Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Socks and the Kitty

Django the Art Cat has been experimenting with some new materials as he continues to embellish the dog's water bowl with artifacts to create installations in the kitchen.

Recently, he has stuffed an entire black yard-waste bag into the bowl (no doubt a commentary on water pollution) and padded it with a whole section of the daily newspaper (interestingly, at the same time that I was making papier-mache while helping my daughter make a costume--coincidence? I think not).

One day last week, he draped half a beach towel into the water, then lay on the dry part of the towel sprawled alongside the bowl.

His current obsession is socks--usually whole ones, but sometimes just the cuffs that have been cut off of old, worn-out ones and repurposed:

"I call this one Cuff Lynx."

"And this one is White Sox/Wet Sox."

"This work, jarring in its loneliness, is
'Sock: Lost in Dryer, Now Wetter.'"

He made a valiant effort to add unmentionables from the laundry basket to the water today but was thwarted in this endeavor by the resident bipedal philistine.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Happy Birch Day

If they gave out awards for Best Trees in a Starring Role, I'd nominate and vote for the birch tree, for sure. It definitely deserves a Bosker.*

Why the birch? Well, since you ask...

It's got beautiful white bark slashed with black marks so that it appears to be wisely, mysteriously watching the world with kohl-rimmed ancient Egyptian eyes.

Its leaves are lime green in spring, grass green in summer, and flaming yellow in fall. When they've drifted to the ground, they form a short-lived but beautiful gold carpet that later becomes excellent mulch.

Ants scurry up and down the trunk in summer to visit scale insects higher up in the branches, making for idle amusement as one watches their frantic journeys and laughs at the Labrador who stops in surprise, then thinks "candy tree!" and licks ants off the bark.

My family had birch trees in the front and back gardens of my childhood home. The front-garden one was a multi-trunked specimen, with three trunks that formed a ground-level hardback chair. I liked to sit there in warm weather to read. The back-garden tree had multiple trunks, too, and was much taller. I remember a squirrel who used to cling as far out on a whiplike twig as he could to hang in front of my pet rabbits' hutch and scold the inoffensive bunnies.

During one bracing Long Island winter, we woke up to find the world encased in ice, glittering in the sun: An ice storm had glazed every branch and twig, every conifer needle and blade of grass. It was like awakening in the Snow Queen's palace, surrounded by a cold, fragile, sparkling, yet brutal and deadly beauty. It was a magical fairyland that downed powerlines and snapped limbs and entire trees that couldn't bear the weight of all that ice.

The birches bowed until their crowns touched the ground. Birches are well known for their suppleness--an old Blackfoot legend tells how all the trees were willing to bend and break at the command of the wind, all but the birch, which was punished for its refusal to snap by scarification that created its black slashes.

Peeling bark on the paper birch
As the ice melted, the birches shook off the shards and slowly straightened up again.

But the next time an ice storm threatened, we thought about the neighbors' birches, most of which had cracked in the first one, and quickly built rudimentary frames that would catch our trees at a height of about six feet so they wouldn't bend all the way to the ground. This probably saved them from being turned into firewood post-storm.

We planted birches shortly after we bought our current house about 15 years ago. In the front garden, a graceful Himalyan birch grows in the fill dirt that replaced a monstrous 600-gallon unused residential heating oil tank that we didn't know lurked there until after we bought our house. When it was hauled out, it looked as if we'd dug up a locomotive. In the back garden, a native paper birch towers about 50-plus feet in height.

Two weeks ago, we planted a third birch (another Himalayan) in a corner of the back garden. It's ostensibly there to block out the view of the 3-story house recently built to the northeast of our property. It also felt good to plant it as a way of honoring my father, who recently passed away.

Bark of the Himalayan birch
A birch tree makes a fitting tribute. Dad was a woodworker, and birches have long supplied wood to woodworkers; birchwood has been used to make everything from cradles to canoes. Birches are also an ancient symbol of life in Celtic mythology. They stand for renewal, springtime, purification, and new life.

The word "birch" is thought to spring from a Sanskrit word meaning "tree whose bark is used to write on" (its bark peels off in wide strips and has long been used as paper in many cultures). Because I make my living scribbling, this feels like a nice bonus touch.

