Monday, August 31, 2009

Quality counts with sweet corn and pie crust

(Sweet corn is in season.  And there is good sweet corn and not-so-good sweet corn.)

Last night Robin and I had what may have been the best sweet corn of our lives. I bought it yesterday at the Iron Kettle Farm near Candor. Realize that we both grew up in Ohio, where it is an annual tradition to eat all the sweet corn you can possibly eat during August. But there is sweet corn and there is sweet corn.

I don't think I have ever had really good corn from a grocery store. To be at its best, sweet corn needs to be picked at the exact right time in its maturation, the so-called "milk stage", early in the morning when it is cool, and then those ears should be eaten within hours of being picked. With every passing hour after picking, the sugars in the corn are being converted to starch, so the ears become less sweet and more chewy as the clock ticks away. With really good corn, I simply grill it over charcoal while basting it with olive oil and it is fantastic--no butter, no salt, no pepper. And the corn we had last night was superb. I could have eaten a dozen ears.

But for the past couple of years, whenever I have corn on the cob at my daughter's home, her husband always asks me how it is. It is never very good for the reasons I provided above, and so I give him my agronomist's appraisal. "Just a little past", I'll say. Or, "Probably should have been picked 2-3 days ago".  And, "Should have been eaten yesterday". I try to be tactful and to hide my Buckeye State cockiness about this, but he is the one who asked. Mitch always thinks I am joking.  He responds, "There is nothing wrong with this corn. It has tasted like this all my life".  Now, Mitch is from Staten Island, so you can see how difficult it might be to explain agricultural factoids to him. The first time he visited our home when he and Amy were dating, he saw a hummingbird at our feeder on the deck and he thought it was a giant insect. See how challenging this is?  (On the other hand, Mitch knows a lot about the stock market, because he works on Wall Street.  He warned me about the low quality of Over the Counter stocks years ago, compared to more "blue chip" type equities, but I insisted on losing money.  So the keeper of the quality standard resides in different people for different things.)

With my daughter, the situation is almost as bad.  We have a recipe for pie crust in our family that came from my grandmother.  It is fantastic crust and, if made correctly, is every bit as enjoyable to eat as the fruit filling used in the pie.  But my daughter fails to appreciate this and thinks that a frozen pie crust bought at the local store is just as good.  Every Thanksgiving we go through the same routine when I ask, "Is this Grandma Mary's pie crust?", although I know for sure after tasting it that it is not.  She always says no, and who cares, and who can tell the difference, and that old crust contains Crisco, and it's fattening.

Am I being a turd about all this?  I don't think so, and here is why.  I believe there really are absolutes when it comes to "quality".  Most of us would have no argument about this if we were comparing a Mercedes to a Ford Pinto, an Armani to a Sears suit, or a Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon to a Mogen David bottle of wine.  Corn and pie crust are not quite as obvious, and one could argue that accepting a slightly lower quality in one of these is not as important as the choice of a car or a house.  The irony in the corn and crust examples is that what I believe to be the higher quality choice may even be less expensive than the alternative; you are almost certainly paying a premium for the convenience of a ready-made crust, or for getting corn from the grocery rather than locating and stopping at a roadside vegetable stand.  So the issue is not about cost in these examples, it is mostly about a loss of collective memory. 

What bothers me about all this is that there seems to be a degradation of so many aspects of modern life, and it is almost always driven by what is convenient.  After a while, we accept the new lowered bar as normal.  Each generation of humans experiences a "ratcheting down" in their acceptance of the new normal, so that what was once good quality becomes just so-so, and almost no one remembers how it used to be.  The tough part is figuring out whether elderly people (the keepers of the past) really remember that an item was of higher quality in the old days, or whether it is just their failing or romantic memories of their youth .  And, of course, many aspects of life, like medical care, have gotten much better over time. 

This topic is actually a huge one, and can apply to many areas: the importance of high quality habitat in nature and the integrity of natural ecosystems, the quality of the food we eat daily, and the quality of the water we drink and the air we breathe.  For now, I've said enough and I need to keep my mouth shut.  In fact, last week we had dinner at my daughter's after she had just returned from the local grocery.  Half way through, Mitch said, "Aren't those tomatoes great?"  I bit my tongue, looked at my son-in-law with a big smile, and said, "I love ya man!"

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sense of place

(Today's post is not humorous, so set the dial in your brain accordingly.  It is a little deeper, and more heartfelt than usual.  But it is a Sunday (the 1st or 7th day of the week?), so I assume you might have a bit more time than normal for reading and thinking.  So top-off that coffee mug, put your feet up, and let the cat get comfortable on your lap.  Oh, and no crying.)

I love my property. I mean, I really, really love it. It is not that it is a particularly beautiful place, because it is not---typical 50-year old second-growth forest in upstate New York. My maple, ash, and aspen woodland is certainly not as dramatic as the Sonoran Desert in March, or as majestic as the Grand Canyon, or as awe-inspiring as the savannas of western Kenya. I have been to many truly wonderful places during the past few years, but after I am there for only a few days, wherever it is, I long for my 12 acres near Ithaca.

Where does that longing come from? I am not absolutely sure, but that feeling contains emotional, psychological, and biological elements. After all, I have lived on this land for 29 years now, and it holds many memories for me. My children grew up here. I can look at the yard in front of the house to this day and remember playing catch with my sons there 20 years ago. I can still see in my mind the other accoutrements of my children's activities: the old tree fort, the skateboard ramps, the rabbit hutches. I can hear their youthful voices. I can smile at the memory of all those undergraduates who I duped into moving my firewood from one place to another over the years. I remember my mother emerging ghostlike from a dense fog as she returned from escorting our kids to the bus stop down our long driveway, during one of her visits. So the place holds memories of events, and objects, and people who are now gone. Imagine how strong this suite of emotions must be for people who still give birth to their babies and bury their loved ones on their land. I assume the concept of “sacred land” must originate from this.

But the longing for my land consists of more than old memories. There is a relevant vitality about it as well, which renews me every single day. I have an evening ritual (at least during good weather), which I have described many times. With a glass of single-malt scotch and a good cigar in one hand, and a folding chair in the other, I go to some predetermined spot in my woods to sit for an hour or so. Well, I don’t just sit there—I use the scotch and cigar for their intended purposes. But mostly I watch and listen to what is going on around me and conclude that it doesn’t get any better than this.  My wife understands this about me, and she indulges me this evening ritual, even though she has much she wants to share from the day’s activities.

May and June are my favorite months, because the forest is alive, especially with singing, territorial songbirds. The migrants have returned from Central or South America. The resident species are rejuvenated with new hormone levels that make them interesting again. The vireos, tanagers, warblers, and chickadees are mine; they are not legally mine, but in every other sense of the word they belong to me and to my land. They live here, build nests here, raise their babies here, and eat insects or fruits that grow here. I love this place so much in the spring that I have all but vowed not to do any traveling during that time of year so as not to miss a single day.

