Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Snake Killers and Hobgoblin Flies

A pair of dragonflies is taking it in turn to do sentry duty in our garden. On some warm evenings, a vivid red dragonfly perches on the shepherd's hook that holds bird feeders in the winter. Other evenings, a dark dragonfly lined with yellow passenger-train windows on his sides alights there.

Both dragonflies use the site as a launch pad for hunting insects on the wing. The dragonfly suddenly whirs away, zigzags in the air, and circles back to the hook to watch for prey again. It will spend a good portion of an hour hawking like this.

Dragonflies are famous for their speed and maneuverability as well as their keen eyesight (if you had 30,000 facets in each eye, you might be able to spot a flying gnat 10 feet away, too). Oh, and also for being Very Large Insects. (Though not as big as their prehistoric kin, which would have required a yardstick for measuring, if yardsticks had been invented yet.)

Their size, huge eyes, long abdomens, and strong flight have caused them to migrate into the folklore of many cultures (and you can find out about some of this in the wonderful book A Dazzle of Dragonflies by Forrest L. Mitchell and James L. Lasswell).

Not all of this folklore resides in the ancient past, either.

The first dragonfly I ever saw was one that skimmed over my suburban backyard on New York's Long Island. I didn't know what it was. I screamed bloody murder. I was, after all, very small, and it was very big.

My mom explained to me that it was a "darning needle," this being one of the dragonfly's many common names. I hadn't a clue what a "darning needle" was (except for, now, this insect) and my ears heard "diamond needle," which is what I called it for weeks thereafter. No wonder nobody knew what I was talking about when I still came in screaming about one appearing.

Why the screaming? I'd been informed by my German grandmother that dragonflies were known to sew shut the mouths of children. You'd scream, too.

Sewing shut mouths as well as eyes, ears, and noses, and even stitching together fingers and toes, were among the crimes dragonflies were accused of in the past. This earned them their darning-needle name as well as the epithets devil's needle and ear-piercer.

And speaking of the devil, in Europe dragonflies were often believed to be one of the devil's favorite animal forms to inhabit or simply for evil beings to ride, giving rise to names such as devil's horse, hobgoblin fly, witch's horse, and water witch.

Another completely false accusation laid at the dragonfly's six feet are that it possesses a venomous sting. This untruth has dubbed the insect with colorful names such as horse stinger, bull sticker, blind stinger, and snake killer. (Though oddly it's also known as a snake doctor.)

The dragonfly enjoys a more exalted position in Native American and Asian folklore, in which it's generally admired for its grace, beauty, ferocity, and flying skill. Judging by the number of dragonfly motifs on modern dishware and other home furnishings, it appears that this take on the dragonfly may predominate nowadays.

Which is an excellent thing, as it would prevent an uprising of Instantly Concocted Folklore such as occurred in that long-ago backyard. As I cringed on the ground one afternoon when a dragonfly began circling above my sandbox, my friend Elaine had a scathingly brilliant idea.

"Did you know that dragonflies are scared of sand and you're supposed to throw it at them to make them go away?" she said.

Wow! Who knew! Well, obviously Elaine did! We could be proactive! Soon we were merrily flinging great handfuls of sand into the air, dodging it as it rained down on the lawn. My mom looked out the window, gaped at what was going on, and quickly put a stop to it.

Dragonflies (known as "mosquitohawks" in parts of the Midwest) are aces at devouring pesky insects, so I don't think most people are driving them away with buckets of sand. Dragonflies are also very cool to watch, and don't appear to mind your approaching them quite closely (they probably glance-x-30,000 at you, think "not bug no eat it, not bird it no eat me" and go back to spotting midges).

They also have beautiful names. In this department they've truly lucked out. Unlike gorgeous birds who get saddled with tiresome names that include their so-called discoverer's name (Clark's nutcracker, Bewick's wren, blah blah), dragonflies have scooped up adjectives as avidly as they scoop up mosquitoes in the basket formed by their legs.

Just a quick look at a dragonfly-&-damselfly field guide offers up such evocative names as Smoky Shadowdragon, Amethyst Dancer, Apache Spiketail, Ebony Boghaunter, Rainpool Spreadwing, and Spangled Skimmer.

