Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal Tea

I guess I should stop checking my mailbox for that invitation to Will and Kate's wedding; I daresay there was a royal mess-up in the royal mailroom, else I would have received it in a timely manner.

Despite this egregious oversight, we will still toast the newlyweds in style, albeit with tea and not champagne (it's still too early in the day for this Yankee to be sipping sparkly beverages).

We got a jump on the teatime festivities when extended family came into town last week for Easter. Splitting along totally non-PC but who-cares lines, the males went off to trek through Discovery Park while the females tucked into the delicious fare at the Queen Mary Tea Room.

The tea room is a floral frenzy stuffed with glittering teapots, jewel-like jams, and baubles related to all that is tea-cozy and cute. It's a delightful oasis in my adopted homeland of Polarfleece and Birkenstocks, Inc. Even the sugar in the bowls is lovely.

The dainty foods speak for themselves: grape-sized servings of vivid sorbet--mango, coconut, passionfruit; triangles of chicken salad sandwich; petite slivers of chocolate cake; puffy scones; razor-thin slices of apple and pear; a tiny quiche that would make a nice lunch for a pair of Beatrix Potter mobcap-wearing mice.

Not to mention there are tiaras for your use. And about 70 types of teas.  (If you shun alcohol and sing a long and complete song about tea while wearing a tearoom crown, you would be a tea-tiara total-tea-aria teetotaler.)

If you're wondering whether it's time for tea, just check out the clock in the lady's room. According to this clock, it is always teatime.

Which of course is just as it should be. It is always nice to discover that it is tea o'clock.

Today, on the actual wedding date, the women in my craft group got together to knit, sew, and felt while dining on sweets, ostensibly in honor of the royal event: lemon curd tarts, miniature muffins, wheatmeal biscuits, cucumber sandwiches, and butterfly-shaped cookies. There weren't 70 teas on offer, but there were at least seven. And sparkling sugar. And cream. Being the good Seattleites that they are, however, most people first headed straight for the tankard of coffee.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Turtle (B)log

The ever-joyful Labrador and I went for a walk around Green Lake yesterday with a friend, and it was nice to see some signs of spring in what is proving to be the coldest April on record in Seattle. (It's officially cold, not just impatient-warm-weather-waiters cold, according to meteorologist Cliff Mass; everything is blooming late, the temperature rarely nudges above 55 degrees.)

Football-shaped coots grazed on the lawn, and a pair of hooded mergansers floated near the lake's shore. Mallards were everywhere, followed by their fluffy, tennis-ball-sized toddlers. The red-winged blackbird males staked claims to the cattail beds, flashing their crimson epaulettes and shouting.

All this activity was for the birds, in the minds of the turtles resting on logs along the west side of the lake. As soon as a cup or two of sunshine spills on our fair city, they're stacked like plates on the logs, furiously basking.

From the shore I couldn't see what kind of turtles they were--I'd always assumed they were a native species--but when I took some pictures and blew them up, I could see they were red-eared sliders, the same species that once was sold for pennies to kids who kept them in tiny plastic lagoons decorated with a pathetic plastic palm tree. The poor creatures always died within weeks of purchase. 

These turtles were clearly dumped into the lake by owners who no longer wanted the responsibility of caring for them, but fortunately their existence in this lake is not, so far as I've heard, considered a problem. (Green Lake is a natural lake, but it's been heavily modified by humans, including being cut off long ago from a creek that once drained it.) There aren't that many of them, and the lake is quite large, and they don't seem to be gobbling up endangered species or posing any of the problems that the poor pet rabbits abandoned in the nearby woods did.

We watched the turtles for a bit (not that they ever moved) and pondered the odd fact that two out of every five humans who happen upon the turtles feel obliged to say, "Mmm, soup!" and grin around at everybody as though this is a tremendously clever and original remark to make.

The dog didn't consider the turtles worth watching at all. Waterfowl were likewise dismissed, despite the fact that she's a retriever. The only wildlife worth watching at Green Lake in her eyes are the squirrels.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Toy Horses

Rainy. Cold. Uninspiring weather. Brr. Reminiscing about old toy horses over on my children's-writing website instead:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Living Under a Rock (Literally)

Turned over a paving stone in the garden yesterday to see if anything was stirring yet, as spring has been dragging its feet around here this year. Things appear to be busier in the hidden parts of the garden as there were many small creatures bustling about out of sight. They were none too pleased about their roof being lifted, so I didn't leave them uncovered for long--just long enough to take some paparazzi shots.

The most obliging subject was this little mollusk, which I am pretty sure is a Garlic Snail:

The "garlic" in the name refers to its garlicky smell, which it produces when it wants to ward off a predator. This little guy is an import from England, where its pungent odor serves to repel hedgehogs. One would think that smelling like garlic would be a bad idea for a snail, as it might attract French chefs and give them ideas, but apparently it works against hedgehogs.

There aren't any hedgehogs here, so I hope the snail's defenses work equally well against our native predators, particularly this slug- and snail-eating insect that also lived under the stone:

It's a rove beetle (I don't know what species), a kind of beetle with very short hard wing coverings as opposed to the body-length elytra of most beetles. It looks a bit as if it's wearing a short tuxedo jacket with the tails lopped off. Like its snail prey, the rove beetle emits a terrible odor to repel predators. It also takes up a defensive stance, its mandibles ready to pinch and its abdomen arched over its back in scorpion style.