I have learned much about myself and about the human connection to the land from my time on this hill. I have learned that the most enjoyable moments I spend all year are when I am sitting among those organisms near my home. Once you have the land, those moments are absolutely free. It costs you nothing, and it can be more fulfilling than anything I can think of to do in town.

I have learned that it is not the same for me to sit in a publicly-owned forest, even though it may be more beautiful to the unbiased eye—it is not mine. That sense of pride I have when sitting in my forest is not there. I am not allowed to cut trees for firewood, to manipulate the habitat to encourage the residence of certain species of vertebrates, or to build a bonfire for social gatherings on the public’s land. I am strictly a visitor and, as valuable as that experience is to most, it is not enough for me.

And most of all, I have learned how powerful the connection of humans to their land can be. By extrapolation, I can only capture a hint of the powerful emotions of all those peoples across the globe who are in conflict over “their” land, who are moved around by distant governments, by neighboring enemies, by degraded resources, by market forces, or by global climate change. Most of the time my professional and personal goal is stated as “conserving the earth’s biodiversity”. But in a very real way, my goal in conservation is to allow the unadulterated "sense of place" to flourish in a manner consistent with the antiquity of human cultures and races, and with all other species.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Is it Tuesday or Farmer's Market day?

(What the heck day of the week is it?)

When I worked at the university, it was not a problem remembering what day of the week it was. I had field biology lab on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, I lectured in conservation biology on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Friday, I had no class, and then came the weekend. Simple. But now it is a challenge, because one day pretty much seems like any other when you're retired, except that the stock market is closed on Saturdays and Sundays. If today is the day before tomorrow and the day after yesterday, which day is it? I give up, and so does the Management at DrTom's.

What can we use as benchmarks as to which day of the week it is? Today's cigar is a Dunhill Diamantes and yesterday's scotch was a 12-year old Aberlour. Does that make today Thursday? I filled the hummingbird feeders this morning and turned the compost pile with a pitchfork. Friday? Next week I have a urology appointment to check the plumbing and last week I had a neurology appointment to check the wiring. Saturday? If my sister-in-law is visiting on the 5th, and that is 10 days from now, what is the day today? But to answer that requires additional information. How many days are there in August, 30 or 31? Darn! I almost had it there.

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I even went to extreme lengths to find out this time. I drove into Ithaca to see if the Farmer's Market was open. That only happens on Saturday. Nope. I listened for church bells, cause that happens on the 7th day of the week. Or is that the first day of the week? Do the expressions on other motorists' faces look happy, like it is a Friday, or angry, like it is a Monday? Geez. I hate tinted windows in cars. I turned on the radio and flipped the dial, now almost in a panic, but light jazz, heavy metal, and pop stations don't talk about this sort of thing. I hear on the news that Ted Kennedy died yesterday. But what day was that? Tell me dammit!

At this point I decide to do what no self-respecting man ever does. I will ask someone. So I pull into a Citgo gas station, I run into the convenience store attached to it, and I ask the clerk. What day is this? "It is Pizza Supreme Special day, sir". What!!! We never learned that in primary school. That is NOT one of the seven names I memorized. I regained my composure, I gently grabbed her wrist and held it on the counter, and I looked into her eyes intently. Please.. tell.. me.. what.. day.. of.. the.. week.. this.. is. You know, like Monday or Tuesday or whatever. And she said, "just a minute, I'll have to ask the manager". Honest to God. The 20-year old kid from Ithaca College was as clueless as I was.

I returned home. I walked into the house and Robin said, "Hey, you wanna go to the movies tonight? It's Friday. We can see that Keanu Reeves' film." I sat down, on the verge of a headache and stared at her incredulously. How did you know what day of the week it was, I asked? "The cell phone". So we went to the cinema downtown, and saw "The Day the Earth Stood Still". What a dumb title. It didn't even tell us which day of the week that calamity happened.

(Note: if you want to really blow your mind, try figuring out when to take the recyclables to the curb here in Danby. They pick up only on alternate Mondays!).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Retirement and a lapse of personal hygiene

(I should take better care of myself.)

Since Management and I started working at home (I retired, she changed jobs), we have gotten a little careless about our personal hygiene and appearance. We don't shower as often, I don't shave like I should, and we tend to wear the same clothes until they holler out "wash me!". This slippage just happens, almost as soon as you no longer go to an office where you have to encounter co-workers, or customers, or students. I think the mechanism works like this: because I rarely shave, I almost never look in the mirror in the morning, and I don't see how frightening I appear. When I finally do look in the mirror after a few days, at first I don't recognize who I am seeing and when I realize it is me, I become horrified and then do something about it.

Of course, Robin and I have to look at each other as we pass in the hallway or meet for lunch, but we know that if we criticize the other, they will retaliate and we will both have to do something we don't want to do, like shave our legs. So we tend to remain silent about the shaggy appearance of the other, like the days when the U.S and the Soviet Union each had lots of nuclear weapons, but neither would dare use them first.

Sooner or later, we invite someone to the house and we clean up our act. Surprise visitors.......well, they just get a surprise. When the Jehovah's Witnesses showed up last week, I had a 4-day beard, I was wearing sweaty clothes from working in the yard, and I had a half-smoked cigar in my hand. I'm sure I smelled as bad as the nearby compost pile that was just sitting there (not cooking at 170 degrees). Maybe this is why the UPS man tosses packages into our garage from his moving truck. Maybe our seediness and our loneliness are related in some way. Cause and effect, or simply a spurious correlation?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The wheelbarrow or Deepak Chopra?

(DrTom doing his morning yoga exercises.  I look so much better now than when I was teaching at Cornell.)

I can only imagine how many tons of material I have hauled around DrTom's in 29 years, usually in a wheelbarrow. One of the lessons I have learned from working on my property is that nothing found here is worthless. Everything has a use and a proper place. When I find stones in the garden, I throw them in the gravel driveway. Larger stones are used for rock walls, or for accumulating them in a large pile for snake habitat. Soil from a hole I dig is dumped in a low spot in another place. Weeds I pull are thrown into the compost pile along with the dog's manure where, you will remember, the temperature does not reach 170 degrees. All this material on the property is useful, it is just in the wrong place when I encounter it.

On the other hand, maybe it would be easier to change my perspective than to move all this stuff around. If I just decided that I liked a stony garden, or a weedy flower bed, or dog manure squishing between my toes, then I could save a lot of time and energy. Forget about any artificial Judeo-Christian sense of order in the world and follow a "what happens, happens" philosophy, or "what it is, man", or "it's all good", or "don't worry, be happy". Can I awake tomorrow and actually think like that? Can I adopt a new philosophy of life without attending a week-long course in the California redwoods with Deepak Chopra? Would I need drugs to make this transition, other than the 81mg aspirin I take every day to prevent a heart attack, the fish oil capsule to lower my cholesterol, and the calcium tablet to maintain my bone density? Can a 63-year old retired college professor become something he never was before?

