Treemendously nostalgic

(This post has been sitting in my WordPress drafts folder for, oh, a month and a half. I thought it was time it finally saw the light of day).

Lately, with all the time I’ve been spending in nature (and maybe I’ll actually write about that directly at some point!) I have been thinking about high school, Science Olympiad, and the Treemendous competition.

I was involved in Science Club for several years in high school, and every year we participated in the regional and the state Science Olympiad, a series of science-based challenges for a team of fifteen. Our team, from a Catholic high school in rural Plattsburgh, New York, usually did okay in the regional competition — enough to advance to the state event — but terribly in the state tournament, often placing in the bottom ten. (Theoretically there is a national competition, but that was always out of reach for us).

Both the state and the regional tournaments had the same individual events, but they did change from year to year. I was excited the year that “Treemendous” was added to the list — a challenge to identify North American trees by genus and species. It might have been new that year; I certainly hadn’t heard of it in the other years I’d been involved with the club. I volunteered to study for Treemendous that year, because it was the only vaguely ecological one, and I thought I’d be good at it. Hey, I could tell an oak from a maple!

… she did not do well at it, dear reader.

For one thing, the regional event used branches from winter trees. I apparently didn’t think this would be a possibility, even though the event was in the middle of (I think) February in the blasted heath of northern New York, USDA zone 3b to 4a. If it even crossed my mind as a possibility that “hey, there won’t be any local trees with leaves on them,” I must have dismissed it as “no one can identify trees in winter!” (Not true. It is very possible to identify winter trees. But you have to look for a different set of features, since you can’t rely on the leaves and blossoms).

Photo taken in March 2020. Pretty sure these are leaf buds of American beech (Fagus grandifolia), but did I know that in 1998? I did not.

Despite all that, I somehow I muddled through well enough to go on to the state event — I want to say the test was multiple choice, and didn’t use Latin names, but the biggest contributing factor was probably that everyone else did just as badly as I did.

Somehow we made it to the state competition that year, which I want to say took place in April or May, at West Point. The state Treemendous event used pressed samples of trees (not all of them native to New York), so in some ways it was easier. And yet, I did even worse. The IDs required Latin binomial names, and you actually had to recall them, rather than just recognizing them for a list — a task which is always more cognitively demanding.

Plus I soon realized that while I knew that an oak was genus Quercus, I could not remember that a white oak is Quercus alba and a northern red oak is Quercus rubra, nor did I have any idea how to tell the two apart. (I do now, sorta. White oak has rounded leaf tips).

Decayed white oak leaf
Now, THIS is a white oak leaf.

I think I came in dead last, or near it.

I haven’t put much effort into learning to identify trees since then, and it’s only since I’ve gotten into iNaturalist that I’ve been picking it back up, mostly because I got bored with the endless mountain laurel/partridgeberry/teaberry undergrowth in New England woods, and wanted a new challenge. I’ve come to some conclusions since then:

1) I would have done much better at Treemendous if iNaturalist had been a Thing when I was in high school. (I was in high school in the late 1990s, and it was mostly pre-internet).

Also:

2) I was studying in an absolutely awful way. And there was nobody telling me to do it any differently. (Theoretically, that’s what our faculty advisor/coach should have been doing. But for all that I adored Mr. Dilley, he was a chemistry teacher, not a botanist).

How I should have been studying was by doing actual tree identification. And yet I can’t think of one time I took my field guides and walked around my neighborhood trying to identify trees. And if iNat had existed, pulling up the Identify tab and filtering by “plants” and “Clinton County, New York” would also be a useful training exercise.

Either way, I know now what I didn’t know then (thanks, in part, to the great MOOC Learning How to Learn): that testing is learning. And I was definitely not testing my tree ID skills in any substantial way.

What I was doing instead was… making flash cards? Basically they were index cards with the common name, the Latin name, and a few facts about the tree. I might have written down if, say, the leaves were alternate or opposite, but I am pretty sure that nowhere did I use the term “leaf scar,” or any of the things that would have helped me to identify a tree in winter.

