Saturday, December 31, 2016

A poem and a picture for New Year's Eve

by Sherry Boas

An optimist and pessimist await the New Year Hour
One with eager smile, one's expression sour.

The pessimist looks back and groans, "Time goes by so fast!"
The optimist looks back and grins, "More memories to last!"

The pessimist recalls the debts, the dollars thrown away.
The optimist recalls the gains, the values earned each day.

The pessimist sees struggles fought, times that trouble crossed.
The optimist sees each success and respects the cost.

The pessimist looks back and sighs, "I should have not done that."
The optimist: "How much I've learned..."  And gives himself a pat.

The pessimist says, "What a year!  I've never known such woe."
The optimist says, "What a year! ...Amazing how we grow."

One with eyes so used to seeing problems every day.
One with eyes so used to seeking out a better way.

An optimist and pessimist await the New Year Hour
One with eager smile, one's expression sour.

And when the midnight chime does ring both turn to look ahead
The optimist with hope and dreams, the pessimist with dread.

So pour a toast and raise a glass.  Take a drink until
Your glass reflects the year ahead:  Half empty or half full.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Which would you rather encounter? Dangerous snake or dangerous human?

My husband Ralph and I were walking across a stretch of unruly riverfront in New Smyrna Beach when the distinctive red-yellow-black bands of a coral snake caught my eye.

“Stop!” I shouted to my husband, whose steps would have taken him directly into the snake’s path. Fortunately, Ralph heeded the seriousness of my tone, stopped moving and directed his eyes to where I was pointing.

The snake, one of only four species of venomous snakes in Central Florida, also must have picked up on my warning because instead of attacking, it silently slithered under one of the many broken palmetto fronds covering the ground.

Can you find the coral snake?
The snake hopes you can't.
It's doing its best to avoid detection by hiding beneath decaying vegetation

Although common throughout Florida, the Eastern coral snake, Micrurus fulvius, is a secretive creature rarely seen by humans. Most of its life is spent under logs, leaf litter and decaying vegetation.

During the 30-plus years I’ve been romping through untamed parts of the Sunshine State, I can’t recall ever encountering a coral snake. I have, however, seen non-venomous coral snake lookalikes like the scarlet snake and scarlet king snake. Both of those species mimic coral snake colors to divert attention from potential predators.

The harmless king snake is often mistaken for the venomous coral snake.
Although its coloring is similar,
it's a coral snake lookalike posing no threat to people.

As Ralph and I stood watching the small, brightly-colored reptile, we tried to recall the rhyme used to differentiate a coral snake from its imitators. “Red touches black, friend to Jack. Red touches yellow, dangerous fellow.”

“Definitely a coral snake,” I said as it slithered deeper into the underbrush.

“Should I kill it?” Ralph asked.

I said, “No. It’s not hurting or even threatening to harm us. We should just leave it alone.”

But seeing a potentially dangerous snake in an area similar to many wild areas we visit did make me realize how much more aware we need to be in the future.

There’s a fine line between being cognizant of potential danger and overreacting. When encountering a venomous snake, the initial reaction of many people — including my husband — is to destroy the threat.

Although the Eastern coral snake has the most deadly venom of any snake in North America, its relatively short fangs provide a poor delivery system to humans. It works better on lizards, skinks, frogs and other small snakes. A coral snake will do its best to avoid a human unless it’s stepped on or handled.

Since antivenin was released in 1967, only a few people have died from coral snake bites, including one man who didn’t seek treatment in 2009.

The University of Florida’s Department of Wildlife, Conservation and Ecology says, “The chance of dying from a venomous snakebite in the United States is nearly zero because we have available, high-quality medical care in the U.S. Fewer than one in 37,500 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. each year (7000-8,000 bites per year), and only one in 50 million people will die from snakebite (5-6 fatalities per year).”

Yet despite facts, the appearance of any snake, venomous or not, evokes an irrational dose of primal fear in many people. While I share a strong desire to be safe, I also understand the importance of respecting nature. For me, encountering a coral snake in the wild was both an exhilarating and sobering moment that heightened my awareness of the world at large.

Given the choice of confronting a brightly-colored venomous snake in the wild or a carefully-camouflaged human with poisonous intent, I’d choose the snake. A coral snake will instinctively slink into the underbrush to avoid interaction, but a person with malicious intent can, and often will, inflict harm on many with a single strike of virulent words or actions.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Reading to counterbalance distressing times

The year 2016 has been a distressing period. So many times during the last 12 months I’ve felt like the world I’ve known during the last 65 years was unraveling before my eyes. All too often I’ve felt assaulted by earth-shattering news that bruises my optimism for a peaceful future. I’ve felt frightened in ways previously inconceivable.

