last week January 27, my immediate reaction was overwhelming sadness. While the world had lost a musical icon, an emissary of peace and a voice of reason, I had lost a personal hero.

Pete Seeger, 1919 - 2014

My eyes overflowed with tears on that Tuesday morning, as I read and listened to one online tribute after another. Despite my sorrow, I felt a wave of gratefulness: Seven years earlier, I had the chance to tell Seeger how much he meant to me.

In 2007, I wrote a column chronicling a close encounter with the famed folk legend at the Clearwater Festival in New York. Seeger initiated the festival, an annual event, almost 40 years earlier to raise public awareness about the (then) sorry state of the Hudson River.

Sailing down my golden river...

Even though he was 88 years old at the time, Seeger and Toshi, his wife of 70 years who passed away in July 2013, attended the concert. Purely by chance, I sat next to them one day at lunch.

I included that essay in my first book, “Rowing Through TheMist: The Everyday Pleasures of Simply Living,” and sent a copy to Seeger at his home, a hand-built cabin, in the Hudson River Valley town of Beacon, NY.

A few weeks later, a postcard arrived in the mail. On one side was a reproduction of the Syracuse Cultural Workers poster, “How To Build Global Community.”

On the other was a hand-written message from Seeger — a brief ‘Thanks!’ for my gift above a considerably longer plea for me to encourage the newspaper to plug an upcoming United Nations Conference in Bali. Seeger said, “It may save the oceans from rising.” He signed the note “Love, Pete” and included his signature banjo drawing. I mounted the postcard on my wall and have treasured it ever since.

If we’re lucky, at some point in our life we each find a hero who inspires us and gives us hope. For me, Seeger was that person. Am I sad that he died? Incredibly so. But does his death mean I’ve lost him? Not at all. Perhaps more than most people, Seeger lives on in his music — 97 albums and five singles — his writing and in the stories other people have written about him.

Perhaps the best words to sum up my feelings are Seeger’s own in a 2006 interview with Wendy Schuman for When asked if he believed in an afterlife, Seeger replied, “Well, you might consider this: When Toshi and I had our first child who died when it was only six months old, I was in the army, my father wrote me and said, ‘I don’t think I could cheer you up in the usual way. But remember this, that something good that has happened can never be made to unhappen.’ That’s a nice way of putting it, don’t you think? Something that has happened can never be made to unhappen.”

Seeger's life was like that - something good that happened. If his life were a song, Seeger would have wanted us to sing along.

Pete Seeger signing an autograph for my daughter Jenny at the Clearwater Festival in 2007

Monday, January 27, 2014

A flash of blue

What a wonderful color!

I’ve seen so many bluebirds in the past few months that I no longer get excited when a flash of blue flies by.

That's not true.

Even though I often see lines of bluebirds sitting on telephone wires when I’m driving and notice them flitting from tree to field in yards that I pass, I still grab my camera and run outside whenever they deem our property worthy of a visit.

Before sitting down to write this column, I was taking yet more pictures of the sweet little songbirds sitting in our mulberry and fig trees. As I explained to Ralph, my not-quite-as-wildlife-obsessed husband, there are worse things to do than fill up the hard drive with images of avian beauty.

Female bluebird on fig tree branch

Bluebirds are members of the thrush family, which also includes robins and wood thrushes. There are three different species of bluebirds — Western, Mountain and Eastern – but only one, the Eastern bluebird, lives in Florida. Many Eastern bluebirds are year-round residents, but like so many other birds (and people), their numbers increase during winter when their northern relations migrate south.

The familiar 'Robin Redbreast' is in the same family as the bluebird

Weighing about an ounce  — the same as 10 pennies — and measuring eight inches from head to tail, these compact bundles of blue, orange and grayish-white feathers are easy to spot, especially when perched on a fence post or flying from tree to ground in search of insects. 

10 pennies = 1 bluebird

Both sexes share the same attractive colors, but the tones are duller on females and bolder on males, who also have bright blue heads compared to the females’ more subdued gray-feathered headdress.