I conclude that to effect the transition to this new state of being is more work than moving stones around my property. Sometimes coping with the way you have always been is less stressful than getting a makeover. And with that, I'm going out to the garage to oil the wheels on that old wheelbarrow.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How much wood could a woodchuck.......

(Logging at DrTom's.)

Cutting up logs from my property with Dierk-red maple, white ash, and American elm. Lumber for 2010 projects; new interior doors of ash, and new kitchen cabinets of maple. No time to blog today. And I have someone to talk to all day outside in the woods. And he is not even from Jehovah's Witnesses.

( 6 hours later) Got rained out, but not until after gathering up all the logs around the property I had cut over the past year for this purpose. Dierk is a master at using that Kubota tractor and winch to fish 8.5-foot logs out of the forest. He used to use draft horses for that, but as he says, "I got too old for that and the horses got too old". So I have this pile of logs waiting to be sawn, which we will do tomorrow. One of the white ash logs is really huge for this age of forest, and as my students would have said jokingly years ago about this species, "that is a nice piece of ash". They also would have said that using lumber from your own property to use in your home is really "kewl". I agree, it is really cool.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I'm so lonely that Jehovah's Witnesses are welcome

(If we start getting more than eight cars per day past my house, I am going to request a traffic light from the town.)

As I have described, we live 10 miles out of Ithaca in the small hamlet of Danby. Our house is in the woods and we can't see any of our neighbors, which are few and far between. Almost no one visits the house, the kids are grown and gone, and my wife is working almost non-stop in her office at one end of the house. The bottom line is--I'm lonely.

I know this because two days ago a small, beige car drove up the driveway, parked at an awkward angle, and sat there for a moment before anyone got out. I knew then exactly who they were. A nicely dressed man and a teenage girl got out of the car, and began walking piously toward me carrying something in their hands. You guessed it. They were from Jehovah's Witnesses and they had their usual copy of the Watchtower to offer me. Normally, I brush off strangers in a New York minute who come to the house trying to sell me anything. But in this case I was never so glad to see another human being. We had a pleasant talk for about 15 minutes, about everything in the world except religion. At several pauses in the conversation, the man shook my hand, but then I thought of another topic I wanted to cover. The guy must have shaken my hand at the end of what he thought was the finale of our conversation at least three times. I honestly believe that he thought I was trying to convert HIM. I realize now, they were anxious to leave.

I have taken to walking down my country road and talking to any neighbors who make the mistake of venturing outside at that moment. The letter carrier woman speeds past our mailbox if I am in the driveway, but I know she has mail for us. The UPS guy tosses the package from his moving truck as he passes by our garage. The electric company lady checks our meter in the dark with a flashlight. It is amazing how hard of hearing she is. She must hear me calling as I run after her little white pickup in my pajamas. And because we signed up for that program, even telemarketers don't call anymore.

But I think I am solving the problem. I have joined Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Xomba, Helium, SheToldMe, ISayToo, Squidoo, and Moli. I have worked my way through my old gradebook going back to 1980, and invited every former student I can find to be my friend. I belong to four social chat rooms and three stock trading message boards. We actually have two landlines (with a phone in every room except the bathroom, but I'm fixing that this weekend), a cell phone, and a fax machine, and, of course, I have email, Skype, and several instant messaging accounts. If you get a busy signal, try another device. If you are in Ithaca, just drive out.

On the bright side, I have been spending a lot of time with myself, and I've gotten to know me pretty well. All in all, not a bad friend to have.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sell in May and go away, or not?

I used to love to go to casinos to gamble. I was never a big player, far from it, but I could sit there for hours and play blackjack or video poker. But since I started trading stocks, I have no desire whatsoever to go to a casino. That "need" is completely fulfilled by watching my Fidelity Active Trader screen during the day, reading stock messages on iHub, and watching the streaming ticker at the bottom of the screen on CNBC. It is really the ticker showing live trades that matters for me on that channel, and the background discussion by the talking heads often gets in the way. Now, I don't want to imply that trading or investing in the stock market is just like gambling in a casino. After all, in a casino you have that cute waitress in that skimpy outfit bringing you free drinks. I have to fetch my own here. But there are similarities, because whatever it is about the chemistry of my brain, trading stocks satisfies what I used to get from time to time by visiting a casino.

Most years, the Wall Street slogan is "sell in May, go away", meaning that traders reduce their positions in May and quit trading for the summer. Summer is vacation time, so volumes (and I believe stock prices) typically decline and it is tough to get anything that exciting going. I thought this summer would be different because of the extraordinary economic events of the past year, but I was wrong. I am wrong a lot in this business, but when you are right, it can be really fun. Today is potentially one of those days. (So far this year, I have done pretty well. At this moment, I am up about 20% year to date. At the beginning of the summer, I was up about 50%, but the past couple of months have hindered my progress. I currently hold 10 stocks, and I am in the red in every one of them).

One of the stocks in my current holdings is Cell Therapeutics (CTIC), which I bought a couple of months ago. I bought the stock at several prices, but my average purchase price was $1.78. The stock closed on Friday at $1.69. CTIC is a start-up biopharmaceutical company, and their potentially big breakthrough is a drug called pixantrone, which is a treatment for "relapsed or refractory aggressive non-Hodgkin's lymphoma". I have no idea if this drug is any good, but there has been a fair amount of hype (meaning market action) surrounding this stock for weeks. In fact, several institutions (e.g., Barclays and Goldman Sachs) have taken large stakes in this company, and that gives me hope. Plus, if you watch the daily trading, the stock acts like it "wants" to go up. Let me announce at this time that NO ONE WHO READS THIS SHOULD BUY OR SELL ANY EQUITY BASED ON WHAT I SAY HERE---CAUSE I KNOW NOTHING. This vignette is simply to illustrate what excites me currently and how a retired baby boomer spends his day.

The big deal with these biopharma stocks is getting FDA approval of your drug. When that happens, the stock price always goes up, usually significantly. CTIC is waiting on approval for pixantrone, but first things first. We had been waiting to hear that the FDA might "fast-track" this drug for approval, and that news was to come out today. Instead, news was released early this morning that the FDA would accept the new filing for pixantrone and that they would decide by September 4 whether to "fast-track" the drug. So the news was not all that we wanted, but it was something.

Let's watch this one together today, just for fun. I will add an addendum to this post when the market closes today to tell you the stock's closing price and any other details that I think are interesting. If this stock pops today, I will celebrate this evening with a scotch and a cigar. If it does not, I will have a scotch and a cigar. Either way, I do ok. But that cigar tastes so much better when you win.
(Addendum: small irony today. CTIC started off strong but actually closed down $.05 or about 3%. But I bought more of CTIC today. On the other hand, my two other biopharma stocks woke from a sleep of several weeks. AGEN closed up 4% and HEB closed up a whopping 17% on big volume. I am now green for HEB. The latter two are developing flu vaccines, and the swine flu story got another boost today. So there you go.)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The working conditions around here stink

(The road in front of DrTom's.  A major traffic jam can occur here at any minute.)