I still don't know what species the dark dragonfly that visits my garden belongs to. The bright red dragonfly appears to be a Cardinal Meadowhawk (Sympetrum illotum).

I could be wrong. If I am, please don't throw sand at me. I certainly don't throw sand at dragonflies anymore. Nor do I scream when they show up, unless it's to holler to a family member to come take a look.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

It Is Balloon!

A few days after July 4th, when most of the fireworks and firecrackers had finished exploding and the dog's terror had somewhat subsided, I stepped outside and saw a weird purple object underneath the Resident Teen's window.

At first I assumed that somebody had dropped something off at our house. Another teen was due to sleep over that night, and I thought maybe she'd dropped off her stuff while en route to the stable so as not to schlep it around all day.

I was not only wrong, but was advised that this supposition was really outlandish, and I was left with the impression that I should have my head examined.

Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a sky lantern. An expired sky lantern, which I suppose becomes a ground non-lantern. Or litter. My husband assumed it had been set aloft as part of Fourth of July festivities, enabling me to pass along the "have you lost your wits?" incredulous look, because a sky lantern that could stay aloft for days powered by only a tea candle's flame would be pretty amazing.

Where did it come from? Perhaps it had something to do with the local lavender festival--Woodinville is home to a big lavender farm, and the festival was going on later that week. But no, no lantern launches were associated with this event.

(Not that Woodinville is any stranger to balloons--we saw the first hot-air balloon of the season pass over the other day. Thankfully it did not land on our house.)

After learning that sky lanterns cost just pennies and come in packs of 20 or more, we concluded it was just some local party or a wedding. And were glad its flame had fluttered out before it cozied up to the wooden siding. Though how it managed to snake its way through the tree branches is beyond me.

Sky lanterns have a long history in Asia, and the custom of launching them spread to places such as Portugal and Brazil a few centuries ago. Subsequently more countries picked up on the tradition. And Woodinville. They're sometimes called wish lanterns. They're associated with good luck, good fortune, and the carrying of wishes to the stars.

Unfortunately, they also carry flames into flammable materials, as happened in 2013 when a lantern landed on a recycling plant in England and started one of the country's biggest fires ever, causing about 6 million pounds' worth of damage. I gather that the owners of that facility did not feel the association with good luck and good fortune. Sky lanterns are banned as fire hazards in some countries and parts of the States, including Washington D.C., which banned them as far back as 1892.

48'' Solid Lavender Beach Balls
A cousin of  Bunce, though not as handsome
as Bunce, who was swirly.
I hate to be a killjoy, but if I lived in eastern Washington, which is currently in flames with the largest wildfire in state history, I'd boycott them, too.

 I bet they look really beautiful, though, when they take to the sky by the hundreds in festivals in more fireproof parts of Asia.

I have decided, however, that this particular luminous lilac lantern is actually the soul of the long-gone purple beach ball Bunce, who was the mascot of a group of friends at my first college and starred in his very own photo essay of his adventures.

Two of the other three people in that group will be visiting in a few weeks' time, so I think Bunce sent this message to wish us a good time.

Monday, July 21, 2014

What Animal Weighs the Most?

Veiled Chameleon
A lizard, of course. It's covered with scales!

Ha ha.

Begging your pardon, but it's been about half a year of reptiles here in Cottage Lake.

Today I handed in 250 pages' worth of words about reptiles to my editor.

Part of the fun in researching this wonderful topic was having an excuse to head up to Monroe and visit The Reptile Zoo.

Not that you need an excuse. But my family's driven past it for 16 years and I could never persuade them to stop and visit the World's 10 Deadliest Snakes or the Albino Alligator.

So when my sister and her three wonderful children came for a visit, it was the perfect opportunity to head out of town with my 10-year-old nephew.

The Reptile Zoo, on the outside, has the look of one of those roadside mystery spots where water flows uphill or the force of gravity is missing or the like, but that's clearly just to pull in road-weary travelers. It's actually (shh) educational. The owner is a former science teacher who is out on the road himself visiting schools with a menagerie of reptiles most of the time.

It's hot and humid inside, and there's a pungent pong--just so you know. But that's because the place appears to be geared to the comfort of the cold-blooded critters. I'm not an expert, but I've been to enough zoos to know the creepy feeling of being in a place where animals are not housed properly, and I certainly didn't get that feeling here; in fact, the reptiles here seemed bright, alert, and active, which isn't something you typically find yourself saying about reptiles.

