Monday, November 24, 2014


I did something the other day I haven't done in years.

I drifted.

In the lake.

In my rowboat.

For over an hour.

It was a premeditated affair. I packed my camera, a padded cushion, a towel and a good book (and, yes, I took my cell phone along too, just in case…), then I pushed my trusty old skiff off shore and jumped aboard. The wind was coming from the southeast, so that's where I headed.

Once I'd rowed as far as I could, I stopped. I propped up the oars and slid back onto the plump cushion with my head resting against the bow bench and my legs stretched comfortably over the center seat.

I was off. The boat was on. Pushed by the wind, it was adrift. I drifted, too.

Leaning back, I looked up. My view was a crazy patch quilt of sky, clouds and the tips of trees. My music was the percussive beat of lake lapping against aluminum intermingled with a chorus of avian notes. When the boat drifted close to a lakeside thicket, a catbird screeched a warning. Crows cawed. Warblers chattered.

A catbird screeched at me from a lakeshore sumac thicket

Growing up next to a small lake in Pennsylvania, I used to drift like this every summer. Ever since I received an 8-foot long, square-bowed aluminum rowboat for my 13th birthday — the same boat I row now, 50 years later — it became my solace. Younger kids had treehouses. Older ones raced off in red '65 mustangs. My escape was a small skiff in Silver Lake.

Teenaged me rowing in Silver Lake

Just as I did the other day, my younger self took objects on those lazy-day rows. I didn't have a camera back then but I had a transistor radio that I brought along together with some fruit, a book, a pad to lean against and paper to write on. I was less conscious of time when I was a teen. Instead of the hour I allotted myself now, back then I could easily spend the better part of a summer day repeatedly rowing to one end of the lake and drifting to the other. My mind didn't fret over other obligations. I didn't worry what else I should be doing. I just drifted along enjoying the ride.

Idleness may be acceptable for teens, but it's not a behavior granted to adults. Yet I think it's important to be lazy now and then. Some people meditate, do yoga or go for runs to clear their mind and stretch their muscles. My meditation is a slow row through still water. Mundane thoughts sift away as my arm muscles strengthen. Even when I'm not actually drifting with my oars up and my feet propped upon the seat, I feel lighter, more relaxed.

But actual drifting, now that's something special. In this busy world, uncharted time is a rare occurrence.

Thanksgiving is only a few days away and while many are busy with holiday preparations there are those of us who choose to escape all the fuss. Rather than being chained to holiday duties, we choose to drift off for a while in a swirl of contemplation. There's so much to be thankful for…not the least of which is the ability to be free. To drift off when we need to. To untether the mind.


I'm thankful for the water that continues to flow. I'm thankful for the sun that continues to shine. I'm thankful for the critters and plants that have managed to survive despite man's unwitting attempts at "improvement" and "progress." I'm thankful for gentle, kindhearted people who lend a hand and a voice when needed. I'm thankful for this moment, for really, that's all any of us have. One moment — the present — to do what we can. If the choice is to drift, may the ride be soothing. Drifting may appear aimless but there's always a direction. In the end, we come back ashore refreshed and renewed.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Shiitakes for supper!

“Have you seen all the mushrooms growing?” asked my husband Ralph.

My answer was no. A flurry of recent computer-related obsessions had prevented me from paying much attention to my spouse’s mushroom-raising project. However, now that he’d mentioned it, my curiosity was piqued. Abstracting myself away from the clutch of technology, I followed my fungi-enthused partner outside.

Sure enough, just beyond the back door was a stunning crop of shiitake mushrooms sprouting from a row of spore-inoculated oak logs.

Multiple mushrooms growing on multiple logs

Although the four- to six-inch diameter by three-foot-long chunks of wood had been propped against the house for the past 19 months, they rarely produced more than the occasional mushroom. Now, however, instead of just one or two shiitakes growing out of a single length of wood, multiple mushrooms protruded from about a dozen different timbers.