Male (on left) and Female Bluebirds

As cavity-dwelling birds, Eastern bluebirds frequent open fields or meadows on the edge of woods, especially when the woods have dead trees suitable for nesting. Since our woods are now dotted with snags due to the demise of numerous slash and sand pines, I’m hoping some bluebirds will decide to move into one or more of the abandoned holes woodpeckers have drilled into the soft wood.

Dead trees provide potential nest sites for cavity-dwelling birds

If the birds do decide to become more than fly-by visitors, I’m confident they’ll find plenty to eat. An Eastern bluebird’s diet consists mainly of grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, spiders, worms, millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs and katydids. As my garden-loving husband can attest, there is no shortage of those insects in our yard or his garden. We also have many trees bearing fruit and berries, which are also essential sources of bluebird food.

It would sure be nice if the bluebirds decided to snack on stinkbugs like this pair copulating on an unripe mulberry 

I’m delighted that the bluebird population in my part of Central Florida has become so numerous that I can now drive by a flock without needing to swerve suddenly onto the shoulder to observe and take photos. However, that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped looking for or caring about the welfare of these tiny packages of sunshine, sky and earth tones.

Like many of nature’s critters, bluebirds have it rough. Nestlings are subject to attack by house sparrows, house wrens and predators such as raccoons, cats and the American kestrel.

Kestrels are among the predators posing a threat to bluebirds

In recent years, much of the habitat they need to survive has been lost to development. While those threats seem obvious, another enemy isn’t. As anyone who has inadvertently stepped on a fire ant nest knows, the insects’ stings are extremely painful. Unfortunately, fire ants, introduced to Florida in the 1930s, can inflict even worse damage to bluebird nestlings, decimating an entire brood within hours.

All these challenges only make each sighting more precious. Literature has long depicted the bluebird as a symbol of happiness, good cheer, friendship, luck and hope. I couldn’t agree more. Bluebird sightings always bring a smile to my face.

Yet another bluebird sighting to make my day!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wildlife aplenty!

You don't have to be in the country to see wildlife. Especially birds. When driving down the streets of whatever town you're in, look up occasionally at the telephone and electric poles. If you do, there's a good chance you'll catch a glimpse of some magnificent feathered creature.

This afternoon, while doing errands in downtown Clermont, I spotted several birds by doing just that. Below is a pair of ospreys roosting on their sloppily built nest atop an electric pole while a small unidentified bird sits a wire a safe distance away.

A few miles down the road, in between Groveland and Clermont, I noticed a red-tailed hawk on an electric pole right next to SR 50.  Cars were whizzing by but the raptor seemed unfazed by the noise and exhaust fumes.  I pulled into a subdivision to snap off a few pictures while the hawk remained focused on the task of finding his next meal.

When I left the subdivision, I turned back onto SR 50 heading toward the older, downtown section of town. About a mile farther along I spotted a kingfisher perched on a wire overlooking a tiny pond. The interesting thing was, I had noticed the kingfisher in the exact same spot yesterday as well. I didn't have time yesterday to pull over but today, determined not to miss a second chance to photograph the bird, I circled around the block until I found a spot to safely pull over.

Within just a few miles and in less than a half-hour, I had photographed three different kinds of beautiful birds.  But that wasn't all I saw.  I passed, but was unable to stop and take pictures of other wildlife too. There were bluebirds on wires, a dead tree covered in roosting vultures, white egrets surrounding cattle grazing in a field and various small songbirds flitting about from one spot to another.

The point is, wildlife is all around us.  The only thing it takes to see it is a willingness to look.  

Ralph can never figure out why I don't mind going into town to do errands.  To him, leaving home is an unpleasant task but I see things differently.  To me, each venture out is an opportunity to see something new. I never know what I'm going to find but I know I'll find something.

Today it was a kingfisher, a pair of ospreys and a red-tailed hawk.  I can't wait to see what I discover (and photograph) tomorrow!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Warbler on a wire

Sometimes when taking pictures, things just click...

