The East Coast’s Secret Weapon: Fireflies

If you’ve been reading my blog for even a few months, you probably know I’m a homegrown Southerner who left the South decades ago and never looked back except to visit my family, cheer for the Tarheels, eat some excellent greasy meat and smell the oak trees. 

In short, I’ve become one of those terrible west-coast snobs. Northwest, in particular.

But last week I got slapped upside the head with one huge, enormous, unforgettable advantage the eastern half of America has over the western: FIREFLIES.

(All credit and kudos to Radim Schreiber for that video.)

You might well ask how anyone could forget something so magical. Here’s the reason: fireflies are a summer phenomenon. And since North Carolina’s hot, muggy summers are one of the factors that sent me and the Mate fleeing for the west, I have made it a point to visit only in the other three seasons. So I simply have not seen fireflies. Out of sight—apparently, sadly—out of mind.

For the scientifically minded, here are some quick, wikipedia firefly facts:

  • They are winged beetles, commonly called fireflies or lightning bugs for their conspicuous use of bioluminescence during twilight to attract mates or prey.

  • Fireflies produce a “cold light”, with no infrared or ultraviolet frequencies. 

  • About 2,100 species of fireflies are found in temperate and tropical climates, especially in marshes or in wet, wooded areas.

  • In many species of fireflies, both male and female fireflies have the ability to fly, but in some species, the females are flightless.

  • They are endangered, mostly due to habitat loss.  [Thanks, Wikipedia!]

But for your inner child, here’s all you need to know: being in the presence of fireflies, in the moist, breathing darkness, is beyond anything videos can capture. It’s otherworldly…the kind of other world where nature is that benign goddess-mother we all love to imagine. Nothing bad can happen in the presence of fireflies, can it? They twinkle one’s breath away, but unlike the stars, they don’t make one feel small. Just blessed.

For a visual representation of fireflies’ geographical distribution, and to learn more about all things firefly, click here on the Massachusetts Audubon’s firefly page.

Thank you, magic creatures of “cold light.” Thank you, Mom & Dad, for raising me in a place of magic. To all y’all who haven’t been to the rural east in the summer to experience the glow: I hope you can give yourself that gift someday. (And have some greasy meat while you’re at it.)

Why Work Parties Make The Best Reunions

I haven’t attended a college reunion since my 10th, way back in…never mind…but the main memory I have of that time is of painting a house in Dorchester, Mass. No drama, just good, wholesome fun—and a wonderful chance to reconnect with folks while doing something more constructive than drinking.

Back when the Mate and I lived in North Carolina in the 1980s, we were building a New Hampshire-style timber-frame barn together in our spare time. Well, he was project manager; I was definitely unskilled labor at the time. But boy, could I organize a work party! They were always potlucks, always featuring a cookie we came to call “barn bars,” and always well attended by folks who didn’t have enough manual labor in their lives…or maybe did, but doing someone else’s, in a festive atmosphere, was a whole different, fun animal.

We grew so fond of “barn bars” that I made them into our wedding cake. Here’s the 25th Anniversary version.

Last summer our cousins in Vermont, who are young parents, were struggling a bit to run their farm, take care of their kiddos, and make some headway on the little house they were trying to restore in order to move out of the family-owned (and often occupied) farmhouse. The Mate proposed a work party to get their home at least roofed in for the winter. Sons One and Two were in the neighborhood, and they joined in, with other cousins and friends. They worked for a week and had a BLAST.

The Mate in his element

Since this was in August, I couldn’t get away from the bakery, but I pouted and plotted from afar…

…so this year? Vermont Family Work Party II is NOW. Which is why I won’t be blogging for a little while. But don’t worry; that cyber-silence you hear will be punctuated with ringing hammers.

(Who am I kidding? With my skill set, I’ll most likely end up as Crew Chef.) 

What do work parties need at the end of a long day? PIE! (And maybe some barn bars too.)

But I’m still bringing my work gloves just in case.

