Monday, January 25, 2016

A lizard that looks like a snake but breaks like glass

I was walking down the path from our beach house to the car when I saw a snake stretched out across the shells. At least I thought it was a snake.

When I squatted down for a closer look, something about its smooth, shiny body didn’t seem to fit any snake I recognized. I snapped several pictures of the foot-long, finger-thick fellow, who was completely unfazed by my presence, with the intention of doing some research later to learn exactly what kind of snake it was.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a snake at all. The slender bodied, legless animal I saw was a glass lizard, most likely an Island Glass lizard, one of four species of glass lizards in Florida.

Glass lizards belong to the scientific genus Ophisaurus, from the Greek meaning “snake-lizard.” Its common name, glass lizard, comes from the animal’s ability when being pursued to break off its tail into one or more pieces. After being severed, the appendage wriggles about, distracting enemies, which gives the lizard time to escape. As with many other types of lizards, glass lizards can regenerate severed tails. Doing so takes nine months or longer.

The critter I encountered didn’t have a severed tail. Its slender brown, black and tan, speckled body was completely intact. While its shape was almost wormlike — pointy at the tail, smooth and rounded at the head — it was far too long and colorful to be a worm. It was also the wrong size to be a skink, another type of lizard with a smooth, colorful and shimmery appearance but with four small legs. I simply assumed it was a snake.

A little research shed light on the subject.

Although they look alike, snakes and glass lizards have distinctive differences. Unlike snakes, glass lizards have moveable eyelids and external ear openings. Bones called osteoderms cause their bodies to be brittle, resulting in more rigid movement than snakes have when slithering effortlessly across the ground. A glass lizard also lacks a snake’s ability to unhinge its jawbones, which causes a diet restricted to invertebrates no larger than the size of its head.

I sensed a sudden interest from my husband Ralph when I told him what a glass lizard eats. To my vegetable-growing partner, any animal that helps control garden pests like grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars and snails is worthy of attention.

It may have taken a special hook to pique Ralph’s interest but the glass lizard fascinated me from the get-go, even before I knew what it was.

I only noticed the snake-like critter because I looked down while walking to the car. Some might say I wasted time by stopping, but I disagree. To me, little pauses in my routine often yield invaluable benefits like expanded empathy, knowledge and understanding of the world outside my door.

I never know what surprises will come my way on any given day. What I do know is that the best discoveries happen when I pay attention to my surroundings. If that means eyes to the ground when I take a walk, so be it. Exciting things are found when I take the time — make the time — to look around and enjoy the everyday wonders of simply living.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Strawberry season is here!

Bright and red. Sweet and juicy. Fresh, ripe strawberries are a fruit-lover’s dream.

But in recent years, that dream has faded as one local u-pick strawberry farm after another has gone out of business. Until recently, Oak Haven Farm in Sorrento was the only place in Lake County still offering families a chance to pick their own fresh berries. 

Now, however, another farm on the opposite end of the county has entered the strawberry-growing field. Lake Catherine Blueberries in Groveland has become the county’s second agricultural enterprise to offer u-pick strawberries to the public.

Known for its family-friendly u-pick blueberries and thornless blackberries, Lake Catherine Blueberries responded to customer demand for more types of u-pick fruit by adding 4,200 strawberry plants in 2015.

“Everybody was always asking what else we have growing,’’ said Jamie Godfrey Lowe. Lowe, her husband Dustin and Dustin’s parents, Clinton and Ann Lowe run the farm on family land that has been used for agricultural purposes for nearly 100 years. Clinton Lowe designed the elevated tiered system that enables pickers to pluck berries off the plant without bending.

“As the plants mature, the berries will cascade down until the entire structure is covered with strawberries,” said Jamie Lowe.

Clinton Lowe’s design is as unique as it is impressive. Traditionally, strawberries grow in the ground on rounded mounds. Pickers must bend over, squat down or crawl along the rows on their knees to gather fruit. At hydroponic farms, which became popular in recent years, fruit grows in nutrient infused water instead of soil and is raised above ground for ease of picking. Lowe’s design contains the best of both systems.