Caiman Lizard
We were also lucky to have stumbled in on a day that they happened to be feeding most of the animals. Reptiles don't need to eat everyday because they get a lot of mileage out of their meals, being of slow metabolism and not needing to stoke their internal furnaces to produce heat like us frantic mammals.

I say "lucky" guardedly, realizing that seeing a vat of rats in broth and watching snakes consume them is perhaps not everybody's cup of tea.

But my nephew certainly enjoyed it, especially as he got to hold a small alligator for the keeper (in addition to getting to hold a corn snake, one of several animals rotated in and out of service over the course of the day for visitors to touch).

Mali Uromastyx
The keeper also asked him to bang loudly on the glass of the big alligator's cage to distract it while he opened the door on the other side to bring several chickens and fish into the exhibit. How often does a kid get asked to bang on the glass at a zoo? It's a big no-no at all other times.

The zoo is home to a wide variety of lizards, snakes, and turtles as well as a few crocodilians, with clear signs explaining who's who.

And someone's been having fun naming the animals: There is a species of legless lizard named Legolas, a snake named Steven Steven Stevenson, and one cage of critters that go by Starscream, Bumblebee, Megatron, Soundwave, and Optimus Prime.

If Burma-Shave still made highway signs, they'd tell you what to do:


Monday, June 30, 2014

Two Hands Are Better Than One

I should have seen it coming.

I should have recognized an omen.

But I did not.

The omen was our wine opener, which faithfully served us for 20-odd years, until, this:

A week later, carrying out the recycling, I managed to fall off the front two steps and land sprawling on the asphalt driveway.

I lay on the driveway for about a minute, watching all the recyclables clatter down to the street. It was rather funny, because there were several one-gallon plastic milk jugs, and they looked so terribly joyful somersaulting and bouncing down the slope.

I knew that this time I wasn't going to get away with the usual bruised knee or scraped hand, but still practiced complete denial and got up, gathered the recyclables, dumped them in the cart, and then went into the back yard to clean up after the dog, holding the shovel with the arm that couldn't move and raking with the good arm. The next day, the Resident Teen took me to urgent care, where my poor fractured elbow was put into a temporary cast.

Came home with my arm in a stiff L-shape, my fingers dangling uselessly out the front looking like an unfortunate sea star being slowly digested by a gull.
All I can say is OUCH.

Here are a few things I have learned after breaking a bone for the first time in my five decades on this gravity-prone planet:

1. Some things are really hard to do with one arm, such as opening childproof pill bottles, holding a cup of coffee while opening a door, holding a book and turning pages, chopping vegetables, squeezing toothpaste onto a toothbrush, folding towels, making a bed, keyboarding, tying shoes, fastening waistbands, buttoning a shirt (even putting on a shirt), blow-drying hair, clapping, opening envelopes, opening most packages of pasta and other foods, opening jars, using a manual can opener, and clutching your library books while picking up the one that invariably slithers out of the pile and falls on the floor. Among others.

2. People are really nice to you when your arm is in a sling. They will help you out and will usually tell you a broken-bone story of their own.

3. There are lots and lots of awful hand- and arm-related puns in the world.

4. A sling is a handy place to keep a cell phone.

5. You can buy shirts with Velcro-seamed shoulders for ease in dressing and instantly look more frumpy than you'd ever imagined. And a spinny-knob thing to put on the steering wheel of your car for one-handed driving.

Fortunately, the cast came off after a week because the doctor's verdict was no cast, no surgery, get thee some physical therapy straightaway so your elbow doesn't lock up. But it'll be three months til full healing, which means no lifting, no lawn mowing, no vacuuming, more's the pity...

My advice: Watch your step!

Warning signs for slips trips and falls

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Never Enough Puffin Stuff

USFWS photo
See that bird over there? Yeah. The one to the left. That's a tufted puffin. (Say that ten times fast.) It's what I hoped to see when our family traveled to the Oregon Coast last week for a few days.

Technically, I did see one, but not in all its sad-eyed-clown, red-footed, tufted-puffin gloriousness. I only got to see it in silhouette, a football with desperately flapping wings.

But that's better than nothing. A puffin in the hand is worth two in the ocean. Or something.