Work parties. Have you been to one? Have you held one? If so, please share. If not–what are you waiting for?

Road Trip VIII, Days 32-35, Wilkes-Barre, PA to Shaftsbury, VT, and Back to Central PA: Oh, Yeah—Winter. That’s a Thing.

Most years in the Pacific Northwest, winter is no more than an intriguing concept viewed on screens, or listened to sympathetically over telephones. (Summer too, for that matter.) We are a mild people in a mild climate. So say I, who moved there for that very mildness. So it’s been kind of fun this week, remembering what winter is all about. See how many of these wintry facets you can relate to.
Wonderful: snow sports. We never were downhill skiers and these days we don’t XC much either, but hey—we didn’t schlep these snowshoes across the country for nothing!

Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!

Annoying: all those LAYERS you have to put on just to go outside! Fleece vest, parka, waterproof pants, gaiters, gloves, hat, scarf…all of which makes coming back in for a quick pee a matter of deep thought.

The Mate, wondering if taking a pee stop is even worth the trouble.

Wonderful: eating snow.

Annoying: digging out your car.

Can you tell I took this from indoors? I mean, why should both of us freeze our butts? (Thanks, babe.)

Wonderful: being snowed in when being snowed in costs you nothing at all. On our cousins’ farm in southern Vermont, even the chickens seemed to agree.

Nope, still don’t feel like going for a walk. Not till they invent chicken snowshoes.

Sheep are tougher than chickens. And people.

Annoying: avoiding ice, whether on foot, ski or wheel.
(Speaking of ice, here was our first reminded of how rough winter could be: these mountainous chunks of river ice flooded up by the Susquehanna in Wilkes-Barre):

Freezing AND flooding? Rough life.

I could add some other sweet memories from childhood: making molasses candy in the snow; cuddling up with hot water bottles, and of course—snowmen and snowball fights! But since this particular snowstorm refused to let up enough for those latter activities, sorry; they are pictured only in my brain.

As we make the Big Right a Turn to begin our westward, homeward journey,I’ll end with the last verse of a song I wrote last year after visiting snowy Vermont:

I’m going back to the land of wet,
No winter wonderland regret.
They don’t sell postcards of the rain,
But what you see is what you get.

Road Trip VII, Days 17-21, Durham, NC to Shaftsbury, VT: Marching Madly Back Into Winter

What kind of idiots drive north into a named winter storm…when they don’t have to?

Allow us to introduce ourselves: Wing & Mate.

We did make a few prudent choices. We delayed leaving NC for a day to let the worst of Stella pass. And we stayed as far east as possible, away from the storm’s edge, even though that meant sticking with ugly ol’ I-95 instead of taking the prettier inland route. We may be idiots, but we’re not STUPID.

We also opted to take it slow, leaving late in the morning and spending the night halfway to Vermont, in a motel in Wilmington…where we got a good lesson in reality.

Reality can thin out a bit on road trips. In our little car-bubble, whatever we’re used to becomes whatever IS. So I got heartily sticker-shocked at that motel. But since it was the last room available I swallowed hard and paid–I’m embarrassed to say how much–to avoid the losing proposition of racing around the internet just before rush hour trying to find a better deal.

The motel was full of families. In summertime or over Christmas this is expected, but we could tell these weren’t folks on Spring Break. Sure enough, we learned that a major power outage had forced them from their homes. And here we are, on a purely discretionary trip! Talk about perspective. I chatted with a couple of ladies over breakfast, and when they wished me “safe travels,” I wished there were a way to say, “safe stay-at-home!”

The New Jersey Turnpike took all my attention as navigator, as other freeways snaked in and out, trying to lure us into NYC. Nothing looked attractive, even under snow, which tells you something. (Sorry, NJ…maybe someday I’ll discover the “Garden” part of your statehood.) But once safely in the Hudson Valley, headed for Albany, we both relaxed, enjoying real mountains for the first time since Asheville. 

Snowy mountains. You gotta love any scenery that calls to mind words like “serene” or “majestic.” 

