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Archive for June, 2012

Once, while I was traveling on Vancouver Island in Canada, I took an embarrassingly touristy bus tour. The woman next to me was a big haired, loud floral print wearing Texan, and she was so forcefully friendly, she overcame my Yankee reserve and we chatted a bit. Turned out she had traveled extensively in New England.

As we rode through the countryside, the bus driver pointed out the many tiny farm stands by the side of the road. “Nobody tends them–you just buy your veggies and leave the money in a box. It’s all on the honor system. I hear that’s not something you see a lot in the states.” My Texan friend leaned in close to me (another thing we Yankees find discomfiting) and whispered, “Must look like home to you though; everyone sells things like that in New England!”

I haven’t been out of New England all that much in my life, so it had not occurred to me that roadside economies are not universal, or even particularly common. Since moving to New Hampshire though, I seem to have found the roadside economy perfected. When talking to friends and family only as far away as eastern Massachusetts, they look at me incredulously when I tell them we sell eggs by the side of the road. “You just SIT there, all day?” they usually ask. No, I tell them. We leave the eggs out in a cooler with a plastic bottle in it for the money and a sign reading “Fresh Eggs, $3/dozen.” Just like everyone else in this town, it sometimes seems. No one has ever stolen the money, or the eggs.

Malcolm selecting a bike at our favorite untended roadside “shop.”

But it’s not just eggs. Our favorite “bike shop” is the front yard of some people a couple towns over in Brentwood. They’re right on busy Route 125, and they have rows and rows of bike racks filled with their merchandise. From $15 tricycles to a really nice Cannondale mountain bike for $80, you just leave your money in a little red box and take your new-to-you bike home. There is a lock on the cash box, however. The honor system only goes so far.

Sometimes, there are misunderstandings. A couple of weeks ago, our neighbor down the road put up a big piece of wood on which he had scrawled (in red spray paint) “Whoever took my pallets please bring them back.” Pallets are almost universally considered to be up for grabs when out at the roadside, so the theft was understandable. Sure enough, two days later, the pallets were lying in his driveway and the wood now read, “Thanks.”

The prodigal pallets return and all is well.

I often wonder how much of my temperament is inborn, and how much was shaped by my regional upbringing. We don’t have a reputation for friendliness here, and I have known many New Englanders who were unnerved by the open and chatty cultures in other parts of the country. I’m not a misanthrope; in fact, I love the company of other people, under the right circumstances. But this roadside economy seems to me to reflect what I love about New England; we trust you intrinsically, but we’re happy not to have to talk to you.

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View toward Beaver Pond, just down the trail from our campsite.

Bear Brook State Park is massive, by the diminutive outdoor standards of New England. It sprawls over 4 towns in southeastern New Hampshire, and offers some old-school outdoor recreation, including fly-fishing pond, kids-only fishing pond, stone beachfront pavilions, horseback-riding and archery range.

We inhabited the park for 3 days and nights at a beautiful campsite at the quietest end of the 101-site campground. Two trails headed off into the park directly from our site, and glimpses of both Spruce Pond and Beaver Pond were visible through the trees from our tent. Aside from some truly jerkwad campground neighbors in violation of all the rules (quiet after 10pm, no more than 6 people per site, no alcohol, and no chopping down trees with the chainsaw you brought) it was a lovely stay at a campground topped only by the stunning Pillsbury State Park farther west, the main tradeoff being amenities; Pillsbury has only pit toilets and no showers/laundry/fancy stuff.

First geocache, and we’re hooked!

This trip marked my and Malcolm’s first foray into geocaching, and we located a stash of goofy plastic toys about a mile from our campsite. Malcolm was enthralled by the process, counting down the distance to the cache in the one hundredths of miles, and obsessively checking our compass bearing. For those not in the know, geocaching is a GPS based treasure hunt where members of the public hide stashes of little trinkets, or just a simple logbook, and upload the coordinates to a geocaching website. Anyone with a GPS unit or a smartphone can download information on caches nearby, and then set off to find them using a combination of techy gear and old-fashioned maps and orienteering skills. It was a profound motivator for Malcolm, who trekked almost effortlessly to the cache, and was gleeful over the plastic McDonald’s toy he retrieved. In exchange, we offloaded a few stupid little toys of our own for the next searcher.

We used an free, intro geocaching app for iPhone, which permits the finding of three caches. It’s a good chance to see if you like the activity, and we will doubtless be buying the $9.99 version so we can continue with this geeky new hobby.

