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.