Majestic, shmajestic–I wanna make footprints!

“Whose woods these are I think I know…” (snowshoeing along a section of the Appalachian Trail)

Snow angel! (We coastal Northwesterners can’t get enough of this.)

OK, snow is cool. But the REAL draw of this adventure? Cute little cousins.

…and cheese-eating dinosaurs

And their adorable sheep-herding donkey Ben:

March is a terrible time for lambing in VT. Cousin Jesse had to bring the flock into the barn.

Ben being modest. He has work to do.

So: March Madness in basketball, yes. And in the lives of good ol’ Wilmingtonites just trying to make it through winter. But the northeastern roadways? Piece o’ cake. Shame on us for doubting the Yankee ability to deal with snow.

Seeing is Bee-lieving: Guest Blog by Wing Son Two

 

The Things We Do for Honey

This spring our beehive arrived, the much anticipated Kickstarted “Flow” hive that allows for low-disturbance (and low-risk) beekeeping and the ability to harvest honey from a tap. It is a beautiful wood design that was easy to set up, but one crucial piece was missing: bees.

Getting a new colony of bees is no simple process. Every colony needs one queen, and only one–a single queen can control a colony of up to 50,000 workers. What’s more, she produces a pheromone that both compels workers to care for her and stymies the development of other queen bees (they are born as female workers, the bees you see pollinating flowers). In nature, when colonies grow too large, the queen pheromone is not strong enough to effect all the drones and they will raise a new queen, and thus creating a new colony.

The queen lays upwards of 1,000 eggs a day!

When you are purchasing bees, what you generally want to get is a nucleus, or “nuc”. This is essentially a small colony: usually five frames (instead of eight or ten) filled with workers, drones, a queen, and brood. This was created by splitting an existing hive–separating a population of the hive from the queen so they allow a new one to grow.

Story time.

We bought a nuc. When I was told that I had to go pick it up, I figured I would be handed a plane ticket to North Korea, but instead was given an address in eastern Mass. It was a three hour drive, and I was told to arrive at 8am, when the bees are not yet active for the day. Okay, sure, no problem. I woke up at 5, jumped in my car and got there exactly at 8. They had a nuc waiting–a simple wooden box containing the five frames, covered with a layer of plastic mesh and a wooden lid. I was told to keep the wooden lid off so the bees would not overheat, but given no other directions. When I asked if I should put it in the trunk or backseat, the lady just shrugged. When I said that I was driving 3 hours she gave a start and frowned but still offered no guidance. There was one lone bee on the outside of the mesh–we both saw it–but since she said nothing I wasn’t going to be the pansy who asked if it was fine to have a bee loose in my car. Besides, it was just one bee.

After about ten minutes in the car, the bee left the mesh and started buzzing around the window. I figured the guy was the adventurous misfit of the hive and granted him his wish of outdoor exploration. Whoosh, out he flew. A few minutes later I glanced in the rearview and saw a bee buzzing at the back window. Hmmm…that first bee definitely was ejected, so this must be a new one. Oh well, he can just hang out back there. I took another look a couple minutes after and saw he had been joined by two other bees.

Three bees are pretty much the same as one bee in my book, nothing to be bothered about. Still, as I raced over the hills of southern New Hampshire, I could not help but keep stealing glances back. Not wanting to tear my eyes off the road for more than a second–getting in a crash with a backseat full of bees definitely would ruin a good day–I am having trouble discerning if there are now four or five bees back there. They keep buzzing around the corners of the window. After another half hour, though, it is undeniable: there are at least a dozen bees loose.

Hmmmmm…….

Well there was not a whole lot I could do about it, so I just drove a bit faster, flinching every time I hit the rumble strip because I was too distracted counting bees in my mirror. Worse yet, my fuel gauge was dangerously low and I could not shake the feeling that the obnoxiously loud low-fuel beep would be at the exact frequency that makes bees go swarming mad. By the time I was forced to pull over to get gas there were at least 40 bees buzzing at an increasingly loud and angry volume. I filled up as quick as I could, brushed off the stray explorers that had ventured up to my seat and got up to speed as quickly as I could, leaving the front windows rolled down to keep a steady blast of air holding them back.