The result of so much angst and fear has been a stronger than ever need to connect with calming influences. Two of the constants in my search for solace are nature and books. For nature, I go for rows, take walks, work in the garden or simply step outside so my senses can absorb as much healing energy as possible from the natural world. 

Rowing, reading and eating an apple to escape upsetting news

For books, I go to the library to seek out authors who write uplifting stories. This year, my search through the stacks has led to 43 books which helped me escape from the daily maelstrom of geopolitical, environmental strife.

Some of those books, like Susan Rebecca White’s, A Soft Place to Land, and Nicole Mones’, The Last Chinese Chef, were re-reads, books I enjoyed so much in previous years that I wanted to visit them again. 

Both novels follow the struggles of likeable female characters striving to overcome difficult situations. In the process, each woman finds hope, a renewed sense of self and reasons for living in a world reinfused with promise for a better future.

Although both of those novels were re-reads, most of the books I read in 2016 were new-to-me novels like Sarah Jio’s wonderful 2014 story, Goodnight June

Jio is a talented author of eight award-winning books who has a way of creating engaging characters and absorbing plot lines. I discovered Jio last year when I read her novels The Bungalow and Violets of March. I enjoyed her writing style so much that the first book I checked out in 2016 was Goodnight June, Jio’s imaginative story behind the story of how the children’s classic Goodnight Moon came to be written. I can easily see adding Goodnight June to my re-read list in the future.

During the month of May, I devoured three books by contemporary novelist Katherine Center. Center is the author of five bittersweet novels about love and family. The Dallas Morning News said, “Reading a book by Katherine Center is like having a long lunch conversation with an old friend you haven’t seen for a while - familiar, cozy and satisfying in the most soul-nourishing way.” I couldn’t agree more. The books I read, The Lost Husband, Get Lucky, and The Bright Side of Disaster, all left me feeling better about the world and encouraged about the ability of each of us to turn around bad situations.

In August, I discovered the work of New York Times Bestselling author Karen White, another previously unknown-to-me contemporary writer of predominantly Southern fiction. I effortlessly slipped between the pages of three of White’s 15 novels beginning with Flight Patterns, a 2016 novel set in a fictional Florida town, followed by two novels based in South Carolina Low Country - The Sound of Glass and The Memory of Water

All three of White’s stories are infused with sympathetic, endearing characters struggling to overcome odds. They are love stories with a bittersweet edge, patterns of perseverance and conclusions that made me eager to read more of her novels.

September found me entranced by a book I never expected to read all the way through. Martha’s Vineyard, Isle of Dreams is the second book in a three-part memoir by artist Susan Branch

I noticed this book on my way out of the library, picked it up and thought it might be a fun book to peruse but not one I’d be likely to read entirely.

I was wrong on so many counts. 

Not only did I find myself totally entranced by Branch’s beautifully handwritten, generously illustrated story of her developing career as a burgeoning author/artist/baker beginning in the mid-1970s, but the book triggered wonderful memories of my own young adult years living on Cape Cod just a short ferry ride away from Branch’s adopted Vineyard home.

Branch's books are beautifully hand illustratated gems

Martha’s Vineyard, Isle of Dreams is one of those rare books I could see owning. Not only is the story captivating but it is also written in such a warm, honest conversational style rich in relevant quotations and sweet illustrations that I found myself constantly smiling as I turned one page after another. Instead of a memoir, this book feels more like catch-up visit with a dear friend, sipping tea at the kitchen table while a breeze from an open window tickles my shoulders.

Although I haven’t quite completed my final read of 2016, I can confidently add it to my favorite books of the year list. The Sound of Us by Sarah Willis is a contemporary tale of an independent woman who must face personal demons, insecurities and fears when she steps outside her small world to help others. 

The story follows Alice Marlowe, an unmarried 48-year-old freelance sign-language interpreter whose world is turned upside down after receiving a late night wrong number phone call from a frightened six-year-old child. The events that follow explore the frustrations and triumphs of the foster-care system, government agencies and the realities of life outside one’s comfort zone.

Like all the novels and the one memoir I read during 2016, The Sound of Us promises a conclusion in which love proves pivotal in the struggle to overcome obstacles. I find it reassuring - especially in dangerously challenging times - to be reminded of hope and the essential goodness of people. The books I chose to read this past year did more than just provide entertainment and escape. They enlightened, educated and offered encouragement to helps me cope with an increasingly startling uncertain future.

Looking for more literary recommendations? Click here for some of my other
columns written over the last several years.


Monday, December 12, 2016

Who says Florida doesn't have seasons!

After being away for five days, we returned to our Groveland home to find the ground concealed beneath a blanket of leaves. Maple and sycamore leaves covered the grass along with culm covers from our many bamboos.