A shiitake almost as big around as the log it on which it grew 

“They really like the cooler weather,” mused my husband, the amateur mycologist.

Originally from Asia where they are considered symbols of longevity because of their many health benefits, shiitakes have been cultivated by Chinese and Japanese farmers on logs for more than 6,000 years. (‘Shii’ means tree, and ‘take’ means mushroom.)

With their woodsy flavor and meaty texture, these brown-colored mushrooms are rich in protein, iron, potassium, copper, calcium, magnesium, niacin and other B vitamins. They have antiviral, anti-cancer and immune-boosting properties as well as the ability to lower cholesterol and regulate blood pressure. Because of their many attributes, shiitake mushrooms are proclaimed by many to be one of the world’s healthiest foods.

A plate full of just-picked shiitakes ready to cook

It’s not surprising that my health-conscious, garden-loving spouse is drawn to these mycological storehouses of medicinal properties. Ralph has been passionate about growing shiitake mushrooms since the mid-1980 when he took a three-day mushroom-growing course with renowned mycologist Paul Stamets at his Washington state company, Fungi Perfecti.

(Below is an introduction to growing shiitake mushrooms from the Fungi Perfecti website,

Returning to our then Cape Cod home, Ralph used spores purchased from Stamets to inoculate several oak logs cut from trees on our wooded property. Within 16 months, he was able to harvest his homegrown mushrooms to add to stir-fries and other recipes. He continued to harvest the tasty and nutritional fungi on Cape Cod until our move to Florida in 1987, but he didn’t start cultivating the spore-born fruit right away. It took about 15 years before Ralph once again tried his hand at growing shiitakes. His current crop is one of his best yet.

Mushrooms growing out of logs propped up and leaning every which way

Growing shiitake mushrooms in Central Florida requires drilling 5/16-inch holes four to six inches apart in hardwood logs and filling them with spore-inoculated plugs purchased from a reputable supplier. Once the plugs are tapped into the holes with a hammer, an application of hot wax seals the opening. We used a paintbrush to apply wax melted in a thrift shop crockpot for this part of the process.

Two of the tools used to inoculate oak logs with mushroom plugs:  A thrift shop crockpot and drill with 5/16" bit

After the plugging is complete, the logs are stacked in a shady place and watered 2 to 3 times a week for 10 to 15 minutes at time. If all goes well, mushrooms will begin to appear in 6 to 8 months with the inoculated logs continuing to produce intermittently for several years. The word, “intermittently,” is key. In Ralph’s years of experience, shiitake production has been anything but reliable.

As I stood outside admiring the current crop of health-friendly shiitakes, I couldn’t help but wonder why some of the logs were producing while others were not.

“Why do you suppose that is?” I asked my knowledgeable spouse.

Ralph responded with a sigh.

“I have no idea,” he said. “It’s a mystery.”

With gardening, I suppose there’s an element of mystery no matter what crop you grow. With shiitakes, the appearance of fleshy brown mushroom caps protruding from logs is more than a welcome surprise. It signals the start of many delicious meals.

“I’m guessing mushrooms will be on the menu tonight?” I asked with a smile.

“Absolutely — tonight and tomorrow and for as long as the logs keep on producing,” Ralph replied.

Below are a few links with helpful information about growing shiitake mushrooms including sources to buy mushroom-growing products:

Fungi Perfecti is Paul Stamets' company where Ralph has always purchased any products he needs to grow mushrooms at home

Southeast Mushroom is a Florida-based supplier of mushroom spawn.

FAQ - Frequently asked question answered by the folks at Southeast Mushrooms about the cultivation of shiitakes mushrooms 

Information on mushroom growing from the University of Florida IFAS website 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Talking trash

The first of November was a windy day not just in Central Florida, but also throughout much of the Eastern half of the country. A few days after the gusts abated, my daughter Jenny called from her home in western Massachusetts. to share a comment made by our 3-year-old granddaughter.