The day we planted this tree, I received in the mail a lovely gift from the dear women in my craft group.

A beautiful card informed me that a tree had been planted in a Californian grove in honor of my father via an organization called The Trees Remember.

Dangling from the card was a small silver pendant reminiscent of a birch in its summer glory. (Elizabeth, Rebecca, Ruth, Julie, Rachel--thank you.)

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
---from "Birches" by Robert Frost
*"Bosker" was a lucky discovery as I googled derivations for "bosky" to see if there was such a words as "bosker" to rhyme with "Oscar. I was very pleased to discover that there not only is such a word, but that it means "first-rate, excellent, delightful" in obsolete Australian slang.)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Biking into Spring along the Sammamish River Trail

The eve-of-spring-equinox weekend augured good things to come, what with the supersized perigee moon rising in the East on Saturday night and balmy weather curling up outside like a cat on the porch.

It seemed like a good time to haul out the bicycles and head for the countryside. My husband and daughter had already kick-started the biking season back in January, tooling along the local Burke-Gilman trail on some of the less frigid rainy days of January and February.

For me, however, it'd been at least three years since I'd hopped on a bike, what with One Thing or Another. I had the handlebars jacked up higher in anticipation of this debut in order to alleviate pain and pressure on a newly diagnosed arthritic neck (oh, the joys of ageing), so I was hopeful that I'd be able to stagger along with the two athletes in the family.

Fortunately, other than discovering that a new, broader, more cushioned bicycle seat would be highly desirable, and reconnecting with a pain in my left knee that last manifested itself while riding stationary bikes at a gym in the distant past, I survived and managed to bike 15 miles round trip--and wake up feeling quite good the next day.

Sammamish River
It was thrilling to cover so many miles so quickly (relatively speaking--there are loads of biking enthusiasts here, and I was a slowcoach to them; my ride was pinged with plenty of cries of "on your left" followed by neon-colored Lycra blurs whipping by) and to take in the sounds and sights of spring creeping in.

We drove up to a small park northeast of Lake Washington and set off from there. The Sammamish River drains into Lake Washington, though a friend with a background in hydrology rolled her eyes once when I called it a "river"; during the past 150 years or so, the river's been dredged, straightened, and otherwise rearranged to alter it for navigation, flood control, and the like, its banks hardened and flow increased. Now there's a lot of habitat restoration going on along its shores to make the river suitable for salmon and other species again.

Most plants along the way still wore winter drab: apart from the scarlet twigs of dogwood bushes, the trees and shrubs were gray and brown, the tall grass tan and dry. The edge of one large patch of grass appeared to be woven into a 20-foot rope; I thought perhaps a strong winter wind had knotted them together, but now I'm sorry I didn't stop to examine the braiding because it was, as I later learned, part of a local artist's site-specific installation.

The bare trees and thickets did allow for good nesting viewing, though--a different sort of site-specific braiding installation.

A smudge of green in the willows and a fuzz of pink in the cherry trees were the only spring colors evident.

But a marsh wren sang lustily from a perch in a thicket, and a winter wren, no bigger than a mouse, poured out a river of song from a patch of woodland. (The winter wren is now called the Pacific wren, apparently, not that it cares a whit.) A belted kingfisher rattled in between dives, mallards rab-rabbed, and skeins of Canada geese honked overhead.

No nature-photography awards in store for this snap but I was still pretty
pleased to catch this kingfisher at all from across the river with a small digital camera.

Bikers, strollers, joggers, kids, and dogs were out in abundance, and we even saw some equestrians: two strapping hunter-clipped horses thudded past, carrying two women with the taut, intense faces often worn by Hard Women to Hounds.

Riding back to the parking lot, we fought head winds all the way (which is a totally overly dramatic way to describe our weary pedaling on a minor uphill grade for several miles with a blustery breeze against us, but it's more fun to say). Coming home to a warm house, a huge meal of honey-teriyaki chicken with roast potatoes and broccoli, and leftover banana chiffon cake was a fine way to end the eve-of-spring weekend.

