Book Review: What the Robin Knows

What-the-Robin-Knows

Jon Young is a well-known naturalist, tracker, author and teacher based in Santa Cruz, California. I’ve heard many people praising his bird language classes, , but didn’t think I would ever be able to take one of his classes, because they’re too far away.  S0 the moment I heard about his new book, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, I scampered to my email, contacted his publisher and begged for a review copy. They kindly obliged. And that is my full disclosure. But if they hadn’t been so obliging, I would have scraped my pennies together for this one.

Studying bird language is different from bird watching. It is a nature awareness practice which uses the observation of commonplace birds, like robins and sparrows, to teach you about the larger workings of the nature and yourself.

In a nutshell, Young asks you to choose a place to sit outdoors and commit to sitting in this place regularly, for about 40 minutes per session, watching the birds, watching all that happens around you. This sit spot might be your yard, a public park, or the wilderness. It doesn’t matter where–all that matters is that the location is easy to access, and you go there regularly. Over time, you’ll learn what he calls the baseline environment looks, sounds, feels like. The baseline being the ordinary sets of bird sounds and bird motion you see and hear in that place, at that time or day, at that time of year. To facilitate this recognition, he teaches you the five basic types of calls birds make (alarm calls, companion calls, etc.), using online audio files to help with the most common birds.  He goes on to teach about behavior, predators, etc.

Once you understand the baseline you will be able to tell when the baseline is disturbed, and eventually, you will be able to tell why. Knowing this allows you insight into the workings of nature. With study, what once seemed generic bird noise to you (if you heard it at all) becomes pinpoint-specific information. If the birds alert on something, for instance, with practice you can not only tell where that something is coming from, but you can distinguish whether that intruder is a person, a house cat or a hawk.

Indoors, we are all networked and interconnected by our electronic devices. (Twitter indeed!!) Outside, there’s just as much communication going on–and that communication is interspecies communication. Different types of birds listen to each other.  They both help and trick each other. The coyote and the raccoon and the fox listen to all of them. It’s an intense world out there around the bird feeder or up in those maples in the park. And with a little study, you can plug into this world, and regain your place in it.

Why should you want to plug in? Lots of reasons. First, sitting in nature heals our frazzled brains and eases our souls. I don’t think it goes too far to think of this practice as meditation. Most of all, studying bird language gives you a reason or an excuse to spend time in nature–and that alone is enough.

Another reason is animal watching. If you like to take walks and hope to see a deer or a fox once in a while, you need to listen to the birds. Birds are the first alert system of the forest. Their alarm calls can show you where predators are moving. They also tip off all and sundry that you’re coming, clearing an empty path in front of you as efficiently as Hollywood bodyguards plow through paparazzi. Young says if you ever want to see other wildlife when you’re out walking, you need to ask the birds’ permission first.

Perhaps he says it all best:

Eons ago, Homo sapiens were just as alert and aware as all other creatures…our sensory equipment and our brains are still designed for this awareness. These instincts are still in each of us, just buried, maybe deeply buried. Connecting with bird language begins the process of unearthing them. It changes the whole dynamic of our lives immediately. We now recognize the robin. We recognize the sparrow. These birds lift us from our troubled minds. They give us a reason to move and see and listen respectfully. They unlock the outdoors. They reflect our knowledge and our attitude, and ultimately yield the first rite of passage when we’re allowed a close encounter with an animal that would otherwise have fled our presence long before.

Most of all I like this book because he asks a lot of you. At one point in the book he’s talking about how there’s no formula for this stuff, just lots of dedication and time, and notes, “The lifelong learning curve is the ultimate appeal of what we do.”

This made me laugh out loud. Appeal? The notion of working on one skill all your life (especially one as unglamorous as robin-watching)  is not a popular notion it contemporary culture, when everything is the “20 Minute This” and the “4 Hour That.”  But I understand the appeal of a lifelong practice myself, and I have the deepest respect of long term practitioners of any art.