Also it took a lot of time to make flash cards — I was writing them by hand! — and I was not, let us say, particularly diligent about my study time for this event. (I was not particularly diligent about anything, really. Let’s remember I’ve had undiagnosed and untreated ADHD up until early this year).

Flash cards have their uses, but without real examples, none of the stuff I was learning stuck in my head. At least if I had been looking at real trees in my neighborhood, I would have been creating a memory palace out of my own neighborhood: like “oh yes, that’s a white oak I saw on the corner of Wells and Cornelia streets.” (Note: that’s a real intersection, but I have no idea if there’s actually a white oak there. Please do not take this as arboreal advice).

Even today, all my facts about, say, eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) are connected to the first instance of it I ever identified, along the Cochituate Brook Rail Trail in Framingham. Which was in the Year of Our Lord 2019, at age 39, not long after I discovered iNaturalist. Thinking about that particular tree — like accessing any good node in a memory palace — is like an opening a drawer full of facts: That it flowers before the leaves are out. That the flowers often bud right off large branches. That the leaves are heart-shaped, large, and alternate on the branch. That the fruit is a bean-like pod (unsurprisingly, since it’s in the legume family, Fabaceae), which often remains on the tree through the winter. I didn’t remember the full binomial name off the top of my head, but I did recall it was species “canadensis” and that the genus started with a “c” — I could have passed a multiple choice question, if nothing else!

Do I regret my misspent youthful opportunities? Eh, maybe a little 😉

For what it’s worth, Science Olympiad is still a thing! However, Treemendous is no longer an event. It doesn’t even show up in the archived events, nor in a search! Maybe they, like I did for so many years, prefer to pretend it never existed 😉 Nonetheless I was pleased to see they now have a number of ecology- and nature-themed ones, including an ornithology challenge, and a proposed botany one, as well.

I’ll lament again, like I have before, that educational and enrichment activities like this are often seen as the domain of kids — as if you should stop learning when you’re an adult! So yes, maybe I do wish there was a Science Olympiad for adults 😉 I’d do a lot better today, now that I actually know how to study effectively. Youth really is wasted on the young!

I guess the closest I can get to that is setting ID challenges for myself, educating and learning on iNat and my nature groups, and maybe participating in bioblitzes, or other identification events.

Weekly Update: September 8, 2019

Peach picking, getting back to editing, my talented friends and their awesome books, and NATURE.

It’s been a while — I spent a big chunk of August on vacation. I’m working on a longer travelogue, but in the interest of writing regularly, here’s what I’ve been up to since I got back, or stuff that was tangential to my vacation.

Peach picking

Last weekend I went peach (and raspberry, and blueberry) picking at Carlson Orchards in Harvard, MA. In addition to crossing it off my 101 goals in 1001 days list, it also meant I got to spend some time with my excellent friends Becky, Arnis, Kim, and Dave.

In the process I…

  • Learned how to tell a peach was ready to be picked. (Half yellow/half pink, with the ridges on the top yielding to the touch)
  • Had some fantastic falafel from Chez Rafiki, a Mediterranean restaurant that has a food truck at the orchard.
  • Discovered that the orchard plays alarm calls of certain birds in their raspberry patch — presumably to keep birds from eating the fruit. What a great idea!
  • Bought a case of their amazing Shandy Stand, which I tasted and loved at the Johnny Appleseed Beer Festival.

Now I have SO MUCH FRUIT to eat…

Reading

I of course got a ton of reading done while traveling!

I finished (at last!) The Unbound Empire, the final book of my pal Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy. That it took me so long to finish is not a mark against it; once I was able to sit down and concentrate, it was engrossing! I kept wondering how various things were going to resolve — the love triangle, Ruven’s machinations, etc — and I can truly say that it delivered an end to the series that was surprising, but, in retrospect, inevitable. I’m truly, truly pleased with the conclusion, and I’m excited to see more of Vaskandar in the new series.

In continuing adventures of “I have incredibly talented author friends,” I finally read Django Wexler’s Ship of Smoke and Steel, the first book in his YA fantasy trilogy, the Wells of Magic. I actually had read part of it already, it turned out; he’d sent it to me to critique back when he was still calling it “Deepwalker.” It’s the story of ruthless mob boss with combat magic, Isoka, who gets thrown onto a giant ship/city, Soliton, and has to figure out how to commandeer it in order to save the life of her sister.