A bend in the river
A row of poplars lines much of the trail on the east
side as it's quite a blustery area and they provide
good windbreaks
Exceedingly large dragonfly perched on a bridge support

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Brown Bread from the Emerald Isle

Brown bread was just one of the many scrumptious baked goods that my Irish grandmother, affectionately known as "Mamo," regularly produced in her tiny kitchen in Elmhurst in Queens, New York.

Mamo emigrated from Ireland in the late 1940s and brought with her a wealth of recipes for delights such as lemon cookies, apple pie, custard tarts, Turkish delight, sultana cake, tipsy cake, spotty dog (which was a soda bread), and a yellow cake with chocolate frosting that we have never been able to reproduce and for which the recipe was never written down.

Her recipe for brown bread is as basic as it gets. I've tried several recipes from as many sources, and they all seem to simply tweak the amount of each ingredient; the results are pretty much the same.

Not the best picture of Mamo but the
only one near to hand. She was in her
mid-80s in this snapshot.
My dad, an engineer who was a lifelong fan of hearty bread and a baker of same for the past few years, could not resist fiddling with the amount of the ingredients, either. He saw fit to email me with changes to Mamo's various recipes that involved increasing the amount of buttermilk by an ounce or two or changing the brand of flour.

Every Saint Patrick's Day, I make a big round loaf of Mamo's brown bread. Slathered with butter, it makes for a filling breakfast with a big cup of coffee. It makes me think about Mamo and my other Irish relatives, too.

As a kid, I used to think Mamo was, like, a patron saint or something. She certainly was very religious (we kids said she was "holy"). When I visited her home, I slept on a fold-out cot in her bedroom, and when I awoke, I'd see her sitting up in bed, holding a well-worn, black prayer book, a cup of tea brought by my grandfather at her side. All I would hear is the sibilant whispering of her morning prayers. A painting of the Last Supper arched across the wall behind her.

Oddly, for such a pious woman, she taught me only two Irish phrases: Póg mo thóin (kiss my...erm, backside) and Go hifreann leat! (go to...uh, heck).

I'm glad I got to bake up a loaf of this bread at least once in Mamo's company. She showed me how to knead the gluey mass (today I toss it into the Kitchen Aid mixer and let the dough hook do the work) and how to slash it twice at right angles (according to Mamo, to bless it; according to my mom, who baked this same bread frequently, to make it easier to cut).

I regret, however, that I never asked Mamo to teach me to knit. Wow! What a knitter she was...Aran sweaters, boucle skirt-and-top sets, adorable cabled cardigans for children...and here I can't even cast on and can barely sew a hem.

Go raibh míle maith agat! (May you have a thousand good things!) Here's her recipe. The bread should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom after removing it from the oven. Be sure to put the bread on a cooling rack or lean it at an angle against the wall after you take it out of the oven, otherwise the bottom of the bread will get soft as it gives off moisture. Store it when cool inside a paper bag, not plastic.

Mamo's Brown Bread
(in her words)

2 cups of wheat flour
2 cups of white flour
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
About a pint of buttermilk or sour milk

To make soft dough mix with wooden spoon. Knead it a few times on board or table with flour spread on it. Bake in cooking tray in oven at 400. (Sprinkle flour on tray.) You know how to flatten it on tray and make cross to make four squares.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Yippee-Pi-Yay: Pies for Pi Day

I find mathematics fairly off-putting. My dad was an engineer who loved numbers, equations, and logic, but sadly any genes for fascination and skill with numbers bypassed me. I do, however, love pie. So I'm very pleased that 3/14 is Pi Day because it gives us a perfectly good excuse (as if you need one) to enjoy pie.

There will be no memorization of or recitations of pie in our household (though we may manage to remember the official Pi Second: 3/14/1:59:26). Instead, we'll serve up chicken pot pie for dinner this evening. As for dessert, we got a head start on that yesterday.

I figured I'd bake a pie using whatever I had in the freezer. I knew I still had summer fruits frozen there, so I had in mind a jumbleberry pie. But I hadn't realized what a dent we'd made in them: there was just a handful of freezer-burned raspberries and a scant 2 cups of blueberries. Pecan pie was a possibility, but my daughter doesn't like nuts, so that was out of the question. And there wasn't any molasses sticking around, so shoo-fly pie wasn't an option, either.

