(Look, I’ve been listening to a lot of Lord Huron lately and I couldn’t turn down the chance to make a reference)
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The snow has melted, spring ephemerals are… ephemering, and woodpeckers are gettin’ it on in the trees.
In my continuing effort to bring you more dumb plant facts, I figured I’d share some of the pictures of what I’ve been seeing in the woods in the past ~week or so.
This is round-lobed hepatica, Hepatica americana. It is a small and oft-overlooked spring ephemeral, found in the first weeks of April here in Massachusetts. For that reason, I like to call it my birthday flower, because it’s one of the few things blooming on April 6! In particular, these pictures were taken in Williamsburg, MA, on April 7th, during my annual “yurtmas” birthday trip.
The name “hepatica” — as you might guess if you’ve ever had to have a hepatic function test — refers to the liver. In some places it also has the common name of “liverwort” (not to be confused with the bryophytes of the same name) or “liverleaf.” So how did it get this name? At least according to the above Wikipedia article:
The word hepatica derives from the Greek ἡπατικός hēpatikós, from ἧπαρ hêpar ‘liver’, because its three-lobed leaf was thought to resemble the human liver.
*whispers* I don’t think the liver has three lobes, but what do I know.
I’d add this one to my list of “dumb common names,” but listen, the scientific name is dumb, too.
My personal experience with finding hepatica is that they are elusive. For one thing, they are really small — those plants are about 3″ high and the flowers are about the size of a penny. They grow in drifts, but you can walk right by them and never notice them. I’ve had a few instances where I found a single group and then looked down to realize I’d nearly stepped on a few on my way there.
I’m also not entirely certain about what sort of habitats they like. I have often found them growing on hillsides or at the base of trees. The hillsides make sense — they like well-drained soil — but I’m unaware of any symbiosis they might have with particular trees. And even knowing those facts about where to find them… I’ve not had luck finding them in places I might expect to find them.
I know of only one place they grow in my town, and I try to make it there every April. Here are some pics I took last year at that pilgrimage site: Robbs’ Hill Conservation Area in Lunenburg, MA.
In conclusion: stay sneaky, hepatica. If anyone caught on to how beautiful you are, you might be in danger.
Despite its awfulness — despite a pandemic and losing my job — something beautiful came out of the year for me. When my time-intensive social hobbies (like larping) disappeared overnight, I had much more time and energy to devote to the natural world.
This year, I made ~700 observations on iNaturalist. I learned to identify many new taxa — mostly plants, but I also started getting into mushroom identification and mycology. I foraged wild foods, and made things out of them. I discovered new conservation areas and hiking trails. I laid on the ground by a vernal pool for nearly an hour, observing fairy shrimp. I did several “socially distant” hikes with friends, teaching them what I knew about the natural world.
For once in my life, I saw the turn of the seasons, day by day and week to week.
To my points from the original post:
Planting a garden. I did this, to varying degrees of success; I tried to grow tomatoes, bell and jalapeno peppers, parsnips, and lettuce from seed. I had my hands in the earth; I tilled the soil; I watered my plants; I repelled woodchucks and blossom end rot.
The final product was meager — a bumper crop of tomatoes, a few peppers, and not much else — but the experience was worthwhile. Caring for plants was something that took me outside nearly every day, even when I didn’t have the time or inclination to dive into the deep woods.
Foraging wild foods. I did this, too! We discovered the brambles growing as volunteers in our backyard were in fact blackberries, and Matt harvested them and made a delicious blackberry ice cream from it. I also made zucchini bread with autumn olive I had harvested from a local tree. (And learned, in the process, that autumn olive really should be pitted before doing so).
Sadly I did not find a great source of elderberries this year — I saw a few plants, but not close to me or in a place I’d feel confident with harvesting.
Taking a nature walk once a month. Sort of? I was out in the woods a LOT this year, and it probably averaged out to once a month. But most of it was in the spring and early summer, my favorite seasons for natural observation. I don’t think I got out in the woods at all in July, and December was also a wash for me.
But I also logged more iNat observations this year than I had in previous years combined, and I participated in a two virtual bioblitzes, so I really don’t feel like I “failed” here.
Also it’s important to remember that one doesn’t need to “get out” in nature. Wildness is everywhere! I found new-to-me plants like bush honeysuckle and broad-leafed helleborine and European beech while out on my runs. I got up close with a garter snake basking on the tarmac of my road. And I just now returned from a walk down my street where I saw a red fox cross the road in front of me.
Honoring the cycle of the year
My first thought is: I would have liked to spend more time on this, on slowing the passage of time through observing it, turning regular time into a festival heterotopia. I especially wanted to honor the solstices and equinoxes, those turning points of the year — but I never quite managed to make it happen.
But I’m thankful for what I did do. I observed my usual traditions around traditional Western holidays — Muppet Christmas Carol at Christmas, Vincent Price movies at Halloween. In celebration of finishing another (final!) round of Lioness edits, I hosted watch parties of several Three Musketeers movies. I bought holiday and birthday presents, and took pleasure in selecting the right gifts.