I don't like to complain about my new life at home, which involves working outside on 12 acres of forest and gardens, trading stocks from my Command Center in my new office, doing some house repairs or painting, feeding the dog, watering house plants, paying bills, etc. But though the work is not all that bad, the conditions under which I have to operate are sometimes oppressive.

Here are some examples:
1. waiting for the dog to finish his nap on our bed before I can take one

2. shielding myself from the sun at the exact hour I prefer to have Happy Hour in the Butterfly Bush garden (too much squinting)

3. having to go about 100 yards to get the mail on a noisy riding lawn mower (ever hear of a muffler), and they only deliver the mail six days a week

4. dealing with the noise from the 8-9 cars that drive past our house each day

5. trying to keep the humidity in my cigar humidor between 65-70% RH

6. needing to untwirl my hammock before I can use it, which the wind keeps spinning round and round

I have spoken to Management about these annoyances on several occasions, but she does nothing. All she can suggest is that we move Happy Hour later to avoid the sun, but if we do that, it coincides with the rush hour when 30% of our daily traffic goes by the house. That is simply unacceptable.

So I continue to do my chores, trying not to complain. If I act too dissatisfied, Management will stop bribing me with her home-made coconut cupcakes to keep my mouth shut. And besides, the new management is such an improvement over the last. Sometimes I feel like such a slut.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Banana seeds

(DrTom's banana plant grown from Ugandan seed.)

In 2007 I returned from a trip to Uganda with a special botanical prize, or so I thought? I had gone there as part of an ecoagriculture project with colleagues Louise Buck and Jeff Milder. We were there to learn what we could about the challenges and possible solutions to raising food while protecting as much biodiversity as possible, working with the Benet people of the eastern part of that beautiful country. Jeff and I got the assignment of taking a hike in the Mt. Elgon National Park, the original homeland of the Benet before they were moved by government decree to an area nearby.

We hired a guide and spent several wonderful hours walking a loop trail through the forest.  At the end of the walk, our guide showed us a small grove of wild banana plants growing at the edge of the forest, and he told us that this was the ancestral species from which domestic varieties were derived. I took that to mean that Uganda was the original location from which this important plant evolved and later spread throughout the world.

So I did what any competent biologist would do--I collected a sample to take home. These plants bear fruit that is not edible; the banana is bitter and mealy, and it contains large black seeds. I took four of the seeds and put them in the pocket of my field pants. When I got home, I unpacked. Later that day, my wife did a load of laundry. She ran those field pants through the washer and then the dryer, not knowing anything about the precious cargo in the pocket. My life was ruined, or so I thought. I punished my wife by cancelling our trip to Tahiti. However, I planted the seeds anyway, and two of them germinated. One of them is still with us as you can see from the associated photo.

For two years, I have been telling everyone who would listen, the story of the ancestral banana plant from Uganda and how I have one growing right here in my house, based on seeds I collected on Mt. Elgon, the laundry episode, etc. About 15 minutes ago, I discovered that my cherished story is apparently wrong! According to Wikipedia, the banana plant is native to Southeast Asia, and it was probably first domesticated in Papua New Guinea about 7,000 years ago. It spread to Africa much later, which is considered an area of secondary diversity. I have perpetuated what has become an urban legend in my circle of friends, I obtained a degree of status that was not deserved, and I prevented my wife from going to the South Pacific for nothing.

The lesson here is to go to Wikipedia before you open your mouth about anything. If you are not sure who the 16th President was, go to Wiki. If you can not remember which state elected Sarah Palin to be their governor, go to Wiki. If you forget your wife's birthday, go to Wiki. (I once got our anniversary and my wife's birthday mixed up. Don't ever do that!). Assume that you know almost nothing about anything, and check Wiki first thing in the morning when you get up, and last thing before you retire at night. Most people don't do this, so most of the information you hear from other people is wrong. Be the first to start getting everything right.

So from now on when visitors ask me about that banana plant growing in the corner of the dining room, I will have little of interest to say. In fact, because I can't stand to go through the entire saga with them, I will just say, "I bought it at Walmart".

Thursday, August 20, 2009

My own cigars now intimidate me

(The last time that Arnold and I shared a cigar was, well, a long time ago.)

Last evening, I entered the realm of the cigar review. Mike's Cigars, where I buy cigars online, saw my blog of a week ago and asked if I would try my hand at writing reviews of cigars they would send me for their website. The other day I received eight cigars of three different brands, and so now the ball is in my court. Over the years, I have read many cigar reviews in the mags, so I thought this would be fun.

But last night I realized how intimidating this can be. I first read some reviews already written for Mike's website to sample the possibilities: "notes of wheat and oats, lightly sweet, fresh and surprising"; "of wood & ginger, with coffee & toasted nut undertones and a little tang on the finish"; "sweetness steeps up and blends with the current flavors to give a cocoa or coffee flavor"; or "begins to build in flavor and I can taste what I believe is wood and earth, possibly with a little leather on the back of my tongue". Are you kidding me? What the hell? Are they describing the taste of a cigar or a creme brulee? Forget that I already told you these were descriptions of cigars. Just read them, and then tell me in the Comments below what you think they might be describing.

Thompson Cigar Logo 234x60
I have been smoking cigars for about eight years now, and I have never tasted any of those flavors. Have I been smoking the wrong cigars? Is my palette not sophisticated enough to detect the flavors that are really there? Am I just too boring or pessimistic a person to see the world the way others do? Do you need to imagine you are sucking on a Hershey's bar while you smoke one of these sticks? Or, should I just pretend that I am Hemingway or Dickens and write a flowery vignette (minus the sex) from a previous century, then send it to Mike's and just tell them, "oh yea, that is my review of a Licenciados 5x50 Wavell". Would anyone know the difference?

So I smoked last night's assignment, took some notes, and thought about the damn thing all night in bed. Most of the time, I felt like I was describing a California Cabernet rather than a rolled up hunk of tobacco leaves that caught fire. But I noticed one very important thing from last evening's experience. With every single puff, I was studying the cigar, thinking about the flavor, examining the ash and the burn of the tobacco, and watching the smoke intently. It was a wonderful, sensuous hour, and the most enjoyable smoke I have had in weeks. It was not the best cigar I have smoked in weeks, but the experience was extremely memorable. Maybe when you have to concentrate (and I mean focus like a laser) on something you are doing in life that you find enjoyable or important, you enjoy and appreciate it even more.

This was an epiphany for me of sorts. Take more time to savor every well-prepared meal as if you were going to have to put it to words, every sip of good wine, every beautiful vista, every moment spent with a good friend, every moment spent reading to your child in bed. Maybe if we approached these events in this more "rigorous" way, rather than let them pass almost unnoticed, we would respect life more, need less, and live better.