I was on my way home from town, taking the back road past my neighbor's acreage.  As I drove slowly down the bumpy lane, a flash of yellow fluttered in front of me.  I wanted to take the bird's picture but the little guy kept flying ahead so I put the car in park, picked up the camera and rolled down the window.  

Just then the bird - a western palm warbler - lit upon the barbed wire fence right next to where I'd parked.  It must have known it was time for a photo shoot.

Front view...

Turned slightly left...

Now to the right...

And one more shot of a feathery rump before the photo shoot ended.

For the little warbler I suppose posing for my camera was a pleasant break from eating seeds and capturing bugs.  As for me, I was delighted. I couldn't wait to get home so I upload 'Warbler on a wire' to my computer.  I love it when things just click!

Monday, January 20, 2014

What joy! Tatsoi!

Simply Living
My day is made when a sandhill crane family walks right up to the house and patiently poses while I snap off one picture after another on my digital camera.

I’m equally thrilled when I encounter a rush of wildflowers or happen to be outside during those brief moments when the sky is illuminated by intense late afternoon light.

My good-natured husband listens to my effusive stories, looks at my photographs and nods supportively, but I know his enthusiasm for those topics is not on the same scale as mine. While I get excited about spotting a yellow-throated warbler, he gets all gushy over growing green vegetables. He becomes especially excited when he discovers a new plant that produces prolifically, suffers minimal pest problems and tastes good to boot.

Ralph, happy in the garden

This past year Ralph’s happy-gardener meter was off the charts, thanks to a variety of Asian greens called tatsoi. He ordered the seeds from Fedco, a 36-year-old seed company based in Waterville, Maine that we’ve dealt with for a long time.

Tatsoi - highlighted in the FEDCO catalog

Each year when the new Fedco catalog arrives in the mail, Ralph enters a virtual garden of wonder. “Listen to the description of this variety of broccoli,” he might say, or, “We’ve got to plant this cucumber. It sounds delicious.”

The FEDCO catalog - entertaining as well as informative reading

The Fedco catalog is a marvel of descriptive writing. In addition to tantalizing blurbs, beautiful black-and-white drawings illustrate each of the 150-plus pages. 

Love the illustrations!

I’m content reading descriptions and looking at illustrations, but Ralph is not. For him, the catalog is just the first step in a grand adventure.

Put on your garden gloves! We’re going planting!

Ralph’s seed order arrived at the end of last March. By the beginning of April, seeds were planted. The catalog says tatsoi is mature in 45 days, but we were enjoying meals from thinnings and young leaves in half that time.

Thinning out young container-grown tatsoi

Although a member of the mustard family, tatsoi doesn’t taste like it. The soft, somewhat sweet, spoon-shaped leaves have a slight curl along the edge. They extend from a thin stem that can be eaten and isn’t stringy. I think tatsoi is similar to spinach and just as versatile. We eat it raw, like a salad green or in place of lettuce in sandwiches. I’ve made stir-fries, lasagnas and quiches with tatsoi as well as adding it to soups. I’ve even used it in place of basil in pesto.

Every two or three months, Ralph plants new seeds. He even planted during summer when few other green vegetables thrive. The tatsoi did fine. It didn’t mind when temperatures spiked and didn’t object to being cut back repeatedly.

Tatsoi ready to pick and steam with touch of lemon juice for dinner

I’m glad Ralph found a new green vegetable that he likes so much, and I’m glad that I get to benefit from his discovery. My husband may not want to hang around while I take yet another picture of the sandhill cranes. I may not want to weed the garden for as long as he does. What we do share, however, is an appreciation and respect for each other’s passions. Well, that and an enjoyment for any meal that involves a healthy helping of tasty tatsoi.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Well, hello cranes!

Simply Extra
The good thing about having the kitchen sink next to a window is being about to look at the view while washing dishes.  That's what I was doing yesterday morning when - HELLO! - the sandhill crane family came to call.

About 10 feet away from where I stood, Mama, Papa and Almost-All-Grown-Up Baby Crane, come to say hello.  Actually, what they really came for was a hopeful handout.  Sorry.  Not gonna happen.


