Thursday, January 25, 2007

Cranberries, Ice and Book Lists

Some shots from last week's ice storms. You're looking at a highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), which is attempting to block the entire dining room window despite vigorous pruning.

If you've read here a while, you know that I'm a fan of all kinds of lists of books (see, for example, Lists of 100 Books). One of my favorite book blogs - 50 Books - just had a pretty entertaining post on some alternative book lists: The Big List of Lists. You have to read the comments there, because people keep coming up with ever better ways to categorize their books. My favorite lists so far (and the first book I would include on that particular list) are:

- Best Book Titles of All Time
(Island of the Sequined Love Nun or The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove ? It's so hard to pick between Christopher Moore's books)

- Books That I Expected to Be Dirtier
(Lady Chatterly's Lover)

- Books I Bought More than Once Because I Forgot I Already Owned It
(Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media)

- Books I Adored as a Child But My Son Thinks Are Boring. (But that I insist on reading to him anyway because he's five and what does he know?!)
(My Side of the Mountain)

- Books That I Love Even Though The Last Twenty Pages Made No Damn Sense
(Summer of My Amazing Luck)

- Books I Re-Read When I Have Nothing Else to Read
(anything by Lois McMaster Bujold)

- Books I Shouldn't Admit Made Me Cry Like a Baby
(The Cubicle Next Door)

Now go on over to 50 Books and add your own categories.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ethnobotany Meme

I borrowed this from Jennifer Under the Ponderosas, but I'm changing the title because there are already lots of Green Memes out there. There's no "Ethnobotany Meme" out there anywhere. What's ethnobotany, you ask? It's the relationship between people and plants. Yes, you do have a relationship with the plants around you, whether you know it or not. I'll write more about it someday.

Think of the plants (trees, flowers, etc) which grow within 50 yards of your home. Which is your favorite?

I hate to pick just one. How to chose between the violets I transplanted from my parent's house, where my grandmother planted them 70 years ago, and the jewelweed that attracts all of the hummingbirds every summer? What about all of those huge perennial swamp milkweeds that all came from a tiny seed packet, that attracted all those butterflies last year? How about the forsythia that my mother-in-law gave us? We pulled that bush out of the ground with our Honda hatchback when we moved out of our co-op townhouse, then left it frozen, wrapped in a garbage bag in our yard in here Saline when my daughter was born three weeks before her due date, and it still flourished when we planted it in the spring six months later.

I guess I have to pick the elm tree (Ulmus americana) that we just cut down, though. It was such a beautiful tree that shaded the whole back of our house from the morning sun and kept most of the backyard fairly cool until late afternoon.

Here it is two years after it was diagnosed with Dutch elm disease, getting the dead branches trimmed and just before its second injection with fungicide.

Is any portion of this plant edible in any form? Can you boil the root, eat the berries, make tea from the leaves?

According to Dan Moerman's Native American Ethnobotany database, different Indian groups used the inner bark in a variety of medicines, usually in a kind of tea (much like the related slippery elm bark as a cough remedy). I've never heard of anyone eating the seeds, which are papery and rather flat and not as interesting as most tree seeds.

Can you use any portion of this plant to make something that would be truly useful for you? Alternately, can you use any portion of this plant to make something just for fun, just one time?

The wood was used by Native peoples and then later Americans for all kinds of things: house posts, tools, furniture, wagon wheels, sewage pipes. We have a big stack of wood that was cut for our fireplace, my son has attempted to make slingshots and various other toys from the smaller branches, and my husband has a stack of longer branches that he plans to use to damn the seasonal creek that borders our yard and the farm field behind.

Can this plant survive on the groundwater available to it, or does it need to be watered?

It did fine on the water it got naturally, although we did water it and fertilize it after it became sick in an attempt to strengthen its fight against the fungus that the elm beetles brought.

Do you see any other creatures -- birds or bees or squirrels -- using this plant?

A squirrel once took one of my sunflower heads and dropped pieces of it on me from this tree. I've seen squirrels eating the buds or the ends of twigs in the spring, too. And all kinds of birds have used the tree: crows liked to sit there in pairs, the occasional hawk used to watch our birdfeeders from the tree, and I've seen many flocks of starlings, and many nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, bluejays, robins, and cardinals up there.

After the tree died rather abruptly the summer before last, a whole new suite of creatures moved in. Weird fungi appeared, pieces of bark peeled off, and more woodpeckers and nuthatches than usual came - I guess that they were probably attracted to the insects that specialized in dead wood. My son pointed out this weird wasp-like thing last summer (when the tree had been dead a full year), which we identified as a giant ichneumons. Apparently it was laying eggs under the bark in the hidden galleries of larva tunnels. The Audubon guide said each egg would hatch and consume a horntail or some other wood-boring bug.

It is surprising how much the tree influenced our yard even when it was dead. It framed the landscape, it shed twigs that had to be picked up before we mowed, there were all the new and interesting creatures in it (more easily visible without leaves), it still provided some still had a certain presence.