I have no idea how many bees were loose by the time I rolled into the farm (and jumped out of my car). Maybe 60? 70? Too many. Luckily there were still hundreds more in the nuc that my cousin (wearing full bee gear) picked out of my car and deposited in our hive. Even more luckily, I did not get stung…until I was standing by watching the installation process. Then I took one on the ear and the whole side of my face swelled up like a Trump balloon-doll. But that is a small price to pay for increased farm fertility, the promise of future honey, and another chapter in my memoirs.

what do you mean we can’t harvest until next year?

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When Turkey Day is For Real: Stepping Up to Slaughter

My vegetarian friends: you may not care to read this on principle, but if you do, don’t worry–this post contains no gore. I decided to document my son’s participation in his first turkey slaughter (I refuse to call it a “harvest”), but found myself avoiding certain photos for my own sake as much as anyone else’s.

Back story: Wing Son Two has been working on this farm, owned by cousins of The Mate, since July. The Mate & I & Wing Son One–who is very close to his brother–came out here to spend Thanksgiving together, and to see how our son’s faring as a farmer.

Quite well, it seems. He and the cousins made their time together seem like major highjinks: “Look at that paddock! We built that!” “Tractor got stuck there…” “This field takes forEVER to mow…” But on Turkey Day, which fell three days before what most of us know as Turkey Day, the mood was so serious as to be almost somber.

There were seven victims turkeys, which Son Two & cousins had raised from chicks.

I missed photographing their capture and loading...turkey wrestling!

I missed photographing their capture and loading…turkey wrestling!

After stuffing one bird at a time upside-down into a cone (designed for chickens, so they barely fit) Cousin Jesse had the unenviable task of cutting the throat.

...and of course, someone has to hold the feet. I imagine both men said a little prayer as they were doing this. I think I was.

…and of course, someone has to hold the feet. I imagine both men said a little prayer as they were doing this. I think I was.

Next, Son Two dipped each bled-out bird into the scalder–where, again, they just barely fit. (The largest bird was 16.5 pounds after all the butchering.)

Still a bird at this point, albeit a dead one

Still a bird at this point, albeit a dead one

The most fascinating part of the process, to me, was the plucker, which looked a bit like a washing machine with rubber nubbies, and functioned in much the same way.

Becoming less of a bird by the second...

Becoming less of a bird by the second…

...almost...there...

…almost…there…

Finally, Sons One and Two, along with Two’s best friend who’s been working on the farm with him, cut off the heads and feet, cut a small hole in the back end, and delicately pulled out all the organs in a surprisingly neat little pile. (Two & friend had had experience doing this twice before with chickens, and The Mate and I delighted in hearing them share their expertise so seriously.)

No longer a bird. Meat.

No longer a bird. Meat.

Suddenly,without heads or feet or feathers, these were no longer birds. They were meat. And we were all oddly the better for having participated in, or even watched, the process.

I am–obviously–not a vegetarian. I try to avoid what I call “concentration camp meat”–anything raised in a crowded feedlot or cramped pen. I’m glad these turkeys had happy, relatively free-ranging lives. I did not like to see them die, and I’m glad I didn’t have to do it myself. But I do feel, as a meat-eater, that I bear some responsibility to the animals I have killed to bear some witness to the process, to acknowledge it, to feel its reality.

As Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:A Year of Food Life, “You can’t run away on harvest day.” Nor, I think, should you.

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This Vermont farm is a calendar pictures come alive–especially in the snow. We had the most picture-perfect White Thanksgiving together. But along with the joy of being with family, I gave thanks to the birds whose lives we had taken, and felt strangely connected to them, even before they became part of me.

Anyone else had experience with raising his/her own meat? Deciding not to? Please share.

Road Trip? J/K: Wings Take to the Air After All

Have you been hearing about the Arctic Blast in the middle of the country? Or maybe living in it?