The toad who loved traps

(Guess who came to dinner?)

Every summer I have an American toad (Bufo americanus) that usually spends some time in my garage. Insects accumulate in one corner, and I suppose this becomes a sort of toad luncheonette. For a few days in early July, I found an adult toad sitting during the day behind the open door to the garage. I assume it went outside to forage at night, when toads are most active, but I never really followed him at that time.

Completely separate from anything to do with the toad, we have always had a deer mouse (Peromyscus sp.) problem at our house. Deer mice regularly enter the house somewhere, and they end up under the kitchen sink. So, for years I have kept metal box traps, known as Sherman live traps, set in the kitchen and along a raised wall in the garage. The garage is my first line of defense, where I capture many mice before they even break into the house. This trap has a spring-loaded door, so that once an animal enters the trap, it steps on a treadle on the floor of the trap, which causes the door to snap shut, trapping the animal inside. It is a valuable tool used by biologists who study small mammals. (By the way, deer mice love dark cavernous places, so I never even bait these traps with food. Just open the trap door, set it in a likely runway, and it functions like a deer mouse magnet).

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So in July, when I noticed that the trap in the garage was closed, I assumed I had another deer mouse to release far from the house in the woods. But when I opened the trap, a large American toad was inside. I released the toad on the floor of the garage, reset the trap, and had a good laugh about it with my wife. But to my amazement, the next day, the same toad was in the closed trap again. This time, I took the photo you see above, and released the habitual prisoner again. I never saw that toad after that second capture.

Now, this toad’s behavior is somewhat endearing, and it reminded me immediately of the “Frog and Toad” series of children’s books by Arnold Lobel, which I have read to my children and grandchildren many times. But the most interesting part of this anecdote is yet to come. Notice in the photo above where this trap was located. It is on a ledge about two feet above the floor of the garage, much higher than toads can jump. But also notice the lumber, stacked in stair-step fashion adjacent to this wall. The only way this toad could have reached the ledge is to have hopped up each level of lumber to get to that ledge and the trap. And, it performed that maneuver two nights in a row.

Why did this toad go to so much trouble to get to that ledge, and then enter that metal box? To get to the other side? To explore worlds unknown to other toads? To get featured in a DrTom blog? I have no idea. But it proves how entertaining nature can be, even in your very own garage.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Do I have to go to Ithaca?

(DrTom is about to go to town for grub, liquor, and loose women.)

Ever since I retired last year and my wife began working from home, we have a pretty regular routine. She works on her computers all day at one end of the house and I work in my office at the other end. When we get out of bed in the morning, we usually say "let's do lunch", and then we know to meet at noon in the kitchen half way between our respective work places. This goes on for many days until we run out of something. Understand that we have a chest freezer and a second old fridge in the basement, as well as the usual refrigerator/freezer in the kitchen. That is, we can store enough food to feed a U.S. Marine platoon for a month. (And, we are still working off our supply of paper products we bought at Sam's Club three years ago). In short, we don't care to go into Ithaca very often, which is 10 miles away, and I dread it like it is the most difficult thing I ever had to do. The less we go, the less we want to go. I guess this is a form of "use it, or lose it".

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But eventually we run out of scotch or wine and someone has to go, usually me. Cigars and coffee beans are purchased online, so they are not a problem. On the day I have to go to town, I feel like one of those old gold miners who went to town two or three times a year to get grub and a chew of tobacco, to get a shot at the bar, and to carouse with loose women for a couple of days. Yesterday in town, I did my errands, ordered some takeout Mexican food, and had a beer at the bar in Viva Taqueria; I never even talked to the three women sitting next to me (loose?). I must say, it was a successful trip, except that the traffic at 5pm in downtown Ithaca is annoying. What are all these people doing here? I arrived home with the goods, but I spared Robin ("any news from town?") the gory details of my harrowing escape from the local metropolis.

Since we both began working from home, we drive much less, and we buy less. I am sure our carbon footprint has decreased significantly. If you don't care to drive anywhere, and the nearest store is 10 miles away, you tend to stay home, you don't spend as much money, and you avoid loose women. All in all, a pretty healthy way to live.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tending my firewood garden

(DrTom with his firewood pile, cut and moved without the help of his wife, who was talking to her sister on the phone in Ohio.)

For the past few weeks I have been “bringing in” the firewood that will heat our home for the next five months. Cutting down trees, sawing them up, and moving the pieces to the house from the woods is a laborious process that I work on from spring to fall, whenever the weather is not too hot and not too cold. This is really hard work, but I enjoy it for two reasons: my wife and I benefit from the “harvest” in the form of inexpensive heat from November to March, and it is gardening at its best. How can this be gardening?

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When gardening, we normally think of starting with a bare patch of earth, adding some seeds or small plants, and then nurturing them until they produce something usable. When I cut firewood, I am selectively removing individual trees from an already crowded palette. When this old cattle pasture was abandoned about 50 years ago, wind-blown seeds of maple, ash, and aspen wafted onto the site from the old forest across the road and took hold. Decades later the stem density of trees was so high that it was difficult to walk through this woodlot in places. So I have been reducing this density by removing trees that are misshapen or diseased, or trees that after removal will open up much-needed space for adjacent trees that I have decided are more valuable. Sun is limiting in such an environment, so opening up the canopy on two sides of a tree you hope to encourage is sufficient to hasten its growth. This is essentially like thinning a row of carrots or radishes that is too dense to allow these root crops to develop to a decent size.

Now, cutting trees down is potentially dangerous work. My wife worries about this and so she insists that I take one of our handset phones with me, because it has an intercom feature on it that allows me to call the house. If a huge branch falls on my head and knocks me out, it doesn’t help. If a tree falls on me and pins me to the ground many yards away from the phone, it doesn’t help. The other day, I thought I would test the system. I pushed the intercom button to the house, the phone was busy. I waited a half hour, tried it again, busy. And a third time, busy. What the hell? What good is this system if it is always occupied with my wife talking to her sister in Ohio? I’ll bet her sister doesn’t have a chain saw in her hands during their conversation. I decided if I was in real trouble in the woods, I would just scream loudly. That probably worked for centuries before we had all this technology.

But what is really interesting is that my forest garden has been changing. Originally populated by maple, ash, and aspen, whose seeds blew in from adjacent older forest, I now have hundreds of nut tree seedlings and saplings that have appeared since I moved here in 1980. Gray squirrels and probably blue jays have moved those nuts from mature oak, hickory, and beech from my neighbor’s forest to mine, and I didn’t pay a cent for them. It certainly appears now that my woodlot canopy will be dominated by these species several decades into the future, and I am helping this process along with my thinning. I always leave oak or hickory trees over red maple or white ash when I decide what to cut, because I have so many of the latter compared to the former. In other words, my gardening is helping Mother Nature move in the direction she “wants” to go anyway, and I benefit by obtaining thousands of British Thermal Units (BTUs) of heat.