Maple, sycamore and bamboo leaves and culm covers

Prior to our getaway, I’d been watching swamp maples put on a flashy show. Although they hadn’t yet begun to fall in earnest, many leaves on deciduous trees had turned bright red, a darker scarlet, rusty orange and even yellow.

Swamp maple tree putting on a show

Sycamore trees, which hold onto their leaves the longest, released their leafy headdress en masse while we were gone. As we drove in the driveway, the car’s tires crunched over a crusty coating of large, brown leathery leaves. The yard and walkways were covered. The gutters, too. And when we opened the garage doors to drive inside, a frenzy of sycamore leaves followed us.

Although autumn in Central Florida is not as obvious as it is in other parts of the country, assorted deciduous trees still manage to put on an impressive performance. During a month when Northerners tend to shovel snow, Floridians are busy raking leaves. That is, if they rake leaves at all, which I don’t normally do. The only time I pick up a rake is when my grandchildren visit. Then I try to create as big a pile as I can so my baby grands can jump, hide and throw leaves in the air. They love doing that.

Baby grands having a grand ol' time playing in the leaves

Coming home to a such an obvious seasonal shift reminds me how different the reality of living in Central Florida is from the way most non-residents imagine our state to be. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard non-residents say they couldn’t live in Florida because they’d miss the seasons.

Miss the seasons? But we have so many!

Right now, Central Floridians are experiencing autumn. It’s also the start of strawberry season, and the time of year when oranges begin to ripen. My tangerine tree is heavy with fruit, and a lady down the road who has a small backyard citrus grove is already displaying bags of navels at her front yard farm stand.

Tangerines a'ripening

In another couple months, it will be loquat season, and I can already smell the beige blossoms’ subtle scent when I walk by a loquat tree. Mulberry season begins in February, followed shortly after by the beginning of the blackberry and blueberry time of year.

Loquat blossoms a'flowering

And then there are all the flowering plants and grasses.

Have you noticed all the muhly grass currently blooming? The University of Florida Garden Solutions website calls muhly grass a ‘gardening superstar’ that puts on a fabulous show every fall without needing special attention. Muhly’s soft, feathery pinkish-purple plumes add pizzazz to even the most ordinary landscape. This Florida native grows in small dividable clumps that reach a height of about five feet. A white-plumed variety is also available.

Beautiful muhly grass
(Photo credit: UF-IFAS Garden Solutions

While I haven’t added muhly grass to my landscape yet, it’s on my wish list for the future. Until then, I’m content with other ornamentals that add color and fragrance to the yard. During Confederate jasmine season — early summer — the clay wall by our driveway is transformed into a sweet, scented spectacle. Jasmine’s small white flowers pack a powerful punch, igniting the atmosphere with an intoxicating aroma. Brunfelsia, better known as yesterday-today-and-tomorrow plant because of the way its blooms change colors from white to dark pink, is another favorite aromatic plant. Brunfelsia season begins just after the New Year and continues for several months.

White, pink and purple - the three colors of Yesterday-today-and-tomorrow flowers

In addition to all the flowers that grow in the Sunshine State, vegetable gardeners like my husband Ralph have multiple planting seasons. Gardeners can begin to sow seeds in August for autumn harvests, and edibles can continue being sown and grown throughout the winter. Although the heat of summer hampers many vegetables, certain varieties tolerate it to provide garden fanatics like my spouse to continue planting and harvesting.

Ralph working in his raised-container vegetable garden

Here in Central Florida, seasons may not be as dramatic in the same way they are in other parts of the country, but they have their own special flavor, distinction and beauty. There’s no shortage of seasonal changes. Quite the opposite.

There are so many changes, it’s hard to keep track of them all. I’d list more, but right now there’s raking to do. Our grandchildren are coming over to visit and it looks like a perfect autumn day to jump in a big pile of leaves.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Recycling is for the birds!

Birds are loving their new birdbath. Male and female cardinals, Eastern mockingbirds and even little palm warblers regularly stop by to take a drink and clean their feathers in the shallow water.

Eastern mockingbird having a sip of fresh water

By all the activity it generates, you might think my new birdbath was a pricey purchase designed by experts in the birdwatching community. 

You’d be wrong.

Measuring just under a foot long, about six inches wide and a little less than two inches deep, my black Styrofoam ‘birdbath’ is nothing more than a repurposed piece of packaging material that originally contained asparagus. Asparagus is a vegetable my husband Ralph and I eat frequently but every time I unwrapped the spears from their cellophane covering, I was left with a sturdy piece of black Styrofoam that was no longer needed.