I just finished the book and spent 40 minutes this morning in the backyard, utterly puzzled.  It’s a beginning.

A note on the text:

The book is not structured like a “how-to” manual. It’s full of anecdotes and has a relaxed, meandering tone which is actually quite nice. It’s easy to imagine you’re just hanging outwith Jon Young in some nice green place, listening to his bird stories. The key concepts are woven in along the way.  You don’t need to take notes as you read, or worry you’ll miss some important step. At the end of the book he gives a summary and set of instructions on how to actually begin your practice. And again, he provides audio files online to illustrate all the basic calls of the common birds, and references those audio files throughout the text.

Gardening Mistake #12: The Annual That Ate Your Backyard!

squash and lavender

Is that a lavender bush cowering under the monster squash leaves?

I just thought of another mistake: allowing annuals, whether they be volunteers or valued vegetables, to overrun the garden and smother your perennial plants. This happens to us more than we’d care to admit.

It’s really easy to miss. In the spring, you’re so happy to see lush growth erupting all over your yard, that you’re not looking at it with a critical eye. Also, plants are sneaky. One day they’re nowhere near that little sage seedling you planted, the next day, they’ve swallowed it, and you’ve forgotten it was even there– and you won’t remember until you find its sad, withered skeleton when you’re cleaning out the faded annuals at the end of the season.

Generally, our worst culprit is the rampant nasturtium. This year, though, the serial killer prize goes to our meandering squash plants, which are doing their best to cover everything in our yard less than knee high with their 15″ leaves.

This morning I wanted to cut back a squash vine which had done some damage to a patch of yarrow and was reaching for my succulent zone. Erik threw his body across it and said I’d have to prune him first. As we all know, he’s a little crazy when it comes to squash.  I want a plaque inscribed above the garden gate: “Perennials Before Annuals. That is the Whole of the Law.”

Have you lost plants to rampant annuals?

squash vines in front of door

And by the way, I’ve given up on entering our back shed ’til harvest.

The Organic Minefield: How organic are your organic eggs, soy and dairy?

super close

I wish the label “organic” meant all that I mean when I use the term, but unfortunately organic is not a a guarantee of sustainable agricultural practice, much less humane treatment of livestock.

The Cornucopia Institute promotes sustainable organic agriculture and family farms, and helps consumers parse the difference between greenwashed and genuine organic farms and suppliers.

They release quick reference charts on various subjects, as well as reports which get into food issues in detail. But the main reason I’m posting this is because they produce useful quick reference charts for brand names and stores. I’ve just found their dairy chart, and wanted to share it with you, and thought I’d share some others as well while I was at it. We’ve posted about the eggs score card before, but it is important enough for a repeat. Check it out:

Organic Dairy Scorecard

Organic Egg Scorecard

Organic  Soy Product Scorecard

Organic Cereal Scorecard

Note: Links to scoring criteria are at the top of all the scorecards, with the exception of the dairy scorecard. In that case it is located at the very bottom.

Delicious Cauliflower

cauliflowr

For me, cauliflower is a vegetable which eludes inspiration. I eat it raw. I roast it. I’ve made soup with it once or twice. That’s about the sum of my historic use of cauliflower. Now, everything has changed. I’ve found a recipe for cauliflower which I love.

It comes from a book called Vegetarian Dishes from the Middle East, by Arto der Haroutunian. I think I’ve mentioned it before. It’s a good, reliable book. Lately I’ve been on a deep Middle Eastern jag, cooking out of this book every day. Erik is in hog heaven, because he hasn’t had to cook in weeks. I’m in heaven because I’m eating exactly what I’m craving.

Anyway, back to the cauliflower. It’s an easy recipe that comes from north-west Syria, where, according to the author, it is considered a regional specialty. It has a lovely, rich flavor. I never knew tomatoes and cauliflower could be such good friends. The ingredients are pretty basic. And we all have a lonely can of tomato paste on the shelf that needs to be used, don’t we?

