Monday, February 29, 2016

Borrowing books is easier thanks to Little Free Libraries

Libraries are the best. I'm a regular at my local libraries.

I love everything about the concept of borrowing books, which is why I am so excited by a new kind of lending facility popping up in shopping areas, neighborhoods and communities around the globe.

I'm talking about "Little Free Libraries," a movement that started seven years ago in Hudson, Wis., when artisan Todd Bol decided to honor his mother, a teacher who loved to read, by building a model of a one-room schoolhouse and mounting it on a post in his front yard. Bol stocked his miniature little red schoolhouse with reading material and a sign that said "Free Books."

He then invited friends and neighbors to take anything they wanted. The response was amazing. Books flew out of the wooden structure just as quickly as new ones arrived, contributed by readers with volumes to share.

News about Bol's book depository traveled fast. Before long, people began asking if he could make little libraries for them too and Bol did. He built and gave away several more structures before joining forces with Rick Brooks, a youth and community development educator at the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus. Together, Bol and Brooks fine-tuned the concept and helped spread the idea of Little Free Libraries through social media.

In May 2012, Little Free Library officially was established as a Wisconsin nonprofit corporation. Today, nine years after Bol built the first one, more than 36,000 registered Little Free Library book exchanges are in all 50 U.S. states and more than 70 countries around the world. One man's desire to do something nice as a tribute to his mother turned into a worldwide phenomenon of the sharing economy.

I found my first Little Free Library a year ago in front of a private residence in New Smyrna Beach on aptly named Faulkner Street. It's easy to tell from the creatively decorated appearance of the two-compartment, glass-fronted, wooden enclosure that the Faulkner Street book box is a labor of love handmade by a family that values reading. The top section contains a constantly changing mix of fiction and non-fiction titles while the bottom part — with a separate latch that kids can reach — overflows with children's books.

Handmade by a family that loves books

Unlike the New Smyrna Beach box, the next Little Free Library I discovered was exclusively for children. It's located inside Axum Coffee at 146 West Plant Street in Winter Garden on a low table next to the kid's play corner. 

Unadorned but functional.
The Little Free Library at Axum Coffee
 is stocked entirely with children's books

Instead of being a homemade structure, the glass-fronted, cedar-roofed mini-library is one of several designs available directly from the Little Free Library website where models start at $149.

But it was my most recent discovery in downtown Clermont that really excited me. According to the non-profit organization's website, there are 257 registered Little Free Libraries in the Sunshine State but only three in Lake County. Two are in Tavares. The third one — the one I happened upon the other day — is in front of The Barn Yarn in downtown Clermont.

A whimsical and colorful structure in front
of The Barn Yarn in downtown Clermont

Angela Territo, owner of business, built, decorated and installed her Little Free Library outside her West Montrose street storefront. The tall, colorfully painted structure caught my attention as I was browsing Clermont's downtown business district. The grandfather clock-sized cabinet includes four shelves for books. Handwritten signs that say: "Take a book, Leave a book" and "Sharing is Caring" are taped to the two hinged, glass-fronted doors.

It's all about sharing...

In this day of digital this and online that, I find it tremendously reassuring to know that there are others close to home who not only share my passion for real, hold-in-your-hand, turn-the-page books but also support the free exchange of reading materials for all people no matter what their age or where they live.

One day soon, I plan to join this devoted group of bibliophiles by building a Little Free Library of my own. Maybe mine with be Lake County's fourth library to be registered with the Wisconsin-based organization — unless someone beats me to it. I wouldn't mind that at all. No matter who does it first, everyone wins.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Parking lot surprise

I was on my way to the car after shopping at my local Publix when I saw something I had never seen in a Publix parking lot before.

Sitting in the upper branches of a scrawny oak tree were birds - hundreds of birds! I’m not talking about grackles, cowbirds, starlings or sparrows – the usual crowd of avian opportunists that frequent parking lots. No, sitting on top of the tree were cedar waxwings, migratory birds that travel in flocks from northern homes to warmer climes in search of ripening berries or fruit.

Cedar waxwings are beautiful birds similar in size to cardinals. Their upper plumage is a mix of grayish-brown feathers with yellow-white undersides. A single dot of waxy red color brightens each wingtip while a bright yellow band highlights the ends of their tail feathers. Their crested heads are predominantly brown but the most telling feature of these seasonal visitors to the Sunshine State is the rakish black mask that covers their eyes. Bandits wear masks and cedar waxwings might just be the ‘baddest’ berry-snatching birds around. 


Several weeks prior to noticing the flock perched in the parking lot tree I’d been on the lookout for the feathery thieves. I knew they were in the area because members of online bird groups had been posting photos of cedar waxwing sightings. Waxwings usually stop by our property to devour our mulberry and loquat crops but this year the mulberries and loquats are a little late, which is probably why they had not yet arrived.


Because these social birds feed in flocks that often number in the hundreds, they prefer fruitful locations where they can fill their bellies fast and furiously. Blueberry and strawberry farms suffer when waxwings settle in for an afternoon of feasting. Loud noises, owl decoys, recordings of hawk calls and even shotgun pellets do little to deter these determined devotees of plucking ripe fruit off bushes, vines and trees.