At Lake Catherine Blueberries, strawberry plants grow in soil in three horizontal troughs – one above the other – on eight rows of triangular frames. The bottom trough is about knee high, the middle waist high and the one on top is about five feet above ground. With this system — no matter how tall or small one is — ripe berries are always within easy reach.

Although Clinton Lowe designed the system, his son Dustin selected the variety of strawberry to plant in the troughs. After visiting strawberry farms throughout Florida, Dustin chose Radiance, a large form berry generally considered to be the juiciest of the cultivars developed by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS Communications

Since winter 2016 is the first time Lake Catherine Blueberries will be offering u-pick strawberries to the public, opening dates have yet to be set but the price of the berries will be $3/pound.

“Depending on the weather, we will be opening either the last week of January or in early February,” said Jamie Lowe, who suggested checking the farm’s Facebook page or visiting its website,

“We expect to be open one or two days a week and if all goes well,” said Jamie Godfrey Lowe, “we should have strawberries available into our u-pick blueberry and blackberry season in April and May.”

Sounds like a berry good plan indeed.


Lake Catherine Blueberry Farm — 5849 Lake Catherine Rd, Groveland, FL 34736;; Opening dates for u-pick strawberries to be announced.

Oak Haven Farms & Winery – 32418 Avington Rd, Sorrento, FL 32776;; Normal picking hours for strawberries from January thru March are Wednesdays and Fridays from 12 to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., but customers should call to be sure berries are available.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The acoustic sounds of January in Florida

During a month when our Northern brethren are stomping through snowdrifts in boots and parkas, we’re lolling around green expanses in sandals and short-sleeve shirts. Instead of skating over frozen lakes, some of us are gliding through silky water in kayaks or rowboats.

Kayaking through calm water on a foggy afternoon

We might even go swimming. At 72 degrees, the Atlantic Ocean was two degrees warmer last week than it was at the peak of summer on Cape Cod, and during yesterday’s sunny afternoon, my husband Ralph swam across our lake.

Swimming in the lake

The ability to garden during a month when the ground is frozen in other parts of the country is another reason why Floridians like January. Rather than shoveling the white stuff into piles, Florida gardeners are sowing seeds into rows. January is prime planting time for cold-weather crops such as lettuce, potato, broccoli and bok choy. There are strawberries to harvest at u-pick farms and fresh oranges to squeeze into juice.

Despite wearing a hat and long sleeve shirt, January is prime gardening time for my husband who tends to young seedlings of Asian Greens in his raised container garden

Instead of eagerly awaiting the appearance of the first crocuses on a bleak landscape, we find ourselves already surrounded by an abundance of blooms. Yellow allamandas, red bottlebrush, sweet-smelling jasmine and colorful bougainvilleas are among a multitude of flowers that fill the January landscape with beauty and fragrance.

The yellow blooms of Carolina jasmine cover a trellis

But there’s another reason why Floridians look forward to the first month of the year, and it has nothing to do with the scent of flowers, the taste of fresh-picked produce or the warmth of the water. It’s all about sound — the sound of music. January is when a cadre of beloved folk singers flee cold New England winters to entertain us with the sweet sound of acoustic songs.

The fun starts Saturday January 16 at 8 p.m. when Cindy Mangsen and Steve Gillette return to Lake County for their annual performance of traditional and contemporary folk music at Trout Lake Nature Center as part of the Lake Eustis Folk 3rd Saturday House Concert series.

Traveling, recording and performing together since 1989 under the banner of Compass Rose Music, the Mangsen-Gillette duo is a well established part of the American folk music scene. Although I have been attending their performances for many years, I never tire of listening to their beautiful harmonies, mellow tones and humorous takes on everyday situations.

The Mangsen-Gillette duo at a 2003 concert in The Villages

And while I love their songs — many are on my personal playlist of all-time favorite tunes — I also appreciate the gentle graciousness with which the pair approaches their audience. I find it a pleasure to listen to songs sung clearly with beautiful melodies that stay with me long after the concert has ended.