We’ve been eating it hippie style, over brown rice, but it would be more elegant over an herbed pilaf, or it could be used as a side dish. I suspect it would be good cold, too, but we’ve never had leftovers.

Cauliflower in Tomato Sauce (Kharnabit Emforakeh)

  • 1 large head of cauliflower
  • 6-8 tablespoons of oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 3 green/spring onions, sliced thin (I’m sure you could sub. regular onion for this)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2-3 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • juice of one lemon  (maybe 2 tablespoons–to taste)
  • parsley for garnish

Wash, core and break up the cauliflower into bite sized florets.

Steam, boil or elsewise cook the cauliflower until it is just tender. Don’t overcook, because it will receive some more cooking down the line. Drain if necessary.

Add the 6-8 T of oil to a big frying pan. My favorite cast iron pan is 10 inches and it’s crowded for this, but it works. Heat the oil and add the cooked cauliflower. Fry over med-high heat, turning carefully with a spatula, until the cauliflower is kissed with little brown marks.

Remove the cauliflower from the pan at this point and set aside. Add the green onions and pressed or smashed garlic to that same frying pan. Add a splash more oil if it seems dry, and cook these for just 2 minutes or so. Don’t let the garlic burn.  Then add the tomato paste and the water, which thins it, as well as the salt and pepper, and let that all cook for another couple of minutes.

Next, return the cauliflower to the pan and toss it with the sauce. Let it cook a few minutes more until it’s nice and hot and the sauce has a chance to sink in.

Just before you take it off the heat, sprinkle the lemon juice over the cauliflower. The author calls for the juice of 1 lemon, which is a very imprecise quantity–basically, this is very much a “to taste” thing. I find 2 tablespoons works for me.

Garnish with parsley and serve.

Serves 4

Variant: I really like tomato paste. I sneak it straight off the spoon. If you’re like me, you can up the amount of tomato paste in the recipe–double it, say. This results in a thicker, redder sauce and much more pronounced tomato sauce flavor. The original version is subtler, more classy.

Cat Litter Compost, Installment #3

troutsitting

No, our cats aren’t privileged or anything.

A gentle reader reminds us that it’s been too long since we updated you all on the cat litter compost.

For background, see Installment One and Installment Two

Long story short, cat litter composting can work (under the care of an experienced composter, mind), especially in conjunction with a worm bin–but I’ve found a method I like better.

On the composting experiment:

In our last episode of Cat Box Madness, I discovered my kitty litter wasn’t breaking down very quickly, so I added nitrogen to the mix. That seemed to work well. All except the first 7 inches or so is really nicely broken down all the way through. I still wouldn’t put it as it is anywhere near food crops, even though it is two years old, just to be safe.

To make it extra safe — and useful — I’ve been letting the worms have at it. I’m using it as part of the mix that forms the worm bedding, so cat poo will become worm poo and the garden will be delighted.

That’s how I plan to dispose of all of it, bit by bit. If I didn’t have the worm bin, I’d call it done and spread it under fruit trees or ornamental plantings.

Lessons Learned:

1) Make sure your pile is accessible and easy to turn. Due to lack of yard space, I put my litter in a 50 gallon drum in a narrow, hard-to-access–and hot!–side yard. This meant I never wanted to tend it, and when I forced myself out there, I was pretty unhappy. There wasn’t even enough room to wield a shovel comfortably.

2) A big pile is a good pile. While I made this work in a 50 gallon drum, the best compost comes from a bin which is about 1 cubic meter/yard in size. Smaller bins just don’t heat up sufficiently, and are invariably pokey and hard to work with. If you want to do this, do it big.