It also happened that our camping trip coincided with a park outreach program on the threat of bad news beetles arriving in New Hampshire as stowaways in transported firewood. The kids played games, looked at specimens of various beetles, and learned to recognize the beautiful but destructive Asian Long-horned Beetle. They also got a huge amount of invasive beetle swag, including patches, temporary tattoos, and water bottles emblazoned with this difficult-to-explain-to-children slogan:


Really? “That’s What Tree Said?” In any case, the info was great, and Simon was thrilled with the temporary tattoo of the beetle, which made it look like an insect was feeding on his forearm for the remainder of the trip. Awesome.

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Rainy day? Deadly humidity and temps of 100? When you’re tired of the pool, or the skanky pond in your hometown, hit a museum! While we moved away from the Worcester, Massachusetts area about 3 years ago, we still go back to visit friends there on occasion, and there are approximately three attractions in Worcester that are worth traveling to. (Sorry Worcester). The Higgins Armory Museum is most certainly one of these.

The collector: John Woodman Higgins. I don’t know what to say about this portrait.

The man who assembled this collection of arms and armor, John Woodman Higgins, was evidently quite the eccentric. How fitting then that the portrait of him hanging in one of the galleries is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. Gazing up expectantly at…what? An empty suit of armor? A man dressed as knight? Higgins appears ready to sweep the clattering metal figure onto his bony lap and stroke its pointed bascinet.

Nonetheless, I am grateful to people like Higgins who collect and collect and collect, and leave behind this kind of memorial. For those of us without the means to travel to Europe, this collection, “one of the few significant collections of knightly armor outside Europe” gives us a chance we would have nowhere else here in New England, certainly. And I say this despite my usual derision of Worcester.

Our family is of exceptionally low birth, but we let the boy dream, just for a day.

Perched atop one of the city’s famed hills, the Armory is an imposing building several stories tall. My sons were in love before we were even out of the car. Inside, the boys were captivated by the play gallery, where kids can build a castle, complete with faux stone arch, and no one gets hurt when they start smashing each other in the face with the gray vinyl blocks. There’s a dress up area, and a chance to try on the staggering weight of a mail shirt and breastplate. An outsized medievally-themed version of Battleship kept them amused for a surprisingly long time.

Ideally, one moves on from the play gallery only once the children have worked out their destructive energies, because the remaining galleries are your standard look-but-don’t-touch sort. Still, the top floor galleries are constructed to resemble a castle, and have just the right amount of darkness and dankness. The variety of armor and weapons is truly impressive, and apparently accommodated all body types, including this suit of armor made for the pear-shaped knight. One imagines that the suit is lined in Mom jeans:

All the accessories in the world can’t hide this unfortunate knight’s pear shape.

Another fascinating find: many suits of jousting armor with what are termed “lance shields” built in, ostensibly to bear the full force of a lance impacting the torso. I submit to you, however, their striking similarity to the “nursing covers” used by yuppie moms to offer surreptitious sustenance to their infants.

Is that a harried, Renaissance-era, “youcanhaveitall” mom under there?

The evolution of joust armor? Motherhood is a daily battle after all.

Perhaps I was particularly enamored by this museum because I am simultaneously watching the Showtime series  The Tudors, and reading Hilary Mantel’s new book Bring Up the Bodies, about the fall of Anne Boleyn. That notwithstanding, if you have any interest in history whatsoever, I think you will enjoy this well curated and well presented museum.

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Reality of a boys’ room.

Cleaned up reality, after strenuous exertions. Duration: 3 minutes.

One of my very most favorite design blogs is Style Carrot, written by Boston-based Marni Katz. Her curatorial eye and design sense make her posts invariably interesting. I especially like her oddly specific montages: 40 painted built-in bookshelves; 54 living rooms with gray sofas; 64 rooms with black and white art. One of the latest was 27 little boys’ bedrooms. As a design enthusiast and mother of little boys, how could I be but drawn in?

As with all good design, the best kids’ bedrooms should be aesthetically appealing, functional, and comfortable. The trouble is, to put it in business degree speak, who are the stakeholders? Most of the time, one designs for oneself or for other adults. Even if an adult client can’t figure out how to make a room look good, he or she can usually appreciate a beautiful room. Little boys cannot. Little boys have no taste whatsoever. They love gaudy plastic toys, and promotional pamphlet maps of Water Country, and polyester Iron Man bedding sets. They do not love muted old-timey camp blankets, or wooden toys with a light wash of vegetable dyes, or tidiness.

It’s not that, when designing a kid’s room, one must throw out all hope of a good aesthetic result, but expectations must be adjusted. We can design the shell, the scaffold, but they will people it. We can wallpaper, but they will tack up Marvel comics posters. We can layer a worn kilim over a jute rug, but they will leave Star Wars underwear and battery powered Cars 2 merchandise all over it and never pick it up.

This one’s pretty believable. Though very tidy.