Preceding Saturday evening’s event is an optional 7 p.m. potluck supper, a casual gathering of fellow folk music aficionados. For those who choose to attend the pre-concert meal, it’s also a chance to mingle with two down-to-earth performers in a friendly, low-key environment. Following the concert, an after-concert jam ensues in which music-making attendees bring out guitars, fiddles, dulcimers and other instruments to take turns making more music. It’s yet another chance for those of us who don’t play to sit back and enjoy the talent of others. The entire evening is available for a donation of just $10, a small price to pay for a large serving of food, fellowship, fine songs and good old-time fun.

Like Mangsen and Gillette, David Roth is another soothing voice in a noisy world. A Chicago native transplanted to Cape Cod after several years living and performing in Seattle, Roth entertains audiences with his unique ability to combine offbeat observations with moving stories that often are humorous, as well as powerful statements on contemporary issues.

David Roth

Although Roth’s bookings rarely bring him to Lake County, he’s a regular winter performer in Central Florida. This year, his final stop on a 9-day tour across the Sunshine State will be a 6 p.m. concert on Jan. 24 at the University Unitarian Universalist Society in Orlando for a donation of $15 per person.

While Lake County is home to a great number of talented local acoustic musicians who perform all year long in intimate settings throughout the region, I consider it a special treat to be able to attend small-venue concerts by special performers who only visit our stomping grounds in the month of January.

While there are those who object to all the snowbirds who come south when temperatures dip low, I say, bring ’em on. Especially snowbirds that sing, because I for one, intend to be in the audience, absorbing the stories and singing along to the sweet sounds of Florida winter from a folk music perspective. Hope to see you there too.

Here is where you can get details on the performance:

David Roth:

Cindy Mangsen and Steve Gillette:

UUU Society of Orlando: 11648 McCulloch Rd, Orlando, FL 32817, 407-737-4018.

3rd Saturday concert in Eustis: Trout Lake Nature Center; 520 East County Road 44, Eustis, 352-408-9800 or email

Monday, January 4, 2016

A New Year without resolutions

The first few weeks of January are an optimistic period. Fresh starts dominate. Goal setting ensues. Minds are aflutter with dreams and expectations.

I know the feeling of unbridled enthusiasm for New Year resolutions. In years gone by, I’ve written down goals and worked hard — at least for a while — to achieve them. Although some plans reached fruition, others faded away in the twilight of good intentions. Overall, step-by-step and year-by-year, positive strides have been achieved. Progress, though slow, is progress nonetheless.

This year, however, I’m doing things differently. Instead of pensively striving to contemplate tomorrows, I want to meet the future without tethers or ties. I have no printed list of proposals. No resolute statements or carefully mapped out plans. I want to see what it’s like to experience the next 11 months unleashed from a list of grand promises and ideals.

If it sounds like an excuse for not making New Year resolutions, maybe it is, but for a planner like me it’s also a scary proposition. I’ve always considered goal setting an essential part of personal growth. In my mind, plans and accomplishments go hand-in-hand. Without hard work and determination, I’ve always believed dreams stagnate and aspirations dwindle.

For decades, the beginning of January found me writing down a list of goals for the year ahead. I would review them regularly, dating and placing checkmarks to indicate when expectations were met.

And yet, there comes a time in life when it feels right to take a break. Instead of working so hard to have more — more material objects or more achievements — it seems important to work harder at enjoying what you have. That’s what I want to do in 2016. I want to do less and enjoy it more. I want to be listless in the sense of being free from expectations and penned-out plans. At the same time, I want to be open to whatever opportunities and experiences come along.

This year, I’m taking a break from tradition. I’m allowing myself a little leeway and letting go of expectations. If you are among the multitude making New Year resolutions, I applaud your efforts. I hope you attain as many of your objectives as possible and for those resolutions that fail to thrive, I hope you don’t fault yourself harshly. It’s important to remember that sometimes we learn as much — if not more — from our failures as we do from our successes.

As for me, I’m flying free for the first time in years. The first few weeks of January are an optimistic period and I’m excited to see what each new day brings.