ANYWAY it’s just fantastic. I agree with the reviewer who said that the action scenes are cinematic — in particular I thought the dredwurm fight, with mushroom spores flying around, was particularly colorful. It’s also paced beautifully, pulling you from one adventure to another with curiosity about the magic system, this ginormous ship, and wtf is going on.

Isoka is also a fascinating character; she starts out kind of a terrible person, which is something that’s super rare for a female, first-person protagonist. But her ruthlessness is a tool that she uses to climb the hierarchy of Soliton, and that? That I looooved. (Also she is marginally less awful by the end of the book, in ways that totally make sense).

There was… kind of a love triangle? Although I felt that if you’ve read anything of Django’s, you knew exactly how it was going to end 😉 I was rooting for Zarun, either way. I like my charismatic assholes.

After I marked it as “read” on Goodreads, though, I made the mistake of reading some reviews of it and… man, there are some people willfully misreading the romance in that book. It left me with a combination of “did you read the same book as I did?” and “DING DONG YOU ARE WRONG.” Ultimately I think a lot of people don’t know what to do with a female protagonist like Isoka.

I’ve already preordered the next book, which comes out January 2020, so I think that tells you my ultimate opinion 😉

While I was in Stratford, I also read Jeannette Walls’ Half-Broke Horses, which she describes as a “true-life novel” about her grandmother, who was a homesteader, horse trainer, bootlegger, and teacher in New Mexico and Arizona in the early 20th century. I liked this way better than I did The Glass Castle, which was way too intense for me. It turns out, I just really like stories about people homesteading and being self-reliant! This was definitely a story I wanted to linger in.

Writing

I have been getting back to editing Lioness. Still on draft 3, as I have been for the past… year? Two years? (Too long!) Every time I’m away for any significant period of time, I have to do what I call “reuploading the manuscript into working memory,” which is basically just re-reading it. At 120k words, that takes a bit of time!

However, this reupload, I was pleased to make two discoveries: 1) there were bits that I didn’t remember writing that I found quite clever! and b) I was further along in my edits than I had thought. So that was heartening.

Still, editing continues to be painful. It feels like closing the doors on so many possibilities.

Mead chronicles: the meading continues!

Batch #1, the semisweet mead per Ken Schramm’s The Compleat Meadmaker, is still in secondary fermentation. It is supposed to remain there until it clears and all fermentation has stopped for two weeks. It has cleared, but fermentation is still going, verrrrrry slooooowly, so I’ve left it there.

I’ve picked up a few goodies for bottling it, namely some swing-top bottles, and some Saniclean/iodophor, because I’ve heard so many negatives about sanitizing with bleach.

Last week I put on a new batch of quick mead, cleverly called batch #2, using the recipe from the Elder Scrolls cookbook and a spice blend of my own imagining: cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, juniper berries, and grains of paradise. I have no idea how this will turn out! It may be utterly undrinkable! But at least I only have to wait another week or so to find out.

The mystery mead! How will it turn out??

iNaturalist, and a recent walk in the woods

I’ve become utterly obsessed with iNaturalist, an app and website which allows you to engage in citizen science out in the wild and get feedback on your observations. I started using it when I was up in Canada, and then went through MY ENTIRE CAMERA ROLL and uploaded every nature picture I had, getting identifications for most of them. I just started using it in mid August, and I’ve already logged 80 observations, most of them flowering plants, because that’s kind of my thing.

What I’m beginning to discover is that no matter how many times I tread a certain path, there is always something new to discover — even if it’s just opening my eyes to something I’ve overlooked a million times. For example, I went for a walk today at work, along the Cochituate Rail Trail — a path I probably walk at least a hundred times a year — and saw velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti), which was entirely new to me. (And, unfortunately, an invasive species). I’m also starting to branch out (haha) into tree identification, and suddenly I notice Eastern redbud and witch hazel and shagbark hickory when I pass them.