I wish we could have watched it decay naturally, but it was too close to our house, and we got increasingly worried listening to it creak on windy days. Just before Christmas, the lumberjacks cut all the branches off it, toppled the trunk with a thud you could feel in the house (leaving an impressive dent in the soil), and ground the stump into a two foot high pile of mulch.

The tree's absence is still shocking....looking out at the moon rise, we see a gap where something always stood. The yard looks empty, the squirrels have to run a lot further to get away from our dog, and the pile of mulch looks disturbingly like a fresh grave.

What does this plant look like right now, during this season and at the time of day you're writing?

Here's a piece of firewood, minus the bark. Pretty cool, isn't it?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

30th Carnival of Feminists

is up at The Feminist Pulse. Check out a feminist look at 2006, many different points of views in (and on) feminism, pop culture (including that Problem Solved T-shirt, agh) and some critical responses to it, flame wars, Civil War women, and quite a bit more. And while you're there, page down and look at some of the earlier posts on The Feminist Pulse. They've got great talent for finding advertising (and other!) photographs that make you stop and think.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Letter Writing

Just a brief note to say that I'm not blogging (much) because I'm writing an honest-to-god letter today.

I think it's been about fifteen years since I've mailed anyone something that is more than a quick thank-you note, get well card, holiday greeting, or a paragraph on a scrap of paper included in a package. I used to regularly send long angst-filled letters to my grandfather (and he sent long rambling replies in return), but it's been sixteen years since he died. It doesn't seem like that long.

I also used to send long letters to my significant other, usually when I was doing archaeological fieldwork for eight weeks somewhere far away from him. Although this was after the advent of e-mail, it was before laptops and solar batteries and wireless networks were common and cheap enough for a college student to afford. We actually wrote in addition to talking on the phone. Now, living together, some weeks we hardly even get a chance to talk.

Do you think that old hard drives will take the place of boxes of correspondence in our archives some day?

Meanwhile, I'm off to do my letter to an old friend from high school. She sent me a card out of the blue, after not speaking to me for several years, and I was actually glad that she didn't give me a phone number or an e-mail address, because it gives me a chance to write a genuine letter again.

Below you see sunrise from my bathroom window as it was a few weeks ago, framed by the dead elm tree that has since been reduced to a pile of mulch and some firewood. It's a good thing it wasn't still standing last night, because I don't think that the heavy coating of ice on all the branches and twigs out there today would keep all of that increasingly brittle wood up in the air. I should go take some photographs of all the picturesque ice, but the freezing rain makes indoor activities (like letter writing) infinitely more appealing.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Currently Reading

Resolving to write better lead sentences wasn't such a good idea. Since I was unwilling to put anything down that didn't immediately appear eye-catching and smart, I stopped myself from putting anything down at all. And I had a lot of new books to read, and my kids were home from school for the winter holidays, and there are just lots of reasons to do something other than blog, especially when you can't think of a good first sentence.

So, forging past my writer's block with an easy topic: what I've been reading. Here's their lead sentences and a note about why I'm reading each and what I think of it:

Serene was word you could put to Brooklyn, New York.

- from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. What an incredible book. I'd heard of it for years (it was a bestseller after it was published in 1943, and a popular movie, which I've never seen either), but I was shocked by how modern and enjoyable this was. Thanks again to my book club for pushing me to read about Francie Nolan and her complicated family and what Brooklyn was like in the early 1900's.

And I loved the fact that Francie goes to Ann Arbor at the end of the book. Did you locals know that Betty Smith and her husband lived in Ann Arbor after she got married? I found her on the 1920 census (where both she & her husband apparently lied about their ages), living in another family's house in the heart of the Burns Park neighborhood, on Forest Ave. a couple blocks from Packard. She was never was an official student at U of M, but audited or unofficially took just about every writing class available in between having two daughters and writing plays.

You're stuck in traffic again.

- from Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. My book club's selection for next month, at my urging. I hope they don't all hate it.

There it is.

- from Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story, by Rachel Kadish. "There it is" refers to Tolstoy's famous first line: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I haven't read further, but it sounds good and a blogger whose taste in books I like recommended this.

'A'a: While highly fluid pahoehoe lava can flow like a river, with no more than a slight metallic hiss, rubblelike 'a'a lava moves with a sound like crockery breaking.

- from Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez. This is a gorgeous, entertaining and enlightening book, the best kind to browse on a cold winter's night with a cup of coffee and some chocolate cherry bread (from Zingerman's Bakehouse, for you locals). The literary quotes are delightful, the authors chosen are all worth reading in their own right, and the words are fun. Just this morning I've read about anse (aha, so that's where L'Anse, Michigan comes from - it's French for 'bay'), armored mud balls, desire paths, Detroit rip rap, and pimple mounds.

I'm also reading (and have recently finished) some trashy paperbacks, but I'm not going to list all of those first sentences, let alone the authors or titles.