3) Careful with the litter you choose. Not many litters make the grade. You can’t use clay litter, or any litter made with deodorants or coloring or “magic crystals” or tiny unicorns. It must be made of 100% plant based material. I approve of both World’s Best and S’wheat Scoop. Pine pellet litter, like Feline Pine, is much less expensive than the clumping brands, and suitably plant based, but under ordinary circumstances, since its not scoopable, you have to dump the whole tray rather often, which leads to a fast build up of material. If you have room for it, this might be okay.  (I’ll have more to say about pine litter further down, though.)

4) You have to add extra nitrogen to your pile to make it work. Even though it’s plenty stinky, the nitrogen present in cat waste can’t balance the heavy carbon loads of the litter by itself.

(Note: You should be an experienced composter before you try composting cat litter, as I’ve warned before, and so you will of course know what I mean by all this talk of carbon and nitrogen–but for those of you who are incorrigible, or simply curious, nitrogen sources you might add to your pile include urine, natural seed meal fertilizers, dried alfalfa, fresh grass clippings and other plant material, fresh chicken, horse, or cow manure, and vegetable trimmings.)

Other than those caveats, cat litter composting works pretty much like regular composting. Keep the pile moist. Keep an eye on it, fix it as necessary. Let it sit for two years at least before you spread it. And then spread it around non-edible plants, or under fruit trees. The fruit trees won’t uptake anything nasty.

It’s totally do-able and I’d do it again. But I’d rather do it again in a larger yard, where I could have a big, accessible compost bin. So now I’m doing something new.

Continue reading…

An Overdue Update on Phoebe

Phoebe

This is her cute face. Her surprised by the camera face. Her usual expression is more calculating. Even frightening.

I realized that it’s been a long time since we updated you all on how our cat Phoebe is doing–well over a year, actually. And at that time, we told you we didn’t expect her to live more than 9 more months.

Surprise! She’s been doing really well.

(For those of you new to the blog, Phoebe has a malformed heart. It’s missing important parts. Here’s the original post from 10/25/11)

Thank goodness for drugs and really smart kitty cardiologists. Thank you, Dr. Zimmerman! The first vet to diagnose her sent her home to die. Our lesson: seek out the good vets. The meds that keep Phoebe alive are not even expensive.

Her quality of life has really improved since diagnosis. It’s even improved since our last post about her. When she first began treatment, she was sick, breathing hard and moving slow. But ever since we got her meds adjusted correctly, she’s been spry and happy, not at all acting like an old cat anymore.

True, she’s not quite as hyperactive as our other two cats, but she beats up Buck, the youngest of our cats, every morning like clockwork, loves to savage the fishing pole toy, and is diligently destroying the underside of our sofa. The sofa is her great work, an evolving art piece about the nature of entropy.

She will have a short lifespan, though. The drugs just buy her a little time.  Dr. Zimmerman told us the oldest cat she knew with Phoebe’s rare condition made it to four years old. Phoebe has already passed her second birthday. I’ve noticed her breathing sounds a bit wet lately, so we’re going to the vet this week and we hope an adjustment of her diuretics will clear that up.

Knowing her time is short just makes her all the more precious. I’ve come to appreciate her as a real “cat’s cat.” The other two cats, Buck and Trout, known collectively as “The Boys”, are too friendly and simpleminded to do credit to the cat kingdom.

Meanwhile, Phoebe is a real cat, a stone cold killer, a witch’s familiar, a walking riddle, an evil genius, an Egyptian statue with scornful golden eyes. Erik is her devoted slave. Me, she doesn’t like that much–but I’m still in love with her.

Last of the Saddle Tramps

Mesannie Wilkins

Mesannie Wilkins riding Rex,  Depeche Toi on Tarzan

A wise man once told me it’s good practice to read books published before you were born. Last of the Saddle Tramps just makes the cut. Published in 1966, it is a memoir, Mesannie Wilkin’s accounting of her great journey from Minot, Maine to Los Angeles. On horseback.