Tufted puffins (I often start to say "pufted tuffins" by mistake) nest on offshore rocks along the Oregon coast. The largest colony along the coast returns annually to a huge sea stack called Haystack Rock, which looms outside the town of Cannon Beach.

Haystack Rock

Cannon Beach was one of the first coastal towns I visited after Tony and I got married and moved west 25 years ago. Tony had lived in the Pacific Northwest for a few years before we met in New York and was keen to show me the stunning vistas of the Oregon coast.

Our first stop on that long-ago trip was Ecola State Park, which offered dramatic seascapes that I'd viewed in the black-and-white photos Tony had taken on his first own first visit.

So we were pretty taken aback when we drove into the park only to see the green hills spangled with flags and colorful tents and to be confronted by a police officer wearing a hat that said "Kindergarten Cop."

We couldn't enter, he said, because a movie was being filmed there that day.

There was Much Grumbling in the car as we drove back out.

Fortunately, we never again encountered obstacles to our enjoyment of this park. Various viewing decks have collapsed due to erosion, but we weren't on them at the time. It's a stunning place.

The odd name "Ecola" comes from a Native American word, spelled in some sources as "ikoli" and in others as "ekholi," meaning "whale." Lewis and Clark inspired the use of this name because when they visited, they sought out a dead whale being rendered on the beach by local Native Americans, hoping to trade for some of the meat and blubber to round out their provisions. (Clark claimed that whale meat tasted like "beaver or dog in flavour," which doesn't really help most of us imagine it very well.)

On this 2014 visit, we headed down without any expectations of dead whales, looking forward only to exploring the tidepools to look at anemones, sea stars, and other creatures. No tufted puffins on the rocks , but we did see a flock of pelicans hanging out.

Ecola's mysterious Sitka-spruce forest carpeted with ferns and basaltic rock formations stopping the waves make a timeless place. Both trees and rocks are etched with patterns reminiscent of dinosaur skin.

Along the paths, more ephemeral features pop into view, such as this dazzling Douglas iris:

Back at Cannon Beach, the sea stacks swarmed with gulls while the tide pools swarmed with children and watchful adults. A Fish & Wildlife officer watched over the area benignly. One of the pleasant perks of his job is cruising up and down the coast, going to whatever community wants him to stop by and chat with people about the habitat.

A side effect is that his presence stops people from stripping the tide pools of animals so they can take them home and let them rot in beach pails. It also kept people from climbing into the birds' nesting area.

But it didn't stop a pair of bald eagles from perching on the rock, causing gulls to wheel and scream furiously. The puffin chicks are fairly safe because puffins nest in burrows, but there are plenty of gull chicks for the picking.

We returned to Seaside, where I saw scarcely any birds other than gulls spooked by dogs on the beach. Cannon Beach is a restful, driftwood-colored community whereas Seaside is more like a West Coast version of Blackpool: arcades, pizzerias, souvenirs.

There was a lovely, quiet little bookstore just over the river from town, called Beach Books, where a cat drowsed in the window. No puffins, though, tufted or otherwise.

Monday, May 19, 2014

California Dreamin'...or, Chrome Sweet Chrome

File:California Chrome at 2014 Kentucky Derby.jpg
California Chrome, Kentucky Derby,
courtesy Wikipedia Creative Commons
May-June was absolutely excruciating to endure when I was in my early teens.

This had zero to do with things such as school dances or exams and everything to do with the Triple Crown races.

It was the season when my equally horse-mad friend M. and I attached ourselves to one horse for the duration and counted the days til post times for the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont, and filled the time in between with scouring newspapers for articles about the horses and driving adults crazy with our speculations and frettings.

We couldn't believe our spectacular luck in seeing three Triple Crown winners emerge after a drought of 25 years: first Secretariat in 1973, then Seattle Slew in 1977, and finally Affirmed in 1978.

And now, 36 years later, California Chrome has his chance to sweep the classics, following in the hoofsteps of a dozen horses who've won the first two races, from Spectacular Bid in 1979 to I'll Have Another in 2012.

This horse I have a particular affinity for, because he shares my birthday, February 18. (We have a lot in common, actually: We both have names that start with the letter C. We both have white socks. We both like sugar, carrots, apples, and oats. We're both mammals. OK, that's about all we have in common.)