Plus, one thing observing the natural world regularly did is help me see the passage of time. I watched maple buds turn into leaves turn into forest litter, and that taught me much. I saw the mycelium underlying the whole forest floor, and learned you cannot kill me in a way that matters.
Given all that, maybe it doesn’t matter that I didn’t do anything to celebrate the solstices.
I got to know my town and neighborhood much better this year. I chatted with neighbors (and sometimes argued with them) on the Facebook community for my town. I learned where to find one of my favorite spring ephemerals from my local nature group. I started having milk delivered to my house weekly from a local dairy. I discovered new trails, new landmarks, new lands, within the boundaries of my own town.
To the individual points:
Attend a town meeting. I did not do this — perhaps because the last town meeting was held in a gymnasium at the height of the pandemic. However, thanks to vote by mail, I did vote in local primaries for the first time, which was enlightening.
In January, before the pandemic hit the U.S., I attended a meeting of the landowners’ association I’m part of, and learned about our efforts to fight fanwort in the lake. (I also walked the two miles to the high school where it was being held, rather than drive).
Do more local shopping. This was hard to do this year — again, because pandemic, and the shortage of many goods at the beginning of it. (I never thought I’d be lining up at the Hannaford at 7am for toilet paper).
But also during the pandemic, my local dairy started delivering door to door! I now enjoy having local eggs and milk and creamer on my doorstep every Thursday morning.
Other than that, I shopped at Aubuchon more than Home Depot (small chain vs. large chain), and I tried to use Target rather than Amazon (chain that generally treats its employees decently vs. putting more money in Jeff Bezos’ pocket).
Improve my relationship with my neighbors. I can’t say I made much progress on this, even though the pandemic might have given me the opportunity to.
Not being wasteful
Complete Uber Frugal Month challenges in January and June. I did this in January but not in June, ironically, even though in June I was out of a job and strapped for cash flow. I found the exercises interesting to do, teaching me a great deal about my relationship with money, and what my goals were.
Read The Zero Waste Home, and incorporate at least one of the tips into my life. I did not read this specific book due to interminable waitlists (thanks, pandemic), but I did read 100 Ways to Go Zero Waste, so I think that counts. I took notes on the tips I liked, but there was a lot of dumb in there, I gotta admit. It was emblematic of “clueless city dweller has some bullshit ideas about the natural world,” which tends to get my virtual panties in a wad, since ecological consciousness is intrinsically linked to nature appreciation in my head.
What I am doing differently, trash-wise, from 2019:
Cleaning out K-cups to recycle the plastic and aluminum. I also canceled my standing order for them, with the goal of eventually not using them at all. (Once I get through the backlog).
Recycling a few more things I didn’t know I could recycle (Recycle Smart MA is great for this, if you also live in the Bay State).
Using handkerchiefs and rags instead of paper products more reliably. (Still not gonna clean up cat sick with a rag, though).
Driving a lot less — again, thanks to the pandemic and now having a fully-remote job.
I asked for a bunch of things for Christmas that would help with less wasteful living — Stasher bags, beeswax wraps for food — but, alas, did not get them. Will have to invest in some myself.
I’d like to do more in the future, of course, but as in everything, home environmentalism is a practice, not a destination.
Pay off my student loan and Mattâ€™s car loan. Done! Actually, we paid off all our consumer debt this year, despite my not having a job — including the balance on our HELOC post-bathroom reno, and credit card debt for Brianna’s health crisis in January/February. The combination of frugality, a severance package with release of claims, increased unemployment due to the pandemic, and finding a new job relatively quickly actually left our bank account in a pretty good state.
As I said in my original post, intellectual curiosity is already a huge part of my life, so I expected this sub-theme to be easy to accomplish.
In some ways I was right — if nothing else, I know far more about identifying fauna, flora, and fungi than I did a year ago! However…
Join the â€œfriends of the town library.â€ As I mentioned, this goal required me to print out a form, write a check, and go into the library LIKE A BARBARIAN. (A barbarian librarian?)
… and then said library shut down completely for the first six months of the pandemic.
It’s been open for browsing-by-appointment for a couple of months now, so if I was really determined, I could have done this. But let’s be real, I was more determined not to get COVID.
Visit a few new-to-me local parks, attractions, hiking trails, and businesses. The pandemic made this difficult for inside locations, but as far as hiking trails and conservation areas went, I get a gold star here.
I visited Robbs Hill for the first time to photograph hepaticas, on a tip from someone in my local nature group. I visited Cowdrey Nature Center for the second time ever, taking a new trail that made a ring around the river/swamp in the center, and identified all kinds of new-to-me mushrooms and spring ephemerals. I discovered the Lane Conservation Area and the Large Town Forest, both of which border the Hickory Woods I know well. Speaking of, for the first time I walked the ring/main trail of Hickory Woods, from the “official” trailhead back to my house. I also visited the Peabody Conservation Area, another patch of conservation land affiliated with the North County Land Trust.