This pugnacity earned it a superstitious association with the devil back in the Middle Ages, one that's clung to it ever since. One species of rove beetle, also an import from the UK, can be up to two inches long and is known as the Devil's Coach Horse, a name that's also commonly used for the thousands of other, smaller rove beetle species. Poor things, all they want to do is eat snails, slugs, and fly larvae, and people run around screaming that these little critters eat sinners and aim their "tails" over their bodies to curse humans.

Another little stinker under the slate was a millipede:

This millipede was very sluggish, acting as though it had just been roused from a deep sleep and had to look for each of its hundred or so slippers before responding to the removal of its roof. Millipedes spend their time munching on decaying plant matter and only produce a dreadful aroma if something tries to eat them, so they're good roommates for the snails.

The pillbugs are, too, as they're not predators, either. This one took offense at my nosiness and did the armadillo thing:

Finally, assuming that I'd gone off to eat other arthropods, it unrolled and trundled on its merry way, shouldering aside garlic snails as it went.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Likin' Lichens

It seems as if it's been raining nonstop for the past few weeks, and when it's not raining, it's drizzling or just about to drizzle. All this water encouraged the growth of lots of moss and even more lichen on the trees in the garden, which actually was really great to see, as they provided bright spots of color in what's otherwise been a gray landscape.

Lichens, as you'll recall from biology class in sixth grade, are a combo of a fungus and an alga (or a blue-green alga, which isn't an alga but a bacterium--are you with me? OK then), with the fungus providing structure, carrying out reproductive and dispersal activities for the team, and soaking up moisture while the alga pays the rent by photosynthesizing food.

Full disclosure: In a moment of supreme hubris, I assumed that identifying these lichens would be easy-peasy. Really, how hard could it be? Unlike birds, these things just sit there, right under one's nose. Grab a guide book, matchy-matchy, ID it, bingo.

Turns out, unless you're a lichenologist, you're unlichenly to identify one that easily. My northwest field guides were useless. Few even bothered to include lichens, and the ones that did only featured a handful, none of which looked like my lichens. Or rather, the apple tree's lichens.

So I waited and waited on hold at the library for a copy of Lichens of North America to arrive. (You know you live in a city drenched with rain for two-thirds of the year when there are two active holds ahead of you for Lichens of North America.)

I'm glad that when it arrived, I had no other books to tote home, because it is a doorstop: It's 800 pages long, two and three-eights of an inch thick, and weighs just shy of 9 pounds. And it's stunning. Flipping through the pages, you'd swear you were enjoying a coffee-table book about coral reefs. Which, as a matter of fact, are beautifully colored thanks to the algae living in the coral polyps, reflecting what's going on with the lichens on land.

However, I haven't made much headway in figuring out the lichen. The gray-green one is surely some type of antler lichen, based on its shape, not that it takes a brainiac to figure that out. It may be a variety called oakmoss lichen, common in Europe but restricted to the west coast in the United States.

I don't have a clue as to what the yellow-green lichen is, because it does not look like anything in the books. I doubt that means I have some stunning rare species in my yard. That much I've learned from birding. Last time I thought a rare bird showed up at my feeder, I was gently informed by the folks at the Cornell Feederwatch program that it was a fabulous sighting but nonetheless not atypical for our area. Oh, and there was that beautiful flower that sprouted in the garden last year that made me think a rare orchid had volunteered there, only to find out while researching it that it was a dreadfully invasive species and needed to be ripped out, beaten with a board, set on fire, and then taken 400 miles offshore and fed to a shark.

I did learn, however, that the people who came up with the common names for various lichens over the years appear to have had a lot of fun. You know how they hire people to come up with names for paint colors and cars? I want to get the job of naming lichens. Below is a picture of the lichen-and-moss-draped trees we saw in the Hoh Rain Forest last year, and below that are the most amazing names gleaned from the Big Book o' Lichens--a total witch's brew mingled with weird diseases, insults, and characters from a spy novel.

punctured rocktripe, lettuce lung, freckle pelt, frog pelt, pimpled kidney, questionable frog, beaded bone, tickertape bone, devil's matchstick, lipstick cladonia, false pixie cup, blood-spattered beard, warty beard, black-eye lichen, bloody-heart lichen, Gritty British soldier, can-of-worms, cowpie lichen, cryptic paw, smoky crottle, pale-bellied dog lichen, earth wrinkles, elf-ear lichen, frosted finger, pixie foam lichen, gnome fingers, gut lichen, rock hairball lichen, edible and inedible horsehair lichen, jelly flakes, jelly strap, blistered jellyskin lichen, lemon-lime lichen, mouse ears, lobed nipple lichen, peacock oilskin, born-again pelt lichen, creamy pepper-spore, mixed-up pixie cup, powder puff, potato chip lichen, lipstick powderhorn, pustule crust, warty ramalina, variable rockfrog, dimpled specklebelly, bare-bottomed sunburst lichen, the dotted line, blackened toadskin