The 27 boys’ rooms in Style Carrot’s post run the gamut from excellent to absurdly, laughably unrealistic. Some of the most unrealistic can still be viewed as aspirational, or as simple inspiration for something with real-world applicability. Something like watching a haute couture fashion show and then hitting T.J. Maxx. We all need inspiration. But let the boys have some too. It can be tough; I am a neat freak, organization fiend, and design geek. There are rooms in my home that I am doggedly determined will remain kid free. My bedroom and the living room, for instance. Then there are rooms given wholly over to the boys. A dark corner of the basement and their jointly held bedroom, for instance. The rest of the house is a constantly shifting battlefield or DMZ, depending on the day. They make incursions with lego men, catapults, and giant green Hulk hands. I fight back with mossy terraria, stacks of field guides and jars of ferns.

Unreality. While pleasing to the adult eye, this is a cold, gray cell to an actual little boy.

I don’t like to wallow in nostalgia, but I do recognize how short this span of their boyhood is. So I give them their room, and I let them revel in it. And secretly, as I pick my way over the Power Rangers, robots and talking puzzles in the dark to turn off their spinning Superman nightlight, I revel in it too.

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As the Director of a volunteer based citizen science project, I have been most gratified to see the status of programs like mine rise in recent years. Data collected by average people used to be largely dismissed as unreliable junk science. Fortunately, scientists seem to be gradually relinquishing this snobbery and finding uses for projects that used to be relegated to the sidelines. My project, the Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET) is among the more rigorous programs out there, requiring regular trips to a designated beach year-round, and further requiring the handling of seabird carcasses in various phases of decomposition. We are always on the lookout for volunteers, so if you live anywhere near the Atlantic from Maine to Florida, we’ll take you.

If dead birds aren’t your thing, or if SEANET is too demanding, there are new citizen science opportunities cropping up all the time, many requiring nothing beyond sitting in a recliner near a window. Here are a few CitSci programs of variable commitment and grossness levels, though I admit, I have a bias toward programs surveying dead wild things. You will note this slant in the list below, which builds from low commitment and low grossness up to higher commitment and grossness levels.

“If I don’t make it across this road, will you report me to the ASC Roadkill Survey for science?” (photo by Sarah Courchesne–I’m proud of this one)

1. Project Noah. I have mentioned this one in a previous post, but I like it. You can post pics of insects, plants or anything else you want identified from time to time, or you can record regular observations. You can also join “Missions” that range from Schoolyard BioBlitzes for teachers and students, to Urban Biodiversity Surveys for city dwellers spotting organisms on the way to work.

2. eBird. This one is similar to Project Noah in its customizable commitment levels. You can report a one-time sighting of a Bald Eagle that flew over your car, or you can report all the birds you see when walking a set route through a state park every week. eBird particularly values this latter kind of reporting, but they will take your one-off birds as well. Their website has some great mapping functions and data tools so you can explore what other people are seeing.

3. Wildlife Health Event Reporter. Another low commitment option. With this site, you can report any number of sick or dead wild creatures anywhere in the world. Scientists can dip into this wide-ranging data set and monitor for the early stages of wildlife die-offs. From a single chipmunk killed by a cat, to many pelicans washed up on the beach, WHER will take it.

4. ASC Roadkill Observations. Part of the iNaturalist family of projects, and many of them are not as gruesome. But my biking, walking and running friends may welcome the opportunity to report all those squashed snakes, squirrels and opossums that we’re always dodging. You may ask, “Why roadkill? That’s pretty morbid,” and it is. But by knowing where and what species are crossing (and dying), scientists and engineers can focus their efforts both before roads are constructed, or after, by siting things like wildlife bridges and tunnels where they will make the most difference.

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Free garden in progress. I got just about all these plants for nothing!

I have taken to ditch picking in order to expand my garden beds. Our gardening budget being approximately zero, I have had to become more inventive in my plant acquisition strategies. Where I once might have simply gone to a nursery and bought myself a shrub, I now salvage plants and accept a lot of castoffs from friends and freecycle.

Call it frugal, cheap, Yankee thrift, recycling, or theft, ditch picking can help your garden too, if you do it right. What is ditch picking? It’s keeping one’s eyes open for good plants languishing in roadside wastes, and transplanting them into your garden where they will obviously be happier. I have found sedums, day lilies, meadow rue, tons of ferns, and many hostas via ditch picking. Some have been from our very own roadside ditch, which is a nice way to start ditch picking if you’re nervous about absconding with plants. Even once you get comfortable with ditch picking, as with trash picking for furniture, you may feel rather furtive for a while. I still feel an urge to act casual when cars drive by as I’m ditch picking. As if anyone would believe I’m just hanging out behind a guardrail in a power line right of way with a shovel. Still, I try to look nonchalant. You may experience the same.

Nothing to see here, folks. I’m just hanging out by the road near some power lines. With a shovel. And a bucket.