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But what about the global warming/carbon footprint aspects of woodlot gardening? I am burning wood, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. But I am thinning my forest, which increases the growth rate of trees left in the woods that are sucking carbon out of the atmosphere to support that growth. If the pounds of wood added to these trees due to my thinning exceeds the wood that I cut and burn, then there would be a net gain in reducing carbon. But to determine if that is true would require measurements I have neither the time nor expertise to make, so I can not be sure.

On the other hand, if I were not burning wood, I would be heating my house with electricity, which also contributes to carbon inputs. My colleagues who know more about this than I do say that I am doing about as well as one can. And so, I continue to garden in the forest, to heat my house, to stay physically fit, to enjoy the changes I witness in bird populations due to my "gardening", to admire the new palette, to endure bruised shins, to marvel at the changes, to justify it to students, to fight off leg cramps, and to sit with a scotch and a cigar in its midst. It is all good.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A riot of Rudbeckia

(You just can't have enough of this plant in your garden.)

My wife is always saying that our gardens are not lush enough. They just don't look as "full" as Mrs. Lydiya's gardens, the Latvian neighbor with a green thumb. "Why do we have all those gaps between the perennials in the flower gardens or all that space between those squash plants in the vegetable garden? You are so stingy with your planting. Buy more, divide more, plant more, fertilize more." Jeez o'Pete. I am the one who is out there swatting deer flies, swallowing gnats, squishing Japanese beetles, and lifting 20,000 year old rocks out of this forlorn clay soil. Do I get no respect at all? If I quit weeding I'll bet the gardens would look lush enough.

But then, I discovered a panacea to my perennial gardening space problems: Rudbeckia. More specifically, I think I have Rudbeckia hirta, or black-eyed susan. Plant a clump of this one and your worries are over. It spreads like crazy from its original patch and it pops up in bare ground from the previous year's seeds. In fact, it is almost a weed once it gets started, although it is a very attractive weed. It makes me feel like I am doing something right in the garden, that Mrs. Lydiya really doesn't know something I don't know, and it makes my wife proud. What a plant!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The passive approach to nature education

(My wife must have been listening all those years, even though she always appeared as bored as these students.)

My wife and I have almost nothing in common, even though we will celebrate our 41st wedding anniversary in a couple of weeks. I mean, we share few hobbies and interests and it has always been that way. I like to poke around in our forest to find bird nests, she likes to watch HGTV. I like to identify wildflowers, she would rather sip a glass of wine and read a Daniel Silva novel. I like to garden, she likes to tell me where the garden should be. She also complains that the garden does not seem "lush" enough, as she points out of the living room window with one hand while turning the page on her book with the other. (Try this sometime. It isn't as easy as it sounds). I plant, water, and weed the tomatoes, she picks the fruit. I tend to sow, she tends to reap, at least when it comes to activities outside of the house.

Nonetheless, I have talked to her about the natural history of all sorts of organisms, and she has endured hearing about my studies of white-tailed deer, ground squirrels, bobolinks, and Costa Rican birds. She has received the gospel according to DrTom with respect to human reproductive behavior, evolution of species, avian habitat selection, multiple paternity, natural selection and a multitude of other biological topics that were potentially boring enough to make a college freshman switch from biology to late-18th century Italian art. But she always nodded dutifully, said "that is interesting", and bemusedly resumed reading the exploits of Gabriel Allon. I was sure she neither heard a word I said nor grasped the finer points that so engrossed me.

But I guess I was wrong. A few months ago it began. She was sitting in the living room quietly, and as she put down her wine glass, she nonchalantly announced that an indigo bunting had just flown by the window. Then she asked me, "why don't we have European starlings around our house, you know, Sturnus vulgaris". I hadn't mentioned the scientific name of that bird since we attended a lecture together at Ohio State in 1967. What the hell! Then, a few days later, "I suppose with the huge human population on earth, that highly virulent viruses will not be selected against as they were in the past, given the ease of transmission from human to human now." Holy crap! And finally, yesterday she came up with this one while watching Entertainment Tonight on tv: "I understand the tendency of human males to strive for high status to attract females to increase their reproductive success, but wouldn't females be better off if they selected males with slightly less status to lessen the competition for that male with other females?" Judas Priest!! Is the sky falling?

What was that information doing all these decades in that blond-headed body of hers? Had she just been holding out on me, or were those data locked away in some impenetrable place only to be released now by some chemical interaction? Is this some form of dementia, where you can't remember what you had for breakfast that morning but you can remember the latin name of a bird you learned four decades ago? Should I be worried or pleased, rather than just perplexed? Or, is this a hint of what is to come? For example, will the students I had in my last course a year ago wake up some morning in 2040 with an explosion of biological understanding that they never had until then? This is pretty scary stuff, so you can see why I took two ibuprofen last night and went to bed at 8:30 (at that point, Robin muttered something about humans going to sleep at night might have evolved to reduce the chances of their being found by predators). Stop!!!

I awoke this morning and realized that females really can multitask. My wife could read a book and listen to my ravings, and assimilate both. But the really important conclusion is that she really was absorbing a good part of what I had been saying all those years, even though it appeared that she could not have cared less. Maybe this is the way it will work with the public in general as well. Maybe there will be a great awakening, and everyone will be chattering knowledgeably about climate change, and loss of biodiversity, and human population growth, instead of whether Michael Vic should be rehired by the Eagles. Perhaps the public had been listening all the time, but something kept them from admitting that they cared. What is the key to unlocking that flood gate resulting in a collective attack on serious problems? Somebody please tell me.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Did you ever sniff a spider up your nose?

(DrTom is about to suck a crab spider up his nose and transport it to another flower.)

My favorite flowering plant at DrTom's is the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii). I have purple and white varieties. This woody perennial gets about 8 feet tall and several feet wide. I have taken to planting so many of them that I am not sure the sun will ever hit the ground near our house. They flower profusely beginning in July, and the flowers remain until frost. The flower spikes contain hundreds of tiny individual flowers, which are visited by a huge assortment of bees, spiders, hawk moths, hummingbirds, butterflies, and other insects. The plant attracts an entire community of organisms by its visual display and its flowers' highly aromatic fragrance. Even I can smell the flowers when I am several meters away.

At this time of year, our evening Happy Hour usually consists of sitting on a small patio I am constructing adjacent to two butterfly bushes accompanied, of course, by a scotch and a cigar. The patio is designed to sit facing downhill, with the bushes at your back. But the plants are so full of life when they are in flower, that we have turned the chairs around to face the plants. I sit there, sip scotch, puff on a stick, and simply watch the show like it was an HBO action thriller. Great entertainment, and cheap.