Once, a long time ago I made the mistake of feeding the cranes (Makeshift birdfeeder draws unexpected visitors).  Elephants may be famous for their long memories but apparently cranes can remember too.  Although I now knew better than to toss out kernels of corn and birdseed, I wasn't about to miss the opportunity to snap some up-close shots of these amazing birds. 

Being the bold creatures they are, the cranes cooperated with my in-their-face picture taking by nonchalantly grooming themselves.

These feathers need a bit of fluffing...

Got an itch...must scratch!  That feels better!

Once their feather-fluffing and itch-scratching was done, the birds decided to give begging for food one final try...

"Please give me some food..."

"Come on, Person, I asked nicely..."

"What?  You're not going to feed me?"

"Ah,'s looking at you, kid.  We're outa here."  

And they flew away.

Monday, January 13, 2014

As time goes by...

Simply Living
About 20 years ago, we planted 11,000 slash pines on our property.  The tiny saplings hardly looked like trees at all.  Barely six-inches tall, the scrawny slips were evenly spaced in neat rows following the land’s natural contours.  For the first three or four years, Ralph and I had a hard time believing the trees would ever amount to much.  Then one day – much as it is with children – we turned around and they were big.

Turn around...and the trees are tall!

Ever since, we've lived in a pinewood forest interspersed with assorted bamboos, fruit trees, ornamentals and the occasional volunteer plant - bush, vine or tree - sometimes welcome, sometimes not.  On hot days, it’s noticeably cooler in the woods.  On rainy days, the tree canopy makes it drier.

It's noticeably cooler and drier in the pinewoods

Then, about three or four years ago, we began to notice pine trees in various stages of decline.  At first, it was just a few trees here and there.  Pine needles turned brown and fell to the ground. After any heavy windstorm, branches broke and fell down too.


Although I was sad to see so many trees die, an accompanying surge in woodpecker activity eased my distress.  We've always had some bark-boring birds on the property but the pines’ decline seemed to trigger a population explosion of woodpecker species.

Red-bellied woodpecker seeking insects in pine snag

On meanders around the property, I began noticing one woodpecker after another pecking away at the dead pine trees.  Of the eight types of woodpeckers in Florida, I frequently observed five in the pinewoods. The beetles and larvae living in the dead and dying trees attracted downy woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers and the impressively large pileated woodpecker.

What a thrill to observe large pileated woodpeckers on the property!

Hawks and owls were also drawn to the dead trees, especially in areas where several branchless slash pines created open airy spaces.  While perching on the snags, predators could survey their surroundings, swooping down to capture rabbits, rodents, songbirds, snakes and other prey.

Red-shouldered hawk surveying its surroundings from its piney perch

The dead trees also became nurseries for owlets and baby woodpeckers.  The birds drilled entry holes in some of the older, larger diameter pines turning the snags into places to raise their young.  

This screech owl hollowed out a space to raise young in a dead pine

When the owl abandoned its nest, a red-bellied woodpecker moved in

Although I haven’t seen raccoons and other cavity-dwelling animals using abandoned owl nests, that doesn't mean they’re not taking advantage of the dead pines too.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker 

When we first purchased our property in 1991, the land was a barren expanse of acreage with only six noticeable trees on it.  I felt protective of each one.  If one of those six trees had suffered the same fate that the slash pines do now, I would have been devastated. 

Much has changed over the last two decades not the least of which is the land’s transformation from fields to forest and my attitude about the process.  Now, instead of seeing a tree’s death as an end, I view it as just another phase in the life of the land.  I now know that the loss of one or more trees is but a beginning.  New plants spring up in the sunny spots created when trees die and fall to the ground.  Insects come to feed on the decaying tree bark.  Birds come to eat the insects.  Predators come to eat the birds and other small animals that live in the piles of brush decomposing into the ground.  It’s all part of the circle of life.  A continuum without a starting or stopping point.

As much as I love trees, I love even more watching the ebb and flow of life itself.