As I stood in the middle of the Publix parking lot leaning against my car and watching the birds, I wondered what they were after. The sparse plantings of scrubby oaks in the parking lot held no bounty of berry or fruit. Without an immediate source of food, the birds were either using the tree as a rest stop in between bouts of feasting nearby or as a fly-by roost en route to greener pastures elsewhere.

As amazing as it was to observe such an incongruous spectacle - hundreds of chattering waxwings perched on the uppermost limbs of run-of-the-mill parking lot trees – I was more amazed by what little attention they garnered. Even with the birds squawking away and me making a spectacle of myself in the parking lot leaning against the car to take pictures, I saw no one else looking up at the birds or asking what I was photographing. 


My recent birds-in-the-parking-lot encounter shows that nature does not have an on-off switch. Natural wonders can occur any time at any place. You don’t need specific training to appreciate beauty or even know what you’re looking at to see something special. You just have to be there. Be aware, care and be open to experiencing the moment.

Doing so is not always easy. Responsibilities and obligations demand our time while worries, concerns and chores cloud our minds. Fortunately, unlike nature, people do have an on-off switch. We have the ability to put the busy world on hold, mute the mental chatter and refocus our attention on the sights, sound and sensations that surround us.

Every now and then, we can choose to snap out of our preoccupied states and see something amazing. We can experience wonder. A more poignant wonder is why so few people do…

Monday, February 15, 2016

Can exercise be fun?

The bounce in my step has everything to do with exercise — except I don't work out, at least not in the traditional sense.

I don't go to the gym, take fitness classes or participate in any routine that includes fancy equipment, special clothing or patterns of "reps." Yet, I do exercise.

I go for long meandering walks, pull weeds in the garden and take slow rows around the lake. Occasionally, I bicycle at the beach. None of those activities feels like exercise because instead of focusing on working out, I'm working at focusing in. I'm paying attention to the birds, looking at plants or taking quiet pleasure in a stunning skyscape. Instead of having a desire to burn calories, I'm having a burning desire to see what's around the next corner or to find out what kind of turtle just poked its head out of the water.

The kind of exercise I like best is the kind that doesn't feel like exercise at all. That's why I'm excited about stability disks, also known as wobble cushions or domed balance balls. My husband Ralph ordered a pair of the inflatable nubby-surfaced disks for his stand-up computer desk and used them during a period when he was busy with office work.
Eventually he began spending less time indoors, and the unused orbs sat idle until I got tired of seeing them on the floor and brought them into my office.

Like Ralph, I also have a stand-up desk, but my laptop is set up on a treadmill so I can walk while I work. For years, I racked up miles while writing, doing research or wiling away time on Facebook. Eventually, however, the treadmill stopped working correctly. Annoying squeaks made walking less enjoyable, so I stopped using it. I still did my typing standing up, but I did it standing still, which wasn't nearly as much fun.

The day I swooped Ralph's two wobble cushions off the living room floor and brought them into my office, was the day I set into motion an entirely new way of combining fun with fitness. I placed the flat-bottomed, rounded disks on the non-working treadmill and balanced myself on their textured skin, one foot on each ball's springy surface. As I started to type, my feet instinctively found purchase. They shifted back and forth and bounced up and down. My body swayed as my fingers tapped the keys.

Six months have gone by since I first put my feet on the round rubbery disks, and I've been "dancing" on the wobble cushions ever since. Without pattern or prescribed routine, the improvised movement has improved my balance and toned calf and leg muscles. This low-impact activity is said to build core strength while providing weight-bearing exercise, which are both important benefits. However, the main thing I like about using the wobble cushions is how much I enjoy standing on them when I'm on the computer. Just like rowing in the lake, meandering through hiking trails or tidying up flowerbeds, I'm doing things I enjoy.

Exercise is important, but it's not always fun. One way to change that is to choose activities that don't feel like exercise at all. For me, balancing on two wobble cushions fits the bill as another simple, safe way to incorporate healthy activities into my everyday life.


Where to buy wobble cushions - We purchased ours (we have several pairs) online from amazon.  They come in a range of colors and cost less than $15 each.  Check out SUESPORT Air Inflated Stability Wobble Cushion, Banlance Disc, Twist Massage, Fitness and Exercise, Pump Included

Monday, February 8, 2016

What season is it?

Many plants think it’s spring, though it’s only early February.

In downtown Clermont, I spotted a Tabebuia impetiginosa tree all primped up and fancy with a blush of pink blossoms. I remember noticing the same tree last year around a month later in the season. By then, it was in full bloom, a dazzling flush of floral effervescence.

Tabebuia impetiginosa, aka pink trumpet tree, is a colorful sign of the changing seasons

Coming home from Clermont along U.S. Highway. 27, I saw tall yellow flower spikes of mullein reaching for the sky, and under our mulberry trees at home, the prickly leaves of cow thistle have already grown sharp enough to make walking barefoot unpleasant.