Despite this, f you would like to try augmenting your garden via this technique, here are my guidelines:

1) Make sure your target ditch is actually a roadside waste and not someone’s yard. It can be hard to tell the difference, at least in my neighborhood. But people here take private property very seriously. And they often have many guns.

2) Don’t take ALL of a particular plant. Plants stabilize the roadside and prevent erosion. If you depopulate an entire roadside slope of all its day lilies, you are being a jerk and despoiling the commons.

3) Make sure the lovely plant you found is not, in fact, an exotic invasive ruining the ecosystem. Many popular ornamentals are bad news and are very aggressive. They can destroy entire woodlands, meadows and other natural communities. Burning bush, purple loosestrife, Oriental bittersweet and Japanese barberry are all very common invasive species that people merrily plant in their yards. These are bad actors, and the state of Massachusetts has actually banned their sale at nurseries. I, of course, live in New Hampshire where everyone does whatever they want, so we have to be more vigilant about avoiding these plants.

4) Make sure the lovely plant you found is not itself, nor intertwined with, a noxious, poisonous weed. Virginia creeper, a very beautiful climbing vine, for instance, tends to grow tendril in tendril with Poison Ivy. You will be a sad ditch picker if you end up with a fulminating, pustular rash for the sake of free plants.

Virginia creeper and poison ivy: in your zeal to acquire plants, do not confuse the two.

Regarding 4 and 5, if you are less than a horticultural expert, I highly recommend the site ProjectNoah.org where you can upload pictures of any living thing and have the general internet community help you identify it. So you can check if your target plant is poisonous or an alien invader. Project Noah is also great for animals, so if you are concerned about the insect you found in your bathtub, snap a picture of it and post it to Project Noah.

Happy gardening, and I’ll see you in the ditches!

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Zebras banter before the big show.

Last week, because we had free passes, the boys and I ventured forth to the otherwise exorbitantly expensive Piccadilly Circus, which had set up its big top at the Topsfield Fair Grounds. This is not a polished, Cirque du Soleil type of operation. This is a traveling in popup campers and decrepit RVs, employees of questionable backgrounds, gritty weird carnies type of operation. When they’re done at Topsfield, they’ll literally pull up stakes and move the entire circus family on to parts unknown. There are kids traveling with the circus, doing odd jobs and hawking souvenirs and, I am certain, getting a first rate education out there on the road.

But all these social matters aside, I must write instead about the elephants. This circus travels with a herd of goats, zebras, ponies, camels and elephants that variously head butt for Dixie cups of corn (goats), run around the ring and turn circles in unison (camels and zebras) and trudge wearily around with sociopathic children on their backs (ponies and elephants). But the elephant rides don’t bother me much. The vehicle, an Indian elephant, simply walked in a slow circle and then ate a handful of biscuits and some grass while the children dismounted. But once in the big top, in the very last act of the show, two of these animals plodded into the ring to perform with their trainer.

Prepping the elephant for rides. Oddly, a miniature horse (just visible at left) was also wandering around.

There is something sad about an elephant, under any circumstances. The care worn face, the heavy lidded eyes, the  down reaching trunk. It would be hard to read happiness in an elephant, even if it were there. There’s no exuberant head toss as in the zebras, or defiant arc of the neck as in the camels. Of the two elephants performing, one eagerly lifted her trunk and left foot when requested, and sat on a wide metal stool. The second one, though, seemed dejected. Her trunk remained limply downturned, and she declined to raise her foot no matter what her increasingly distressed trainer did. But was the elephant really sad? Maybe she was just bored, or testing her relatively green trainer, or maybe she was playing. Still, I couldn’t shake the unease I felt, and the conviction that elephants were not made to sit on stools while bottle blondes clad all in nylon sit on their trunks or stand on their foreheads.

I thought about this all the way home, and for several days after. Were the circus people ascribing too little human emotion to the elephants, or was I ascribing too much? It’s hard to know with what to compare it. After all, we train our dogs to do tricks for treats, and it’s considered healthy mental engagement for them. But elephants are not domesticated. Even if raised in captivity, they are merely tame. You can go into a jungle and find a wild elephant just like the ones in the circus. You cannot go into the jungle and find a wild beagle. But parrots are like this too; you can go into the jungle and find a wild Quaker parakeet just like the one currently residing in my living room. And my parrots benefit from training and mental exertion and problem solving too. Without it, they are inclined toward feather picking and self mutilation, in fact. So it’s probably good that these elephants have something to do. In the end, I don’t think it’s the nature of the stunts they do that troubles me, it’s their simple presence there in the circus ring with silly hats on their massive heads. Because beyond the apparent sadness in an elephant’s expression, there just seems to be too much dignity for a circus.

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