(P.S. I’m lisefrac on iNat, if you want to look me up there).

Anyway, this past weekend Matt and I went on a long ramble through the Hickory Hills woods and Lunenburg Town Forest, visiting some parts we’d never seen before. It’s kind of amazing how quickly it changes from a dense undergrowth of heath (mountain laurel, partridge berry, wintergreens, etc) to… well, almost nothing, in the parts to the north of the lake. Probably a sign to how recently different parts have been reforested, I would guess.

The bugs were pretty awful — and I was covered up pretty well, due to the high risk of EEE in Massachusetts right now — so it was not the most pleasant or comfortable walk in the woods I’ve ever had. However! I did see some species I’d only read about before, like downy rattlesnake plantain, or cardinal flower.

(When I saw the cardinal flowers, I was, no lie, about 100 feet away, and this flash of brilliant red caught my eye. I had a brief moment of hope — because this was the right season for it, if nothing else — but then almost brushed it off as “nah, it’s probably just foliage of some sort.” But as I got a little closer, it seemed more floral in shape, so I went bounding, literally into a marsh, to take a picture of it).

Weekly Update: August 6, 2019

Where has the summer gone? I can hardly believe it’s already August. So let’s see what I’ve been doing in the past week…

Yet another beer festival

Matt and I went to the Johnny Appleseed Craft Beer Festival this past Saturday, on the Leominster, MA common. Yes, this is the second beer fest I’ve been to in the past month. It’s been a very boozy month for us, I guess!

This one was built on a bit of a different model than the Fitchburg festival. It was $30 (advance) or $35 (at the door) to get in, but once you were in, all samples were included in the cost. Like the Nashua River festival, they gave you a commemorative sample glass — I’m going to be drowning in these if I keep going to beer festivals. Unlike the Fitchburg festival, they actually gave you a sample size, at least at first. (As the event went on, the pours kept getting bigger and bigger, as if some of the brewers were saying “fuck it, I don’t want to have to carry all this beer home”).

The breweries present varied quite a bit from the last event, and included a lot of bigger breweries. (Samuel Adams, for example, as well as Harpoon and Magic Hat). That said, the total number of brewers seemed higher, so there were still a good number of small places represented. I also saw some overlap with the Fitchburg festival, such as New City, Wachusett, and Carlson Orchards.

I also was surprised — when I arrived a little after the opening time of 3pm — that there was a line around the block to get in, even for folks who had purchased ahead of time (like us). Understandable, because they needed to check everyone’s ID. It did move relatively fast, notwithstanding my impatience 🙂

Here are some of the hits of the festival for us:

  • Wicked Weed Brewing from Asheville, NC had two session sours we liked, Watermelon Dragonfruit Burst and a Passionfruit Lychee Burst. Matt felt the watermelon was a little too “Jolly Ranchers”-y for his taste, though.
  • Golden Road Brewing out of Los Angeles had a “cart” series of flavored wheat ales. We sampled Melon Cart and Mango Cart, and decided Melon was the better of the two, with a pleasant melon flavor to it. The mango flavor sadly did not come through nearly as well.
  • The Mass Bev stall was pouring a selection from Rising Tide Brewery (Portland, ME), including a gose called Pisces that I quite liked.
  • Four Phantoms (Easthampton, MA) was pouring Baroness, what they described as a “brut saison.” It drank very much like a sour — not all that surprising, the brewer told us, since saisons are also traditionally made with wild yeast. This was probably Matt’s favorite of the whole festival.
  • Rhinegeist, out of Cincinnati, had an unusual selection of ciders and beers, which we sampled all of. I seem to recall the cider was Swizzle, a lemongrass and ginger cider; for beers, there was Nitro Cobbstopper (a peach cobbler ale), and a fruity IPA which I absolute cannot recall — it might have had pineapple? They were all enjoyable.
  • Groennfell Meadery (Colchester, VT) was, understandably, a hit with me! I sampled them all; they were all slightly drier than I was used to, but still very easy-drinking. My favorite was a sour cherry mead, Psychopomp, which was actually from the (related) Havoc Meads — and they even have the recipe for it on the Groennfell webpage!
    (Actually, the website has a ton of mead-making resources… there was a long gap in writing this while I explored their site).
  • Carlson Orchards (Harvard, MA) was pouring their own hard cider as well as their Shandy Stand, which was scrumptiously lemon-y. I may need to get some of that when I go there for peach picking in September.
  • 3cross Fermentation Coop (soon to be in Worcester, MA) offered Mumbaicycle, a chai-based stout, which was pretty good even though I don’t much like stouts.
  • Bantam Cider (Somerville, MA) had some excellent ciders, included a hopped cider (it might have been Mighty Mammoth?) that worked out really well.
  • Clown Shoes (Boston, MA) had their Coconut Sombrero, which is best described as a “non-sweet Almond Joy flavor in a stout.”
  • At Newburyport Brewing‘s stall (Newburyport, MA), we tried the Maritime Lager and Plum Island Belgian White. Pretty bog standard varieties, no flavorings, but they both stood out for the amount of nutty malt flavor that came through.