“Maya was looking out the window as the wind was blowing the leaves all around,” Jenny explained. “She said, ‘Look, Mama, the leaves are flying.’”

I love hearing my grandchildren’s comments and seeing the world through their unfiltered eyes. The thought of autumn leaves flying is both whimsical and true, yet hearing those words filled me with sadness. On the same day that Maya was watching the swirl of leaves from the living room window, I was in my car watching a flurry of plastic bags, Styrofoam cups and assorted other man-made detritus fly across the road as I drove home from Winter Garden.

While we were both looking at windswept landscapes, one saw beauty while the other saw ugliness.

Surrounded by leaves, not litter, Maya and Ella enjoy autumn at their home in Western Massachusetts

Why are the people who live in a state so rich in natural wonders willing to despoil it so thoughtlessly? What makes us so shortsighted and incapable of seeing the effects of our unconcern and carelessness?

The windstorm emphasized that Floridians are near the bottom of the class when it comes to environmental awareness and education. One need only step outside to see proof of our obliviousness. Look down on the ground anywhere within 50 feet of a house, and you will inevitably see some form of garbage. It may be bits and pieces of paper or plastic or, since Halloween just passed, torn-off corners of candy wrappers.

A collection of yard trash left behind by a thoughtless tenant

It’s even worse from a car. Look out the window when you stop at any traffic light or stop sign and you’ll inevitably stare at a pile of cigarette butts clustered along the curb. 

An all too common sight along Florida roads

People who live and drive through the Sunshine State seem just as unconcerned about tossing toxic, non-biodegradable cigarette butts out their window as they are about throwing fast food containers on the ground. To those of us who care about the state of our environment, this lack of concern by others is both infuriating and frustrating.

Sign posted by the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest.

I like to think of myself as a good problem solver. When given a situation that needs fixing, I can usually come up with a solution. But littering has me stumped. For years I’ve tried every tack I can think of to help raise public awareness as well as invoking a hands-on approach to going after the problem personally. I’ve written articles. I’ve picked up trash in public places. I’ve spoken with homeowners individually and approached the county to request No Littering signs. Once, I even confronted a police officer after I saw him throw a cigarette butt out the window of his cruiser.

A cigarette butt tossed out of a car window is an all too common sight

The articles generated support from people already aware and equally as frustrated as I am by the problem of litter. I watched new garbage appear shortly after I picked trash up in public places. The homeowners I spoke with listened, but I doubt if they really heard what I was saying since nothing changed in their yards. The signs were a bust. They failed to prevent drivers from tossing throwaway items from car windows. And the police officer I confronted? He merely stared at me through his mirrored sunglasses and didn’t comment one way or another.

I think of my twin granddaughters growing up in their Massachusetts home where the consciousness of the public about environmental matters is on a much higher plane than in Florida. While the town where Jenny’s family lives isn’t perfect, the people there do seem more aware of cause and effect than do people here.

Is it too late for Florida? I’d like to believe not. But something has to change or our throw-away mindset will continue to destroy the beauty of a state we love.

Clermont resident Roger Butts takes it upon himself to clean up other's trash along county roadsides.  While help from local citizens is commendable, there's too much trash in the Sunshine State to be dealt with by people like Butts alone.  

If you would like to do something about the litter problem in Florida, below are are few links and phone numbers will help:

Florida's Adopt-A-Road program is a way for individuals, businesses and civic groups to keep a portion of a roadway clean.  More information and contact info for each Florida county is available on the website 

To report litter in Orlando: for litter in public right of ways, calls streets and storm water division at: 407-246-2238

For litter on private property, call code enforcement division at: 407-246-4444.

Elsewhere in FL, from a cell phone dial #DEP or 877-272-8335 from a landline

In each instance, they'd like to know the vehicle tag number and description, as well as what was dumped, when and where.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Cuddly? No. Cute? Yes!