Secretariat winning Belmont by 31 lengths
I stopped following horse racing after Affirmed's sweep of the Triple Crown, once I was off to college and a career, partly due to lack of time and partly due to the lack of a television set and a newspaper subscription during my college and early working days (remember, kiddies, this was before home computers and the Internet).

Now I am the horse-racing version of the kind of parishioner our fierce pastor at my childhood church condemned, the sort that showed up only on Christmas and Easter: I drop in for the Triple Crown and am largely absent the rest of the year.

It's fun, though, to recall how the sport kept me on tenterhooks in my teens. My parents indulged this fascination as best they could, taking me to the races at Belmont Park now and then and, best of all, to Breakfast at Belmont, which allowed one entry to the track at 6 a.m. to watch horses work out. We'd wander the beautiful grounds of the park, where experts would hold chats in the saddling paddock and by an old starting gate.

And, oh, the swag! Manna from heaven to a horse-crazy girl: a satchel packed with booklets, buttons, and photos of horses, including a supersized paperback about Secretariat that I still have and a comic book about a day in the life of a racehorse.

My father, ever the mathematician, became fascinated with handicapping, so he enjoyed these jaunts, as did my grandfather, an Irish immigrant who had fond memories of seeing horses work out on the Curragh and attending races at Leopardstown outside Dublin. And M. and I wiled away many a summer afternoon drawing horses and inventing racing silks and pedigrees for them.

Next time I'm down at the stable, I'll ask the Resident Ex-Racehorse, Avi, what he thinks of California Chrome's Triple Crown chances. After all, they have a great-grandfather in common (Mr. Prospector), a great-great grandpa (Danzig), and a great-great grandma (Gold Digger). Nothing better than getting insider information straight from the horse's mouth.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

What Was Your Favorite Childhood Book?

It is Children's Book Week (as I realized on, oh, about Tuesday) so before it slips away I thought I ought to at least make an attempt to celebrate it here.

I don't recall that my school celebrated Children's Book Week when I was a child, but I do remember that every week ended in children's books: Friday was the day that my father would drive out to the big Huntington Library after dinner, and I nearly always went with him.

He'd set me free in the children's department (back then nobody thought twice of leaving a youngster unattended while they were on a different floor of the library...but back then people were also supposed to be quiet in the library, too). A big stuffed bulldog--an actual bulldog, prepared by a taxidermist--stood guard over the shelves.

On the way home, I'd read all the titles of the books out loud to my dad. He nodded approvingly at each one. I thought he'd read them all and was indicating that he remembered their plots well.

We also had plenty of books at home, and I still have some of them today: the Tintin books that provided endless hours of entertainment when I was sick in bed, the big Just-So Stories volume with eerie pictures that gave me the shivers, and one of my favorites, the big book about Noah's Ark.

I loved the myth of Noah's Ark, because I loved animals and obviously this story was packed with them. My favorite toy was a Noah's Ark set made by the Marx toy company--the whole thing fit into a container smaller than a shoebox, with animals ranging from olive-sized elephants to dogs so tiny you could kennel them all in a thimble. I played with it so often on the wide blue ocean of the living room carpet that most of the animals, over time, suffered a second natural disaster and disappeared into the tornado of the vacuum.

When my parents asked me what I'd like for getting a good report card in elementary school, I requested a supersized Colorforms Noah's Ark scene.

My favorite picture in the book, of course.
The edition I had as a kid (and still have) was published by Grossest & Dunlap in 1957. It was vibrantly illustrated by Art Seiden (Art! So perfect a name!), who worked in advertising and also illustrated more than 300 books. Some of his animal books have rabbits and bears that remind me of Richard Scarry's creations.

What impresses me is just how beautifully he filled the frame of a page, achieving a wonderful balance and fizz.

Lots of his books were published by Golden Books, Wonder Books, and other imprints that sold books inexpensively in places such as grocery stores and five-and-tens. These books are being newly appreciated for their fabulous illustration and design, and they well deserve it.

I always loved the cutaway view of the ark with all the animals inside and spent many a happy hour drawing cutaway views myself:

Some books of his you might recall if you're a certain age: Never Pat a Bear, A Dragon in a Wagon, Dinosaur Comes to Town, and Where Is the Keeper?