One of the little critters sitting patiently on a flower spike of my butterfly bush is a little spider known as a crab spider. It is called a crab spider because its body is shaped like a small crab and, duh, it IS a spider. It is obviously sitting there waiting for the appropriate insect to land and become its next meal. But I made an amazing discovery the other day when I was observing, up close and personal, a bright yellow crab spider nestled in a flower spike in ambush pose. I decided to take a deep inhalation of that beautiful flower scent and I immediately felt a strange sensation inside my nose (left nare, to be exact). You guessed it. It was then that I also noticed that the crab spider, which had been right in front of my face, was gone. I toppled to the side, still surrounded by flower spikes, and aggressively blew through my nose to relieve the tickly feeling. To my astonishment, the yellow crab spider flew out of my nose and plopped onto a new flower spike, none the worse for wear.

You biologists will immediately see the significance of this story. I had, in effect, served as a dispersal mechanism for the spider. I enabled it to get from one flower spike, which might have been depleted of insect prey, to another spike where the hunting might be more productive, without having to climb all the way down one spike and out to another one. We are all familiar with dispersal mechanisms that plants and animals employ to get from one place to another. I published a paper once about the pollen that sticks to hummingbird beaks and, therefore, get moved from flower to flower. But an arachnid using a mammal nose to disperse or emigrate from point A to point B? That is fascinating. Did I simply suck up the spider when I inhaled? Did the spider see that beautiful schnoz hovering above it and jump into it? We know that this species has good eyesight, but does it have a "search image" for mammalian noses?

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So there are lots of unanswered questions here and plenty of room for graduate research projects. I can imagine someone going from one type of flower to another and documenting the animal contents of his nose after visiting each species of plant. There's a scientific publication for the journal Science. I can imagine quantifying the animal contents of your nose in spring vs. fall. There's another one. I can imagine determining the relative proportion of eggs to larvae to adults of organisms produced from your nose. That's a good one for Nature. This approach could even develop into a new census technique for sampling arthropod abundance on various plants as the investigator simply walks a straight line through a field while inhaling deeply at each flower he encounters. Throw those insect sweep nets away, discard insect pheromone contraptions, and forget about those messy sticky traps. This is a sampling device you will never leave home without.

(Had this anecdote actually been true, I would have written it up as a short note and submitted it to the journal Ecology for publication. But isn't this the kind of craziness from which ideas develop?)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Compost: The Holy Grail

(I wish my compost pile smoked like this.)

My wife and I always have a large vegetable garden. It has never produced all that well. My wife blames me; I blame the soil. Our soil here in southern Tompkins County is clayish and is always in need of more organic matter. It tends to be soggy in early summer and then bone dry in late summer. It is obvious that one answer would be to add that rich, black, loamy material that one can produce by composting. Ahhh, compost--farmers' gold, Jayhawks' jewels, pioneers' platinum, homesteaders' heaven, cornhuskers' crack. Well, you get the idea--it is rich stuff.

To produce compost you simply mix together "green" material with "brown" material. Green material is fresh plant stuffs like grass clippings or kitchen waste, and the greens are your source of nitrogen. Brown material is dried plant stuffs, like old leaves or straw, and this is your source of carbon (=sugars). The nitrogen to carbon ratio in the compost pile is critical to get the pile to do what a proper compost pile is supposed to do--cook. If mixed properly with sufficient moisture, microorganisms multiply in the pile, and their biological activity raises the internal temperature of the pile to about 170 degrees F. The high heat, naturally produced, decomposes the plant material, kills insects, pathogens, and weed seeds, and results in a beautiful mound of black, loamy compost that can be used to amend your lousy soil. I have this vision of looking at my compost pile from afar one cool morning and seeing steam slowly rising from a smoldering heap.

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Has never happened. I have built compost piles for about 20 years, and I can never get the temperature of the damn thing warmer than the gravel in my driveway. On the other hand, my younger brother Bill, who lives in Corvallis, Oregon, loves to call me and describe the trash cans full of fantastic compost that he has produced. He produces so much compost that his entire backyard of perennial flower and vegetable gardens is grown in compost only. He doesn't even use the Willamette Valley soil that God put behind his house some time ago. He uses only compost, HIS compost, HIS BEAUTIFUL compost, HIS BEAUTIFUL COPIOUS amounts of compost. I now use my caller ID not to answer the phone when I see that Oregon area code, because I can not stand to hear about HIS compost victory one more time.

And then yesterday morning, it happened. I dutifully checked my pile like I always do and, what the heck, there was heat. Not scorching heat, but an unmistakable increase in temperature that I could feel with my hand. I had to tell Robin right away. I ran to the house screaming "We have heat!", stubbed my large toe on the top rung of the garage stairs as I skipped up the steps, fell into the laundry room just inside the house, and banged my head on the washing machine. I was excited, happy, angry, in pain, and out of breath, all at the same time. I was like a carbon:nitrogen ratio that had gotten all out of kilter. I described to my wife that we had heat in the compost pile but, I must say, she was not nearly as impressed as I had hoped. But, never mind, I had a prideful lilt in my step all day, aside from a small limp.

But by evening, it was gone. What the hell? No heat at all. What kind of a cruel joke is this? Had I imagined the whole thing? Had I incurred that lump on my head for nothing? What will Robin think now? What happens when my brother calls? Within an hour, I had calmed myself into my usual passive state about how life is not fair and don't expect it to be. If my soil sucks and I can't grow beautiful veggies, so be it. Farmers in Iowa might have great soil, but they don't have the Finger Lakes. My brother might have great compost, but he has larger slugs. New York pioneers might have been able to live off the land here, but they didn't have a Toro rototiller. So I'm doing ok. And after all, we can buy tomatoes Saturday at the local Farmers Market.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I'm makin' money with Google Adsense

(Keep clicking friends.  I made about three cents today.)

When I started this blog, I signed up for Google's Adsense program. This is the program that places ads on your site automatically based on the content of your blogs. Today, those ads appeared from Googlelandia like magic. And my Adsense report shows that so far I have made $.01. Every time someone comes to my blog (called an "impression") and every time someone clicks on one of those ads, I make money. Since the ads appeared, probably sometime last night, there have been 5 impressions, which I think is worth a penny. An actual click on an ad is worth more, I think, but I will find this out today when one of you clicks on "Cigar Humidor", or some other ad. By the way, it is absolutely illegal to click on your own ads; this is referred to as "click fraud", and Google will squeeze your family jewels in a vice for that offense.

Now, I didn't start this blog to make money. I wanted to blog because when you have taught classes for 30 years and then stop, your mouth keeps on going even though you are only talking to the black lab at your feet. If you suppress the talking, your blood pressure goes up, you drool more and, well, I explained all of that in a previous post. I just have a need to tell someone what I saw or what I am thinking. So consider this post as a "truth in advertising" thing, where I am explaining that I make beaucoup bucks when you come here and click. For example, at this rate of earning power, I could comfortably buy a Whopper at the end of a year, with some coin left over.