It’s small, green and cute in an amphibian sort of way. The green treefrog, Hyla cinerea, is a native species usually found near any permanent body of water.

Peek-a-boo, I can't see you.  Everything must be fine.

Lately, I’ve become fascinated by these 1- to 2.5-inch long cuties after noticing how many green treefrogs take daytime naps in the wetland plants that grow along the edges of our lake. My observations began during my morning rowing sessions.

One of my favorite things to do when I’m on the lake is to glide slowly along the shoreline, scanning the reeds, weeds and shallow water for different signs of life. In the clear water, I often see fish, turtles and aquatic insects, while wetland plants yield a wide range of critters. Spiders, grasshoppers, dragonflies and damselflies, small birds, the occasional snake, anoles, butterflies, moths and caterpillars all find shelter and sustenance in the verdant growth sprouting out of the shallow water.

A large triploid carp chomps on a bamboo leaf that has fallen into the water

One of my first sightings of a green treefrog was on the leaf of a duck potato plant. As its Latin name,Sagittaria lancifolia, suggests, duck potato has lance-shaped leaves. However, what the plant’s botanical name doesn’t indicate is that the green hue of those large pointy leaves is practically identical to the color of a green treefrog’s skin.

"I'm hiding!" says the little green treefrog 

How clever of the nocturnal frog to select such a well-camouflaged spot for its daylight siesta. Since that first sighting, I’ve seen numerous other treefrogs snoozing on the lance-shaped leaves. While I’ve also found Hyla cinerea resting on grasses, trees and on the leaves of other wetland plants, in our lake at home, duck potato leaves are by far the preferred spot for green treefrog repose.

While also posed on a duck potato leaf, this little fellow looks like he's about to change positions

Although the body of a green treefrog is predominantly green, it has the ability to change colors from bright green to a duller green or even to gray, brown or yellow, depending on its surroundings. 

This little green treefrog has turned partially brown to better blend in with its surroundings 

Adhesive disks on the tips of each appendage enable these smooth-skinned, four-toed critters to cling securely to a wide range of surfaces. In addition to trees, weeds, leaves and reeds, green treefrogs can also attach themselves to glass. 

A sticky disk on each toe enable the green treefrog to cling easily to a wide range of surfaces

At nighttime when houses lights are on, green treefrogs can often be found clinging to windowpanes where they can make an easy meal of small insects attracted to the light.

In addition to gnats, flies and mosquitoes, a green treefrog’s diet includes beetles, beetle larvae, stinkbugs, crickets, caterpillars and any other small invertebrate they can catch with their long, elastic, sticky-tipped tongues.

A green treefrog's diet consists of a wide range of insects 

Although I’ve watched green treefrogs catch insects on a window, I’ve never seen one find food in the wild. I have, however, watched an online video of a treefrog catching crickets as well as a wonderful clip of a green treefrog vocalizing.

Below is a wonderful short video of a green treefrog calling 

For a small amphibian, a green treefrog makes a big sound. It’s able to do that because it has an expandable vocal sac under its throat to amplify air. The sac, made of an extremely thin membrane of skin, distends dramatically when filled air. In the video I watched, it looked like a giant bubble extending from the frog’s throat almost as big as the amphibian itself. With so much amplification, it’s no wonder the green treefrog’s song is loud.

I’ve always loved the sound of treefrogs singing. Now, in addition to enjoying the song they sing to attract mates and define territory, I also have the fun of searching for the well-camouflaged creatures as I patrol the lake’s perimeter by boat.

This darker colored green treefrog looks like he's ready to leap

But don’t think you have to be on the lake to find green treefrogs. Sometimes they appear in the most unexpected places. The other day when I opened my mailbox, a tiny treefrog was sitting in the far back corner of the box. I took out the mail but the left the frog. Life’s full of surprises and equally full of simple pleasures.

Do you think only male treefrog live in a mailboxes...