Mullein - a tall showy spring wildflower

Along the lakeside, yellowish-green catkins have begun to appear on Carolina willows while in a nearby thicket, a few white blackberry buds have opened their petals, turning expectant faces to the sun as if they couldn’t wait a day longer to absorb its warmth.

White blackberry blossoms on their way to developing into berries

The uppermost branches of our swamp maple trees sport tiny red leaves even though our sycamore trees refuse to let the last of their large, brown leathery leaves fall to the ground.

The sycamore tree is still covered with leaves while the leaves of other deciduous tree have already fallen to the ground

It’s February — but is it autumn, winter or the start of spring? In Central Florida it’s often hard to tell.

Birds have begun to seek out nesting sites. Our bluebird boxes are seeing activity and a red-bellied woodpecker has set up house in a nesting box mounted on a tree. 

Two female bluebirds check out a nesting box

Little Carolina wrens are chattering as they poke around shrubbery and flowerpots in search of just the right spot to raise young. While rowing, I startled a Great Egret with long, lacy plumes on its back, an indication that breeding season has begun.

I like the anticipation, hopefulness and optimism of spring. But as much as I want to believe that the birds and plants know what they’re doing, experience has proved that they may be wrong. Another cold spell could arrive tomorrow. New leaves on the maple tree could die back, ripening fruit on the loquat could spoil, and the birds that nest prematurely might have to wait a little longer to successfully raise young.

Loquat fruit have started to grow but will they make it to maturity or succumb to another winter cold snap?

It’s all about timing. Humans aren’t alone in occasionally misjudging seasonal shifts.

The other day, I watched a newly hatched butterfly — a tan and black striped zebra longwing — sip nectar from a cluster of goldenrod flowers. Leave it to a butterfly to find a source of nourishing sweetness among a field of fluffy beige seedheads. Although many goldenrods grow on our property, only this one plant is blooming. The others are in that autumnal stage of development when the spreading of seeds precedes springtime’s flush of new flowers. The butterfly had latched onto the solitary plant sporting a gold floral crown.

A zebra longwing latches onto a solitary goldenrod flower

The lone goldenrod might have been an early bloomer or very late in following the other plants’ lead. Then again, it might simply have wanted to burst into bloom and did so regardless of what others were doing.

Nature is nothing if not full of surprises. No matter what the reason, no matter what the season, no matter how confusing the weather or irregular the patterns, nature never fails to mystify and amaze.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Mountain or decide

The cattle in my neighbor's pasture are grazing a mountain.

It's not a mountain by New England standards and certainly not compared to the topography of the Great Rocky or Blue Ridge ranges. But for here in Central Florida, the weed-covered mounds of earth that protrude from a corner of my neighbor's field seem mountainous, at least from a bovine perspective.

They are actually the forgotten byproducts of construction projects. My neighbor, who has an earth-moving company, has deposited leftover road-building materials in that corner for years. Stacks of red clay stand alongside piles of sand, lime rock and gravel. Over time, wind and rain have melded those raw materials together until their separate colors, textures and shapes can no longer be differentiated one from another. To the cattle's eyes, and to mine as well, the entire corner appears as one large undulating mass of plant-covered ground, a rolling oasis in an otherwise level field.

It pleased me when I drove by to see the livestock chewing their way up and down the hilly terrain. Although the cattle may have conquered Mount Surplus before, this was the first time I'd seen them there. I pulled the car off the dirt road and shut off the engine so I could quietly watch the small herd of white, brown, black and spotted cattle doing what cattle do best — graze.

As I sat there wondering if the animals were enjoying the change in altitude, an all-black calf that had made his way up to the top of a mound suddenly ran awkwardly downward. Was he playing? Did he have fun? Did the hilly terrain present a pleasant change from the dull routine of grazing flat field fodder?

The cattle were too busy filling their bellies to pay attention to the youngster's antics, but I watched with interest as the entire herd found ways to enjoy their newfound bounty. While the two young calves were exploring the sloping trails, each adult member of the slow-moving herd meandered along until it found a spot — an individual grazing station — where it could chew off and consume new plant growth, overlooked stems, seedheads and leaves.

It was a bucolic scene. If I didn't know better, I could easily imagine a real mountain, or at least a series of rolling hills in New England or North Carolina, on which a herd of cattle contentedly grazed.

I sat watching the animals for quite a while before continuing home where, on our own acreage, I passed several large piles of woodchips in various stages of decomposition. We have no livestock to graze and explore our mountains-in-the-making but we do have grandchildren who, not unlike the little black calf, have fun climbing up and running down the sloping sides of our towering stacks.

I suppose it doesn't matter if you're a long-lashed bovine or a bright-eyed child, anything a little different is bound to get attention. 

The cattle in my neighbor's pasture were grazing a mountain. It may not have been a real mountain, but that didn't seem to matter. The old adage says not to make a mountain out of a molehill, but it doesn't say anything about not building one out of woodchips or surplus road-building materials.