Of course after that excursion in the land of all-inclusive booze, we were a biiiiit tipsy. It was also nearly dinner time, and we were in downtown Leominster, so the logical choice was to hit up Mezcal for dinner! No margaritas were had, though 😉

Wachusett Mountain

On Sunday morning, Matt and I hiked Wachusett Mountain (or Mount Wachusett, take your pick) with Matt in the Hat and Tegan K. (Both of whom I hadn’t seen in FOREVAAAR). The goal here was to knock “hike a mountain” off my 101 goals in 1001 days list.

Wachusett Mountain, at 2,005′, is the “highest peak in Massachusetts east of the Connecticut River,” which is a lot of qualifiers. It’s also one of those mountains that you can drive to the top of. But, most importantly, it’s pretty dang close to me, about a thirty minute drive.

The first challenge was getting there, since Apple Maps wanted to take us to some point up the summit road, rather than the visitor center where we were supposed to meet. But we did get parked ($5 day pass) and underway shortly after 10am.

While all of us are healthy adults in decent shape, none of us hike mountains all that often, so we decided not to take the steepest trail to the summit. We opted to follow the Bicentennial Trail, which circles the base of the mountain in a clockwise direction, to the Mountain House Trail, which ascends to the summit. It appeared on the map to be a less steep grade than both the Pine Hill Trail and the Loop Trail. Possibly that was deceiving, however! I am reminded that east of the Mississippi, we think switchbacks are for pussies, and that the best path to the summit is straight up the side of the mountain.

Along the route we saw red chanterelles, raspberries, chokecherry, hemp dogbane, yarrow, knotweed, and tons and tons of beeches and hemlocks. We also heard the songs of red-eyed (or possibly blue-headed) vireos, and a hermit thrush. (That I even know that is thanks to Matt in the Hat, the designated “bird guy” in our circle of friends). In the process I learned about iNaturalist, a species identification app, which I’m keen to play around with!

We reached the summit around noon, amidst a light shower of rain. Despite the weather, we lingered for a bit at the fire tower, eating some food, taking photos, and spotting various landmarks in different directions. (You can just barely make out the skyline of Boston in the distance!) There was a display about old-growth forests at the summit, which made me wish we had tried the Old Indian Trail on the north side of the mountain, which goes through the largest section of old growth forest — you guessed it — “in Massachusetts east of the Connecticut River.”

Sweaty Lise at the Mount Wachusett summit
Sweaty Lise at the Mount Wachusett summit

We descended via the steep Pine Hill Trail, which lands you on the Bicentennial Trail nearly at the trailhead. It’s hard to judge going in reverse, but it felt about as steep as the Mountain House Trail, so we may have gone out of way for nothing? Definitely was hard on the knees going down, though, and I could feel my calf muscles trembling when I stopped to rest.

All in all, it was a lovely trip with lovely people, and now I’ve got an itch to do hike more mountains in the area. Maybe try that ascent from the other side of Wachusett? Or Mount Watatic? In all my abundant free time, of course.

Meadwatch, update three

Remember the batch of mead that seemed not to be fermenting after three days? Well, two weeks passed with no signs of fermentation. I decided at that point to pull out a sample and measure specific gravity, which would at least tell me if fermentation was active.