I knew I could recycle the Styrofoam or throw it away but the material seemed too good for either of those options. So I did what any frugal hoarder would do. I put it aside in an unused space in a cabinet. And that’s where it stayed until I had accumulated so many black Styrofoam platters that I no longer had room in my cupboard to fit any more. think I have enough?

Fortuitously, around the same time a nested stack of Styrofoam filled up my cupboard, a little birdie helped me hatch an idea.

I was standing by my desk looking out the window when I noticed a blur of bright red feathers splashing water in a puddle on a table where Ralph and I had placed several potted plants. Water that had leaked out of the containers had formed a small puddle on the tabletop that the bird - a male cardinal - was using as a bath. Fascinated, I moved closer to the window and watched quietly until the bird finished bathing and flew away. A few minutes later, I went into the kitchen to retrieve one of the Styrofoam platters and took it outside.

Creating a repurposed birdbath doesn’t get any simpler than this.

I merely placed the clean platter on the table, filled it with water and surrounded it with a few small garden statues and a piece of driftwood so it would look more natural and be less likely to blow away. A pair of cardinals discovered it the next morning.

Female cardinal checking out the birdbath

Since then, more and more birds have frequented my make-do birdbath. I don’t know if it’s the shallow depth that they like, the black color or the mere fact that they now have a puddle-sized protected place to bathe and sip water. The repurposed Styrofoam platter sits on a tabletop in the shade of a lush pink hibiscus. Birds usually land on the hibiscus first then fly down to the water. I regularly replenish the liquid, remove dropped blooms that land in the water and replace the Styrofoam every month or so with a new piece of packaging material. 

If you also enjoy backyard birdwatching but hesitate to spend money on fancy equipment, consider using a object you’d normally throw away. And if you don’t like asparagus, it’s not a problem. Many other vegetables also come pre-wrapped in Styrofoam platters. Veggies for people. Fresh water for wildlife. Less detritus for the landfill. A repurposed Styrofoam birdbath is a win-win-win solution all around.

Monday, November 28, 2016

These boots are meant for walking...except when they need repairs

Nobody could mistake my husband for a clotheshorse.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Ralph’s interest in fashion is a minus 4. His wardrobe consists of about a half-dozen ratty tees and an equal number of ripped, frayed or stained pairs of shorts. He calls these items “work clothes” and doesn’t mind that they look a mess. I call them unacceptable for anything but work and insist he set aside at least one unstained shirt and intact pair of shorts to wear when we go together to town.

My husband owns one pair of pants — ‘Why would I need any more?’ he asks — worn only when he’s pruning trees. For chilly weather, he has a couple of old sweatshirts, a fleece vest and a knitted hat.

My practical spouse dons appropriate attire to prune trees 

Although he’s about as far from a fashionista as one can get, that doesn’t preclude him from having specific preferences. Consider his work boots.

A few weeks ago, I walked outside, only to stumble upon a jumble of footwear prominently parked on the concrete pathway.

“What’s going on, Ralph?” I asked. “Are your boots having a party?”

The footwear in question — six pairs of steel-toed, ankle-high, lace-up boots in various stages of disrepair — are made by a company my husband discovered about 12 years ago. He loves those boots. They provide just the right support and comfort he needs in a work boot. Unfortunately, they’re no longer being made. The manufacturer went out of business a few years ago, and my shopping-adverse spouse has been unable to find a suitable replacement.

I couldn't help myself...had to arrange Ralph's haphazard display into a circle on the walkway

However, practical guy that he is, Ralph stocked up before the company bottomed out. Over the last decade, when one set of boots became too worn out to wear, he’d go up to the attic, open a new box and break in another pair. But even the most pragmatic planner eventually works through his stockpile, and that’s what happened the day I chanced upon his stash of worn-out footwear outside on the walkway.

“I’m letting them dry,” Ralph said. “I just caulked them, but they need to sit in the sun for a while to dry.”

Now I’m no carpenter — that’s my husband’s bailiwick — but I thought caulking was to smooth gaps in wood, fill cracks and seal seams. I mentioned this bit of insight to Ralph, and he simply smiled. “That’s right,” he said. “It works on shoes too.”

I suppose it makes sense that a fellow whose wardrobe consists mainly of raggedy items wouldn’t have a problem covering his feet with heavily-caulked boots. As long as it works, what does it matter?

And it did work.

After a few hours in the sun, the caulk hardened, and his boots were functional again. I won’t go so far as to say that they were as good as new — that would be overstating. But they’re usable, and for now, that’ll do.

Maybe some day in the not so distant future, I’ll make Ralph put on that one unstained shirt and untorn pair of shorts and insist he go into town to shop for new boots. If he’s lucky, my picky spouse might even find another pair he likes almost as much as the ones he has now. If that happens, I expect he’ll buy more than one pair because when you find something you like, you stick with it. And I’m sticking with him. I married a man of many talents. He may not be the sharpest dresser on the runway, but he’s a sharp thinker, not to mention the least clothes-minded person I know.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Practice mindfulness - eat a pomegranate!