Yeah. We Wings might be idiots, but we’re not crazy. Driving to Vermont suddenly became a choice between snow-packed roads and blowing snow in Idaho vs. icy passes in Oregon. Seeing as this trip was entirely discretionary, we decided to create our own third choice. We’re flying. By the time you read this, we’ll be somewhere around 3,500 feet trying to keep our muscles from cramping in those tight little Coach seats.

As I mentioned in the last post, flying is actually cheaper, since we won’t be eating out or sleeping in motels for a total of two weeks. Once we get to New England, we’re with family. In fact, thanks to the miracles of flight, we’re with family for a helluva lot longer than if we’d driven!

Huh. Wonder why we never thought of that before.

So, now is NOT the time to begin the litany of Everything I Hate About Airports and Planes. It’s almost Thanksgiving! So I, for one (and hopefully The Mate and Wing Son One as well), will be giving thanks not only for family togetherness, but for the option of making it happen this way.

IMG_0197

Unless, of course, Red Rover the Intrepid Subaru refuses to take us to the airport. She’s pretty pissed off.

Now’s your chance to weigh in and let me know a) how smart we are; b) how stupid we were to even consider driving to Vermont in November; c) how much more fun the train is (yeah, but have you seen THOSE ticket prices??), or d) what’s your worst Thanksgiving travel story ever.

In Defense of Road Trips: Got None; Going Anyway; Not Sorry.

First of all, let me answer two questions. Yes, we are driving from Washington to Vermont in late November. And no, we don’t know what route we’re taking. (Mother Nature will let us know that.)

Oh, and a third question: Yes, Really.

Wing Son Two announced this fall that he intends to stay indefinitely in Vermont, where he’s been working since graduating from college in June. The Mate & I instantly thought about joining him for Thanksgiving, since Son Two is living on a beautiful farm which belongs to some of The Mate’s cousins, a huge, delightful clan of whom we are very fond.

This created a dilemma, however: Wing Son One is still in California, where we’ve been spending all our Thanksgivings since both sons gravitated there after high school. Which son to spend the holiday with?

Then The Mate added another twist: “If we go to Vermont, I want to drive.” (He’s not scared of flying, he just loathes it. I’m sure none of you can relate to this, right?)

I vacillated. Who road trips across the northern latitudes on the cusp of winter? We’re already committed to our annual cross-country pilgrimage to North Carolina in Feb-March; can I handle THAT much trippage? On the other hand…we have time. Road trips are always a bonding experience for us, a huge part of our relationship. But what about Son One?

Red Rover LOVES road trips!

Red Rover LOVES road trips!

Son One, in fact, settled the matter. When I hesitantly invited him to join us, he surprised me by accepting. His job is ending now, his new one doesn’t start till January, and he apparently likes his parents enough to spend two weeks with them in a fairly small car.

Did I mention that Son One is 24? And not real good with the whole staying-in-touch-via-email-and-phone thing? I’d happily spend two weeks idling at a traffic light with him, catching up.

I haven’t done the math on the carbon emissions, but I’m pretty sure that driving three people in one car still uses less than flying three people in a plane. Monetarily, though, we may actually be coming out behind. Yes, plane tickets are expensive, but this trip will entail a good two weeks on the road. Usually when The Mate & I go, we camp and stay with friends more than half the time, but this trip will be different: faster, darker, colder, and much less predictable. We can’t really make dates with friends; cold-weather camping holds no appeal. We’ll be seeing the interior of a number of Days Inns, I expect, paying for three people each time. It’ll add up.

(and that was in Arizona, yet!)

(and that was in Arizona, yet!)

7,000 miles. Three people doing 600-700 miles a day in a Subaru. Icy roads. Darkness at 4:30. Am I daunted?

Nah. I’ll be with my boys. I don’t care what happens. It just feels like Christmas came early this year.

Anyone else traveling this holiday season? How far, where to? Any mixed feelings there? 

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