In 1954, Mesannie was 63 and she didn’t think she’d survive another winter in Maine. She’d been a farmer all her life, but now her kin were dead, her stock gone, she was plagued by bad lungs, and the bank was foreclosing on her house. Worse, her doctor told her she only had two or so years left to live–if she lived quietly.

Instead of following his advice, she decided to spend almost all of her money on a cheap horse, and traveled to the Golden State with her little dog, Depeche Toi, the clothes on her back, $32.00 in her pocket, and very little else. Along the way, she met with great kindness–and scores of unforgettable characters.

I read this book in a single sitting–it is that engrossing. Her voice is honest and engaging and the clear prose is full of  slow, country wit and precise character sketches. (Kudos to her co-writer, Mina Sawyer.)  The humor caught me first, and then I began to boggle at how tough this woman was. Rawhide tough. Seriously, reading this made me wonder why I’ve ever complained about anything in my life.

This story is a reminder that you’re never too old to change your course, shake up your life–or even have a grand adventure. It’s also refreshing to read a book where the hero is an older woman. Such stories are scarce as hens’ teeth.

I won’t say more. Highly recommended. I was lucky enough to find this book at the library. It’s also sold through the publishing arm of the Long Rider’s Guild (I think?), Horse Travel Books, where they keep all sorts of obscure, horsey memoirs in print. Bless them. It’s also available at Amazon, and you might find a used copy here or there, too.

Planetwalker John Francis

Planetwalker John Francis

Check out this interview in Grist with Dr. John Francis, the man who not only did not own a car, but opted to not ride in motorized vehicles at all for twenty-two years–and spent seventeen of those years in silence. He crossed America on foot, completed two college degrees in silence, and became an ambassador for the U.N.

You may have heard of him already–his story made the rounds years ago–but if you haven’t heard the details, haven’t heard him describe why he made the choices he did in his own words, you’re missing out. The man is wise, and he speaks from his heart.


Bonus: You can watch him talk at TED.

And find out what’s in his backpack.

And he’s got a book, Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.

Maintaining a Worm Bin

worm bin 1

This image might represent a new low in aesthetics from the Root Simple Photo Department. And that’s saying something.

I freshened up our big worm bin today and I thought I’d report on what I did because I get a lot of questions about worm bin maintenance.

First, I want to say this is just how I go about it. Other people will have different methods and habits. Worms are forgiving and reasonably adaptable, so you have a whole lot of leeway in keeping a bin. As long as you don’t let the worms dehydrate, drown, bake, or utterly starve, you’re going to be okay.

Our worm bin is pretty big (5 feet long), and made of pine boards.  It bears an unfortunate resemblance to a coffin, but it works wonderfully. I used plastic storage totes for my worm bins before we built this, and while those worked fine, I really like my big bin for two main reasons. The first is the size. It can take whatever I throw at it. It takes all my kitchen scraps, except for the really choice stuff that goes to the chickens. The second selling point is that the wood breathes, and that seems to make the worms happy.

Maintaining the Bin

The Conceptual Divide

I divide my bin into two areas, left and right. There’s no physical barrier between the sides, just a conceptual distinction. Usually one side is working and the other side is resting. This division is easy to make in a long, skinny bin like mine, but can be managed in a smaller bin as well.

Basically, once you’ve got a worm bin going, there will come a time when you’ll need to harvest some of the castings. Those castings are valuable in the garden, and the worms don’t want to live in their own waste. You’ll know its getting close to harvest time when you see pockets of scraps here and there, but mostly the texture of the contents looks like soil or coffee grounds. Or maybe fudge, if it’s more wet and compact. Fudge is a less than ideal environment for worms.

In the picture at the top you’ll see my most recent working side. There’s a lot going on in there still, some big food pockets, wood shavings everywhere, but the texture is becoming too black and dense overall. Compost worms like a little air, a little “wiggle room” and a diversity of habitat. It was past time to change this working side to a resting side.