Pomegranates. Do you eat them? I do.

During the last few months of every year, pomegranate fruits begin to appear in the produce bins at local grocery stores, and I eagerly buy them. I don’t add them to my shopping cart just because they’re pretty, although the shiny, round, hard-skinned, red orbs are attractive enough to be Christmas tree ornaments. I hand the cashier money because I like the way pomegranates taste.

The edible part of this Middle Eastern native fruit are its seeds, also known as arils. Cutting a pomegranate in half reveals masses of small, dark-colored pea-sized arils, each one covered with a slippery, juicy pulp. Biting into a spoonful of seeds yields a mouthful of sweetness tempered with just the right amount of tartness to produce a flavorful punch combined with a satisfying crunch as the seeds are chewed.

With 200 to 1,400 seeds per fruit — pomegranates vary from the size of a small navel orange to the girth of a medium-sized grapefruit — a single pomegranate lasts for about a week in our two-person household. Maybe less if I fail to practice self-control.

As much as I look forward to pomegranate season each year, I wasn’t always a fan. When I was growing up, I recall neither eating one nor even trying one when I was a young adult. My introduction to this seasonal delicacy happened within the last decade when, out of curiosity, I decided to give one a try.

I’ve always been curious about different foods. When I see an unfamiliar fruit or vegetable in the produce bins, my interest is piqued even if I have no idea what the item tastes like or how it’s prepared. These days, learning about unfamiliar foods is easy, thanks to Google and YouTube. Type ‘How to eat a pomegranate’ into the computer’s search bar and more than a million instructional videos and Web page results appear.

I’ve watched a good many ‘how-to’ videos on the subject, but my preferred method remains a slow and pleasant process by the kitchen sink in which seeding a pomegranate forces me to practice patience.

While standing over the sink, I cut the fruit in half and proceed to squeeze the juice of one cut half at a time into a large bowl. As the juice drips into the bowl, numerous seeds fall in as well — but not all the seeds. To extract the remaining arils, I use my fingers, which is where patience comes into play. Poking and probing dislodges the seeds. Then, after they’ve fallen into the bowl, I poke around some more to find and remove any white membranes that have adhered to the seeds.

If I’m not careful and fail to focus on what I’m doing, seeds will fly off, and juice will splatter everywhere. However, if I pay attention to the task at hand, my kitchen stays tidy as tasty morsels fill my bowl.

Seeding a pomegranate promotes mindfulness. Separating the seeds from the spongy, white membrane in which they reside takes time. It takes me about 15 minutes from start to finish to fill a bowl with edible seeds and juice from a single pomegranate. Fifteen minutes is not a lot of time, but in our hyper-active lives, we’re often too preoccupied to allow ourselves even a quarter-hour of contemplative practice.

That’s all the more reason to do so, especially during this time of year when pomegranates are plentiful in the produce section. There are many ways to practice patience but few provide the added benefit of tasty, nutritious fruit to eat when practice time is done.

Try a pomegranate. Pick the biggest, reddest, firmest fruit you can find. When you’re ready to eat it, settle down by the kitchen sink for 15 minutes of quiet concentration. Relax. Have fun. Focus on what you’re doing, and enjoy the moment. When you’re done, you’ll be rewarded for your effort by not only having a clearer mind but by having a big bowl of pomegranate seeds to eat by the spoonful.

Delicious — mindfulness doesn’t get much better than this.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Enjoying the wonder and joy of the moment

It was a cool November afternoon.  Few people were on the beach in New Smyrna as Ralph and I were biking along the sand at low tide.

While Ralph was going for a swim, I watched from the shore and noticed dozens of birds far out in the water flying over and landing on the water.

They were obviously feeding on some kind of fish, which must have been swimming in large schools.  I'm not sure what kind of birds they are or what type of fish they were after but I had fun watching them nonetheless.

Sometimes it's not as important to know exactly what's happened as it is to just enjoy the wonder and joy of the moment.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Frog-eating Phoebe

Unperturbed by the sound of an ultralight airplane flying overhead, this little Eastern phoebe standing on top of a bluebird house devours the frog it just caught.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Wham! Whack! Thump! Thwack!

It was late afternoon. The sky was still light although the sun had begun its determined descent toward the western horizon. I stood looking out my kitchen window considering options. My husband Ralph was still outside working in his garden, and I needed to take a break from the computer. I figured there was a good half-hour or so before dinner — enough time to devour another chapter or two of Jodi Picoult’s latest novel, “Small Great Things.”