My Buy Nothing group also played a part in learning more about the roads of this town! My journeys to pick up gifts brought me to parts of the town I’d never explored before, including the weird warren of roads northeast of Hickory Hills Lake, disconnected from the rest of the town when the lake was created as a reservoir.
I also had the opportunity to look at a map of my town from the 1880s, and that’s when I realized the street I live on once cut directly across what is now the bottom of the lake — yet another section of road that once connected the neighborhoods on two sides of the lake. I also saw small roads and farms where the Large Town Forest now is, and that explained for me why the trails looked wide enough to drive a truck through (spoiler: they were), as well as why there were miles and miles of fieldstone walls back there.
(Well, that’s also just… New England. As I tell ANYONE WHO LISTENS, Massachusetts is more forested today than it was in Thoreau’s time. Underneath our feet are the remnants of thousands of Colonial and 19th century farms).
Further reading (literally)
I also did some relevant reading this year. One book I read this year and recommend is Farming, a Handbook, by the poet Wendell Berry. His poetry quietly, beautifully asserts that the people who put their hands in the dirt, day after day — farmers — are the ones who understand the natural world best of all. This is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with!
Relatedly, I also read Dirt Work: an Education in the Woods, by Christine Byl, who worked trail crew at national parks in Montana and Alaska. This book is a series of essays about that experience, working with one’s hands, and the natural world — including the humans that live in that world. Here’s a favorite quote of mine:
Outdoors is not catalog or movie set, not just work site, not even sanctuary, no matter how nuanced my desires appeared (name the plants, still the soul). Outdoors is a place where salmon swim upstream to die where they were born, where bears eat the salmon so they can survive their winter dens, where humans move through calling loudly, intent on fish and berries and bears. Itâ€™s a place to be reminded that, while sport is fun, while the rush of summits, linked ski turns, and belay stances are a joyful thing, they are second. Auxiliary to a world that is not playground but homeschool, where I am taught to settle in, over and over, until being outside isnâ€™t about endurance or leisure, but life.
Christine Byl, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods
On a completely different (but also related) note, I read two of the Discworld Witches sub-series, Equal Rites and Wyrd Sisters. I didn’t think Equal Rites had much to recommend it — it is the infamous Early Pratchett, and I really didn’t like the gender-essentialist division of “witch” and “wizard” which is the core premise of the book. I did like this quote, which was very much in service to my theme of the year:
â€œDo you think I used magic?â€
Esk looked down at the queen bee. She looked up at the witch.
â€œNo,â€ she said. â€œI think you just know a lot about bees.â€
â€œExactly correct. Thatâ€™s one form of magic, of course.â€
â€œWhat, just knowing things?â€
â€œKnowing things that other people donâ€™t know.â€
Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett
Wyrd Sisters, on the other hand, edged into what people love Pratchett for: humor not for the sake of humor, but in service to a greater theme. This one is full of Shakespearean tropes, and (like all books I love), touches on what it means to make art. It didn’t quite go as far as I would have liked, however.
This year I also read (85% of) Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. It is mostly about space anarchism — as a friend joked, “the through-line is communism.” But this quote, where the main character observes his wife, felt on-theme:
That’s a lot already! But some other things I am proud of this year:
Rediscovered Dungeons & Dragons! I’m now in four different games with two different groups, and I love it. Still hope to blog more about that at some point!
Finished the last round of major edits on Lioness (working on a query packet now!)
Got my first short story acceptance — “The Mirrors of Her Eyes” is forthcoming from Daily Science Fiction!
Wrote some poems.
Wrote some blog posts.
Wrote (and continue to write) a D&D/Forgotten Realms fanfic, “Bright Future,” which is about my druid’s relationship with a certain NPC in the Out of the Abyss adventure.
Read 25 books. (Didn’t hit my Goodreads goal, but this was a rough year for reading. FOR SOME REASON).
Found a new, 100% remote job that (three months in) I absolutely adore. (I am now a senior frontend engineer at Fishtown Analytics, the makers of the data transformation tool dbt).
Spent a beautiful two weeks with my mom in Plattsburgh (all safety precautions were taken).
Started a weekly virtual coworking event, which brought together friends from various different social circles (writing, larping, etc). I think it’s been super beneficial to everyone involved, and it’s been great keeping up with my friends and their projects on a weekly basis.
I survived possibly the worst year in recent memory.
Next time we’ll have my 2021 prospective! A warning that “next time” may still be a couple of weeks out — the theme will be “making my outsides match my insides,” but I haven’t plotted out the specifics yet.
(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!
â€¦ 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).
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).
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).
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 wasâ€¦ 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.
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.
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 Iâ€¦
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!
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 wasâ€¦ 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 andâ€¦ 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.
I have been getting back to editing Lioness. Still on draft 3, as I have been for the pastâ€¦ 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.
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.
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) toâ€¦ 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).
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 😉
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.”
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.
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, thoughâ€¦ 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. Whichâ€¦ 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.
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).
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.