Resting comes before harvest. This is where dividing the bin in two comes into play. Resting means no more feeding, so that the worms will finish up whatever bits of food are left around. But of course you can’t starve out your worms, so you only rest half of the bin at a time.  To do this, you put your food scraps on one side only. The worms on the resting side will finish up whatever food pockets remain and then migrate over to the active side for the fresh grub.

This doesn’t happen quickly. I’ve never made note of how long migration takes–it will vary, depending on many factors. I just poke around in the resting side whenever I happen to think about it. If I don’t see anything recognizable beyond non-digestibles, like avocado pits, fruit stones and egg shell shards, and I know it’s ready for harvest.

There will also be a few worms left, no matter how long you wait. More on them later. If your bin is outdoors, other insects like sow bugs might be in there too, but are harmless.

This is the process in a nutshell:

When your bin is looking mostly done, ie full of castings, rest one side of it. This means you feed only on the opposite side. When all the recognizable scraps are gone from the resting side, you harvest the castings. Then you can put fresh bedding in the empty space, and start encouraging the worms to move to that side.  Soon, you will be able to rest the opposite side of the bin, and eventually harvest it. And so it goes, back and forth.

Continue reading…

The tale of the worm bin celery

parsley flower

This is related to my recent post about our flowering radish. It’s a tale of botanic dumpster diving and another reason why you should let your food plants go to flower when you can.

Last year I threw the crown (which is to say, the bottom) of a celery plant in my worm bin. I probably should have chopped it up for the worms’ sake, but I didn’t. Later, sometime in the fall,  I rediscovered the celery crown. Instead of rotting in the bin, it had sprouted leaves and looked surprisingly vigorous. So I pulled it out and popped it into an empty space in one of our raised beds.

I didn’t have much hope. Celery doesn’t like our climate much, and I consider it one of those plants which is easier to buy than to grow.

To my surprise, the plant did quite well, though it did have a feral quality to it, despite its mild domestic origins. It didn’t grow fat, moist stalks which can be used to scoop up peanut butter. It grew stringy, dark green stalks which tasted powerfully of celery. It made excellent stock, and chopped into fine pieces, it was good in soup, too. Since I don’t eat much raw celery, this suited me fine.

All winter long I used this plant as the basis of my cold-weather cooking–chopped onions, carrots and celery in the bottom of every pot. It was a real treat not to have to buy celery for such a long time, and to have that flavor available whenever I wanted it. I should add that the leaves were just as flavorful as the stalks

As a side note, I’ve heard of a breed of celery made to work precisely this way, called cutting celery, but I’ve never grown it intentionally. The celery in this post looks very much like my homegrown “cutting celery.” Perhaps commercial celery wants to revert to this?

Months later, the hot weather arrived, the celery started to bolt (that is, send up flower stalks). When a plant bolts, it puts all its energy into flowering. At that point, its not much use to us as food. I was sad to lose my bottomless celery supply, but I was excited about the flowers.

Pollinating insects love celery blossoms. Actually, they adore the whole family of plants to which celery belongs, called Apiaceae or Umbelliferae (which I tend to call Umbrella Fae, which is wrong, but right in my head). This family includes carrots, celery, dill, coriander, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, etc. If you can let any of this family bloom in your garden, do.

The parsley flowers grew almost as tall as me, and they were surrounded by clouds of tiny insects every day –shy, tiny little pollinators that I can’t name.

I love to let things go to flower and seed in the garden, because it is a way of giving back to the rest of nature. Flowers for the insects, seeds for birds. And by giving back, you help balance your garden. We’ve had significantly less issues with destructive insects since we learned to let our garden go a little wild.

Sadly, this celery never got to seed, because it collapsed under its own weight one day. Its thick, hollow stalks folded and the head of the plant fell to the patio.  I had hoped to save a little seed and try to grow a plant the next year from scratch. But now I’m thinking I’m going to throw a whole crown of celery in the worm bin this fall, and hope this happens all over again.

collapsed parsley plant