It wasn’t a difficult decision. I grabbed my camera, phone and the travel mug of tea I’d been nursing for the last few hours, picked up my current read and went outside. Plopping myself down in one of the chairs by the lake, I positioned my items on a table so each would be within reach if needed and settled in for a relaxing bit of outdoor reading time.

That’s not what happened.

Before I even had a chance to open the book, I heard the familiar rattling call of a Belted Kingfisher in flight. Looking up, I saw the foot long, grayish-blue, white-banded bird making a beeline to one of the mid-lake posts that we’d installed long ago for waterbirds to have a place to rest, preen and eat their catch. 

Instinctively, my hand reached for the camera. As the Kingfisher landed on one of the perches, I zoomed in for a closer look and was surprised to find a large fish clamped tightly in the bird’s strong, two-inch-long black bill.

As its name implies, Belted Kingfishers are royally good at catching and eating fish. With an unusually large tufted head, these 10- to 14-inch long inhabitants of fresh and coastal waterways throughout North America have been dining on fish in our lake for years. Despite their familiarity with me and our property, the pair of Belted Kingfishers that call our lake home remain remarkably wary of humans. If one of the birds happens to see me when we’re both by the lake at the same time, it immediately will change course and fly to as different a part of the lake as possible. Good thing I don’t take such actions personally.

That’s why on this occasion I was startled to see that the kingfisher not only landed on the mid-lake platform when I was outside but seemed so oblivious to my presence.

I suspect its judgment was hampered by more immediate matters such as how it was going to devour the giant fish it was carrying in its pincher-like bill. I switched my camera from still-shot to video mode and watched the action. The action was brutal.

Wham! Whack! Thump! Thwack! 

Over and over, the kingfisher hammered the dying fish against the wooden platform until blood dripped from its silvery, scale-covered body. Once the fish was decidedly dead, the predator proceeded to reposition its catch for swallowing. Little by little, the bird turned its meal around until the fish’s body rested completely within the grasp of its bill. It was only then that the actual process of eating began.

Goodness, how it swallowed! I’ve watched snakes separate their jaws to consume frogs much bigger than their mouths, and I’ve seen Great Blue Herons eat snakes. But this was the first time I’ve actually watched, moment-by-moment, the steady, sure effort of a Belted Kingfisher eating a fish that looked way too big for it to swallow.

When the deed was done — after a vast expansion of its throat and several burp-like movements — the Kingfisher flew away. By then, the sky was already beginning to darken. Evening had arrived. I picked up my travel cup of now tepid tea, juggled the cell phone, camera and book in my arms and made my way back inside. The Belted Kingfisher had already had its dinner. It was now time to make my own evening meal. And, no, fish was not on the menu.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Cast your ballot for Mother Earth!

There’s at least a little optimism in even the most pessimistic person. We go to sleep at night expecting to wake up the next day. We drive our cars, expecting to arrive at our destination. We make plans for the future assuming the future we imagine will be there when we’re ready.

A new day dawning

But what if it isn’t? What if tomorrow’s world is turned upside down? What if the result of the upcoming election causes mayhem with further-reaching repercussions than most of us can imagine?

I am an optimist by nature but the upcoming presidential election has me anxious about the future. So much is at stake. Our planet is in danger.

I feel like we’re not just electing a leader of the ‘Free World.’ We’re electing to have a world at all.

The victorious candidate in tomorrow’s presidential race faces unprecedented challenges. Earth’s very essence is under attack by a combination of lethal forces. Climate change. Environmental degradation. Terrorism. The threat of nuclear wars and biochemical warfare.

I don’t want to push the panic button. But I don’t want a president to push it either. I want a leader who understands balance. We stand on a precipice of pronounced precariousness. I want a strong leader who knows how to hold steady without being overbearing, overacting or tilting the balance of power.

All too often as election day nears, I find myself seeking solace in nature to escape the onslaught of political rhetoric.

I step outside to watch the sunrise. Every morning it rises in the east. But on some days the sky is so cloudy, I can barely see it. Still, I know the sun’s there spreading warmth and light on all parts of the planet no matter how minute or seemingly insignificant.

That’s how I want my president to be. I want a leader of indiscriminate light. A person who will illuminate the future instead of cloaking it in darkness. I want a leader with the power and presence of mind to persevere through problem times. Someone who stays bright and true spreading light and warmth even during days when the sky is filled with clouds. 

In need of light...

I’ve been voting in elections for more than 40 years but I’ve never been this scared before of the potential outcome. That’s because the outcome of this election is not just about what’s best for you or for me. It’s about what’s best for our children, our children’s children and for all the animals and plants that have no voice - no vote - in what the future will bring. This election is about what’s best for our planet.