On the other hand, this is kinda cool. The Adsense report gives me an idea of how many people are coming to this site. We all want to know if we are having any kind of effect in life, and if no one reads your words, you are certainly NOT having any effect. So my approach is to lure you in with cute or sexy images (like family jewels in a vice), give you some information that you might actually enjoy hearing (like the chickadees are nesting now), and then slap you in the face with something that really concerns me about the world (like we are all going to hell in a hand basket). But this is only Day 4, so no slapping yet. Just show up, and read this over with your favorite beverage, and click a little more. I would like to buy a soda with that Whopper.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Time for Noah's ark?

(The webbing between my toes is now nearly complete.)

Yesterday's downpour was the most rain I have ever seen fall at my house in Ithaca in 29 years, maybe the hardest rain I have ever seen in my life. It came down in sheets for a solid 30 minutes. It is exactly the kind of rain in parts of the West that results in flash floods that kill people. I had water flowing on my property in places where I have never seen moving water. And of course, it rained almost every day in June, much of July, and now more of the same in August. Fortunately, we live near the top of the hill surrounded by forest, so the chances of sliding off into an abyss is small. If this is the new normal, I may as well live in Costa Rica where I can find really good rice and beans, and cheap rum.

How wild animals endure these weather events is not clear to me, because who wants to be out there trying to find out? I have hummingbirds all over the place this summer, and I assume they are sitting under the protective cover of some tree branch. But it would be fascinating to observe the exact location and position they assume. After the rain, I walked through my woodlot and saw water flowing through a buried hollow log that I know is a runway for short-tailed shrews. Where the heck did they go? On the other hand, these large slugs we have in abundance this summer must have popped the top on a cold one, closed their sun umbrella, and rolled over on their backs to get more comfortable. It would have been a great time to make more slime!

Only time will tell if our summers become more rainy in general due to climate change, but more extreme rainfall events are predicted for the Northeast (see Is this summer a hint of what is to come? More rainfall will result in shifts in abundance or geographic ranges of plants and animals over time. So, will we have more slugs and fewer shrews? More water cress and fewer tomatoes? More umbrellas and less moisturizing cream? Just a thought. But in the meantime, I am searching Google Do It Yourself sites for "arks".

Monday, August 10, 2009

That damn Mike's Cigars

(I love to fondle my cigars before smoking.  Smokers' foreplay.)

I wish Mike's Cigars would stop sending me email specials about their products. About three times a week I get these enticing offers on samplers of cigars. Usually I can resist, because how many cigars do I need sitting in humidors at any one time? My inventory now is probably 200 cigars. But those sticks are not just for smoking. I love to open the lid of my special humidor containing cigars I have carefully aged at 70 degrees F and 70% humidity and just fondle them. I used to collect coins and stamps, but who wants to fondle stamps or coins?  But a collection of cigars has a special appeal, because you can admire the item in the short term, and then use it at some future date. They have such interesting and beautiful labels, which often become collector's items, and each cigar was carefully hand-rolled by some latino in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, or some other tropical place.

Some day, Cuba will be truly open and their stash of top quality cigars will come flooding back into the U.S. I can hardly wait. I have to think that the U.S. cigar smoker was hurt much more than we ever hurt Cuba by placing an embargo on this product. Would we ever have placed this limitation on Cuba if they had been the world's only producer of zinc, or oranges, or computer chips? Of course not.

But cigar smoking is all about enjoyment. If I get all wrapped up in a political discussion about Cuban cigars, I get tense, and I drool more, and the tip of the cigar I am smoking gets all soggy. That ruins the smoke, because a wet head on a cigar then absorbs more of the chemicals in the tobacco resulting in an acrid flavor. I end up throwing the thing away at that point, and that makes me drool even more. Then the scotch is affected, and the result is dilution.  Therefore, avoid political discussions when smoking a cigar.

So I am studying Mike's email ad of today over and over again, because it is better than usual. To buy or not to buy? To delete or not to delete? The stock market is boring in August, so I have more time than normal to think. I never had time to fret like this when I worked at the university. Let me check that ad one more time.

Spores and insects

(Black knot fungus.  This is the scourge of DrTom's plum trees.  "Out, out, damn spot!")

This is the year of the fungus. We have had double the normal amount of rain this summer, and spore-producing organisms apparently love it. The tomato blight is sweeping through the Northeast, eliminating September caprese salad for many; I even received a special email from Johnny's Seed Company a week ago warning of these infestations and what to do about it. Fortunately, there are only two vegetable gardens within a mile of mine, and they are both down wind. So my tomatoes have been spared, for now.

But I have black knot fungus on both my plum trees, mildew on my Cortland apple tree (completely dead?), and apple blossom rot on the Ida Red apple tree. In addition, Colorado potato beetles are all over my squash plants and Japanese beetles are devouring plum leaves. I spend considerable time squishing these pests between my fingers as I peruse the carnage. I notice that the Japanese beetles also love to spend time on wild raspberry and elderberry plants along the edge of my forest not far from my gardens, so there is an endless supply of new insects to meet the demise of my digits. Often the potato beetles and the Japanese beetles are in copulo when I squish, so I get a twofer in those cases. I'm not sure this squishing helps, but I get great satisfaction from actually doing something.

Of course, there is the possibility that this new rainfall regime will be the new normal. In that case, maybe I should plant water cress. Make lemonade from lemons.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The beginning

(It doesn't get much better than this.)

During 2008 I had a website where I posted thoughts, news releases, conservation messages, relevant books, photos, etc. about ecology, natural history, and the environment. I spent a great deal of time on that website and I began to develop a following. Then, in January 2009, my collaborators in Thailand who kept the site running technologically inexplicably took the site down without warning. I have never heard another word from them, and most of the content of that site is gone forever. From time to time, I will reproduce some of the blogs with an environmental theme that I managed to save from that effort. But to be honest, I simply don't have the "fire in the belly" to try to convince anyone any longer about the plight of the natural world and what we should do about it. Occasionally, I might start preaching out of habit about how screwed we are, so I apologize in advance.

All I want to do now is describe the incredible biological wonder and beauty that surrounds us, most of which anyone can see with eyes wide open and a piece of land to gaze upon. At the same time, I need to make money in retirement, which I attempt to do by trading equities online almost daily. My life is pleasantly interspersed with two activities: 1) sitting at my computer pushing buttons that effect a buy or a sell of some publicly traded companies' stock, and 2) working on my property to produce some food, some firewood, some lumber, and tons of enjoyment by observing some of the thousands of biological stories playing out all around us. It really doesn't get much better than this!

At the end of almost every day, I sit somewhere on my property and have "Happy Hour", which consists of sipping a single-malt scotch and smoking a cigar hand-rolled in some Latin American country. And it is well past that time today, so I must pour that drink, light that stick, and see what the night sky hints about tomorrow's weather.