So, fermentation is active. The specific gravity has decreased from 1.109 to 1.041, which is trending in the right direction. It’s not quite where it should be after two weeks, though, so it’s definitely going slowly. Obviously the fermentation never produced enough CO2 to fill the fermenter and displace the vodka in the airlock, probably because it was less than a gallon of mead in a two-gallon plastic bucket (which may or may not have had an airtight seal). Also, when I adjusted the recipe from 5 gallons to one gallon, I reduced the quantity of yeast from 2 packets to 1, which may not be helping.

Regardless, I racked it into a 1-gallon glass carboy, where active fermentation was readily apparent in the airlock. It’s still slow — one bubble every 18 seconds, as of this morning. But it’s happening, at least. This one will sit until it clears, and/or until fermentation has stopped completely and/or until I get really impatient. We shall see.

I am debating if I want to put on another quick mead, and/or try out a recipe from the Big Book of Mead Recipes. There’s an Autumn Spiced Cyser that I think would be lovely with the dark wildflower honey I got from the farmer’s market. That probably wouldn’t be ready until Autumn 2020, though, given this book is full of recipes that say things like “age for 1-3 years” or “bulk age until mead is clear enough to read through”).

This book also uses a lot of additives that I’m not super familiar with working with, like sodium metabisulfite, which is common enough in wine-making, but less common in beer, which is kind of my touchstone for this hobby. Unfortunately you can’t really buy small batches of most of these supplies, so there’s an investment aspect, too, as well as buying a scale fine-grained enough to measure out “0.38 grams of GoFerm” or whatnot.

I certainly have plenty of materials to make all manner of quick meads, though… gotta do something with this half finished 3-gallon jug of orange blossom honey and these giant bags of herbs.

Alsoalso, there’s something to be said about waiting until I can make a proper 5 gallon batch of mead again. Which… won’t be until I have a working bathtub again — more on that in a moment.

Finally, I’ve determined never to buy brewing supplies through Amazon again, because the vast majority of the stuff I’ve gotten has been total junk. An inaccurate thermometer, an autosiphon that won’t siphon, a fermenting pail that isn’t airtight, etc.

Bathroom Renovations

The bathroom renovation has begun on time! Early even — the demo crew was knocking at my door at 7:45am on Monday. Here’s some pics from mid-demolition:

Demolition is now complete, and we should be hearing from the plumbers soon. So far, everything is continuing apace *crosses fingers*.

Podcast Recommendation of the Week

Hey, I can’t leave you without at least one new podcast 😉 This week I’m keen on Noble Blood, a brand-new podcast about history’s most interesting royals and nobles. The second episode was on Charles II, who is of course one of the Stuarts, those disaster royals I find so deeply fascinating. In addition to discussing how Charles II compromised his way onto the throne, it also talked about the English Civil War, Charles I (possibly my all-time-favorite disaster royal), and Montrose (possibly my all time favorite 15-minute folk song about a disaster noble).

So, basically, I’m in love with this podcast.

Three Things of Awesome

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1. Spring is beautiful — perhaps made sweeter by how bitter the winter was. Yesterday over lunch I went for a walk along the Cochituate Brook Reservoir Trail, a new-ish bike path which runs along a stream/canal in Framingham. Apples and cherries and locusts were blooming, grackles were… grackling? and I even saw a red-tailed hawk, sitting in a white pine tree.

2. I had dinner at Tempo in Waltham last night with Sprrwhwk, which proved to be a delicious choice. I know every gastro pub in the world these days offers truffle fries, but theirs are seriously the best I’ve had, and they come in a nearly endless horn. The gnocchi I had were fabulous, too, braised and pleasantly crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. I liked their Sexy Old-Fashioned of bourbon, rye, Benedictine, allspice and bitters, as well.

3. While waiting for my aforementioned guest, I wrote 500 words on Lioness. It’s been over a month since I last touched it, other than submitting portions to writing group. I was definitely rusty — it felt sort of like touching the world through a glove. I am getting back into it, slowly, though.