For them - for all of us - I urge you to vote. Tomorrow is election day. Go out and cast a ballot for Mother Earth! 


Monday, October 31, 2016

Less mess = Less stress

When I was a little girl, one of my regular chores was to clear the table after eating. Our meals, especially evening meals, were always family affairs. It was, after all, the 1950s and 1960s. We were a family of four.

When my father and older brother finished eating, they would push out their chairs, leave their plates on the table, and retire to the TV room to watch sports. It didn’t matter what season it was. Some type of game, match or team event inevitably demanded their immediate attention. While the males were in the other room yelling directions to the players, my mother would be in the kitchen tidying up, and I was expected to join her. It was my responsibility to clear the table and help out in the kitchen.

It didn’t take me long to realize that if I lingered over my own meal, picking away and chewing slowly, my mother would get tired of waiting and do much of the table clearing herself. However, no matter how slowly I ate my food, I could never avoid my next job — drying the dishes.

In the kitchen, my mother positioned herself behind the sink where she dutifully washed the dirty plates, pots, pans, glasses and silverware before stacking them on a countertop drying rack, which, to my continued puzzlement, was never actually used for drying. 

My mother, Goldie Levy, in the kitchen after a holiday meal
Yardley, PA - April 1959

The rack was merely a temporary waiting station, waiting for me to do my job. My job was to pick up each item right after it was deposited and wipe it completely free of any droplets of moisture with one of the striped dish towels hanging beneath the sink. I was then expected to put each piece away in the shelf, drawer or cabinet where it belonged.

I never liked drying dishes or putting them away. I always wondered why they couldn’t just air dry on the drying rack. And why couldn’t I be the one doing the washing at least some of the time instead of my mom?

Fast forward 50 years.

I do the dishwashing now, and I like it. I like washing dishes so much that at our beach house, I had my husband Ralph remove the perfectly functional dishwasher that came with it.

“We don’t need it,” I said, and he agreed. “We can use the space for something else.”

We still have a dishwasher in our Groveland home, but I can’t recall the last time I used it. Probably when all the children and grandkids visited. But even on the rare occasions when we have a full house, I still prefer to suds up the cotton washcloth and clean the dishes by hand.

To me, dishwashing is a kind of meditation. Just as making the bed in the morning starts my day on a saner note, cleaning the kitchen after mealtime clears away mental as well as physical detritus. I find the entire process of cleaning up after a meal to be one of the best indoor ways for me to release tension and restore order. I don’t even mind clearing the table like I used to as a child. I’m happy to tidy things away, wipe down tabletops and counters and make our eating area look attractive again.

A tidy table.  A well-balanced plate full of good food.  A book to read.

Somewhere along the path to adulthood I realized that internal harmony often results from the removal of external stresses. Less mess equals less stress.

I doubt if my oldest daughter understands my compulsion to handwash dishes any better than I understood my own mother’s when I was a child. Amber is a mom with two young kids and to her, a dishwashing machine is an essential weapon in her housekeeping arsenal. But perhaps someday when her young children are grown and living off on their own, she’ll realize the peace and pleasure that comes with doing certain domestic chores.

Hot water and sudsy soap washes away more than just dirty dishes. It degreases the mind of stained thoughts as, one by one, a stack of clean kitchenware air dries on the kitchen counter. Visual proof of a job well done.

Dishes air drying on the dishrack
Another meal, another mess cleaned up

Monday, October 24, 2016

Otterly exciting!

It was early morning at our beach house. The watercan was filled, and I was on my way out the patio gate to give the plants a drink when suddenly — hello! — two otters sat on the bank of the salt pond less than 20 feet from where I stood frozen in my tracks.

Otters! In New Smyrna Beach! Right next to our house!

Although my friend and former beach neighbor once mentioned seeing otters in the salt pond, this was a first-time sighting for me at our Volusia County property. Over the years, I’ve encountered these semi-aquatic mammals several times but always in Lake County in or around freshwater lakes and marshes. Twice I observed them at Little Lake Harris in Howey-in-the-Hills, and I once saw an entire family of otters run across County Road 561 in Astatula.

Otter with fish photographed in Little Lake Harris 

However, most of my previous sightings have taken place at our own lakefront Groveland homestead, especially during a dry spell in the mid-2000s when water levels were low and turtle populations high. During those years, otters came to feed on the turtles. And feed they did. Anyone who imagines these web-toed, whisker-nosed critters as sweet little cuties hasn’t watched them chew through the flesh of a softshell turtle. It’s a sharp reminder of nature’s brutality.