So I bravely attempted my first lemon meringue pie ever. My mom applauded the effort, noting that in 55 years of marriage she had only made one once and that she recalled the meringue peaks collapsing.

I managed to properly prebake the crust (the first time I ever prebaked a crust, I tossed in a cupful of those little ceramic pie weights to prevent the crust from bubbling up--but did not realize until too late that I should've put a layer of foil down first; the ceramic marbles got baked into the crust so that it looked as if I were making BB-pellet pie).

The lemon filling was easy to make, the meringue a bit more difficult. I was so mesmerised watching the Kitchen Aid mixer whip up the meringue topping, because for the first time ever I got to turn the mixer all the way up to the number 10 setting, so I think I whipped it for too long--the meringue had a consistency not unlike instant mashed potatoes, and I guess it was supposed to be more like whipped cream.

Slathering it on top of the wiggly filling was kind of like trying to spackle a quaking bog.

Still, it looked OK and people ate it, but after we polish it off tonight, I think it will be many a pi day before another lemon meringue shows up on the table.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bubble Bibelots on Phinney Hill

A curious thing appeared on an outcropping from our rockery one morning in late January of this year. Here it is, photographed in its current home in a sunny window:

At first I didn't touch it, figuring it was some random part off a bicycle or something that a passerby had placed up high for its owner to find, just as people do with assorted odd mittens, children's socks, or toys--perching them on stones or fire hydrants or hanging them from branches. When I looked more closely, however, the blue bubble was obviously a blown-glass piece. I took it indoors to rescue it from its precarious position on our busy street, where it would likely be snatched and smashed on the pavement.

Then, during the next few days, I spotted more bubbles: a pink flame-shaped one, a round peach one, and a clear, red-flecked orb, all placed on rocks or concrete walls along our block.

A week later, a walk down a neighboring street led to the discovery of more than a dozen orbs in rainbow colors dotting the rockeries and walls. So when my daughter and I trekked up the hill yesterday, we thought to bring the camera with us in case we stumbled on any more of the mysterious objects. We even walked on opposite sides of the street to make sure we didn't miss any.

We weren't disappointed! Glassy gewgaws turned up at every few houses, twinkling during the rare March sunbreak we were enjoying.

We still don't know who has bedecked our neighborhood with these wonderful things, or why (though I am suspecting a local glass studio), other than just to bedazzle, charm, intrigue, and amuse people. But I am very glad they did this.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Kinglet for a Day

When a little olive-drab bird with black and white wings showed up at our feeder this winter, goggling at me with its white-ringed eyes, I scurried to the field guides to figure out what it was before it flew off to a more competitive birder's backyard, never to return.

Which, kindly, it did not do, choosing instead to become a regular in our garden. This gave me plenty of opportunities and time to figure out that it was a ruby-crowned kinglet.

The first part of this tiny bird's name comes from a field mark that one is hard pressed to spot: a small patch of red atop its head, which is (1) only present in the male and (2) only on display when it's agitated about something. The "kinglet" is a reference to both this scarlet crown and the bird's diminutive size. It could just as well be called the yellow-footed kinglet, as it's got black legs and lemony feet, but I guess those field marks would be even harder to see.

For such a little bird--barely four inches long--it warbles loudly and vigorously. It's also quite fecund: a female may lay up to a dozen eggs, a figure that marks the largest clutch-to-bird-size ratio among North American nesters. The nest that holds this cargo is a pendulous one, suspended high in a conifer.
There's the red crown!

Unfortunately (as in, too bad for me, but fine for the kinglets), I won't be seeing dozens of baby kinglets (what could be cuter?) this spring or summer because although kinglets winter in lowlands west of the Cascade Mountains, they migrate north into Alaska and Canada to nest or higher up in the mountains.

So for now I'll just enjoy watching this fellow's frantic antics at the suet feeder, where he flaps and hovers and clambers all over the wire cage to get at the seeds when the bushtits are not monopolizing it, looking constantly astonished at his luck thanks to those white-ringed eyes.