Otter in our lake in the rain eating a soft-shelled turtle

But the two otters that I encountered the other morning by our beach house weren’t dismembering turtles or devouring fish. Their initial focus was on a small swath of unplanted soil beneath our perennial peanut patch. I quietly stepped back through the gate, turned around, put down the water can and ran inside to grab my camera. When I came back — yah! — they were still there.

Two otters alongside the salt pond by our beach house

For several minutes, I stood silently still as the otters, an adult and its offspring, rolled in the dirt and preened themselves before leaving land and returning to the water. During the entire time, the adult otter — my maternal instincts suggest it was the mother — emitted a series of chirping calls, sounds I’d never heard an otter make.

I didn’t realize until the two torpedo-shaped, brown-furred mammals slid off the bank back into the brackish water that a third otter was part of the group. Judging by its size and the way it followed the adult, I assumed this was another offspring out for a morning exploration trip with its mom.

Otters are found throughout Florida in rivers, lakes, streams and coastal marshes. They mate in spring and have an 11- to 12-month gestation period. The babies — one to three offspring called kits — are born in waterside dens called holts built into banks or in hollowed trees alongside shorelines. Although adult otters are adept swimmers, kits must learn this essential skill. When they are about two months, they are weaned and their mother teaches them how to swim and hunt for food.

Since the two kits I observed were almost as big as their mother, I assume they were already well versed in survival. But by the way the young patterned the adult, it was also obvious that mother otter was still very much in charge.

I don’t know when I’ll see otters again. Like most of my wildlife encounters, chance and timing — being at the right place at the right time — play a huge part in determining what I’ll see and when I’ll see it. However, I will be looking for otters whenever I step through our patio gate. And I’ll be listening, too, for the piercing ‘cheep-cheep-cheep’ cry of a mother otter letting her young know where she is and warning them not to stray too far from her or safe waters.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Yes, we have LOTS of bananas!

I thought about the idiom “A watched pot never boils” as I took yet another look at the two hands of bananas suspended by rope from the porch rafters. 

Lots of fat, green, unripe bananas hanging from the rafters

Much to my disappointment, the fat, green fruit were no riper this time than they had been the day before. Darn! I hoped at least a hint of yellow would appear.

The bananas are hanging in our porch because the plants on which they had been growing snapped in the recent storm. 

The banana plants that broke in the storm

Fortunately, none of the fruit was damaged when the banana trunks broke. After the rain died down, my husband, Ralph, and I went out to cut off the two hands. We brought them inside to ripen.

On the ground with all fingers intact

Ralph and I have been growing bananas at our Groveland property for a couple decades. Since we’ve been doing it for so long, one might assume we’re pretty good at producing a bountiful supply of America’s most popular fresh fruit. One would be wrong.

The fact that banana plants have had a place in our landscape for a long time merely means we’ve had more opportunities than most to make mistakes. Although we have experimented with different varieties and planted them in various locations, our ability to successfully produce reliable crops of fruit has been abysmal. Our most common failure has been in timing. Fruit often grows and looks promising but cold weather appears before the bananas are mature enough to ripen. 

Little frog hiding out in the bananas

Banana trees, which are aren’t really trees at all but are large perennial herbs in the same family as gingers, die back when temperatures drop below 40 degrees. Fruit remaining on a plant which has suffered cold damage will stop developing.

It takes about nine months for a banana plant to produce a bunch of bananas. Plants develop from a system of large underground rhizomes. Growing points called suckers sprout out of the rhizomes and poke through the ground. Under proper conditions, each sucker will develop into a full grown plant that can support a single crop of fruit called a hand of bananas. The size and number of bananas growing on a hand depends on factors such as soil nutrients, sun and wind exposure, availability of water, mulch, crowding and, of course, timing.

Banana flowers

Since each banana plant dies once it has produced a single hand of fruit, growers only have one shot every nine or so months to harvest a crop. Fortunately, the abundance of suckers surrounding the base of each mature plant provide multiple opportunities to try again if the first crop fails to mature in time to harvest.

But poor timing wasn’t the factor for the two hands of (almost) mature bananas now suspended from the porch rafters. Hurricane winds shortened their natural maturation, leaving us to complete the process in a more contrived setting.

And so I continue to check on them daily. If they’re like every other hand of bananas we’ve taken inside to ripen over the years, they will slowly begin to yellow and then — BAM! —every banana in the hands will be ready to eat at once. I counted over 30 fruit in one hand and even more in the other. 

The first sign of ripening!

The idiom says “A watched pot never boils.” But when it comes to hands of bananas, a more appropriate saying might be: “I’m going bananas.” Or at least I will be when the two hands finally mature and I am faced with more ripe fruit to do something with than we can possibly consume.

The same two hands six days later

Guess I better get out the dehydrator. Dried banana time should be here soon. 

Dehydrating time has arrived!