Cabin Fever, With Ants

pondI went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” (Thoreau, Walden)

One of the reasons I quit my job last year—perhaps the main reason—was that when I die, I do not want to discover that I had not lived. It was not a bad job that I had, and we did a lot of good things for the community. But it was not my passion, and I saved like mad so I can take this year off.

I know about passion for one’s work—I live with it: My spouse works for the newspaper, and has done pretty much all his life since college. From mail room to editor, he has newspaper ink in his veins. He has no Sunday evening stress, and he wakes up Monday morning looking forward to going to work. His work is his joy. Even in my most favorite jobs, I never looked forward to Monday morning.

Cabin FeverI’m not alone. How does one move towards living deliberately? Sometimes, it’s by following, at least loosely, in Thoreau’s footsteps. That’s what Tom Montgomery Fate does in Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild. Fate lives in suburban Chicago, and has a cabin in Michigan on 50 acres shared with about nine other families. Cabin Fever is mostly about his time at the cabin (at least so far—I’m only halfway through), but it is also very much a meld—perhaps a meditation—of urban living and being away. Being away. Is it being away, being out of touch, or being in nature? All are important. “A deliberate life is a search for balance—in mind and body and spirit—amid our daily lives.”

One day on his way to work, Fate drops his son off at preschool. As he was leaving, he looked back and saw “children sprawled everywhere on the carpet in a kind of wild and holy innocence—working wooden puzzles, reading board books, rocking dolls, singing silly songs. My God, they were delirious with curiosity.”

He “wanted to crawl on all fours back into their world, to dress myself up in their total surrender to the now. . . . When, I wonder, did I first begin to lose my faith in the moment I was living in? When did my life first start to feel like a faucet that never stops dripping, like a sprawling to-do list?”

There are some excellent nature observations, and he spends a bit of time watching ants. This caught my attention because I think the plot my house is on is one big anthill. Small medium and big, I get them all, inside and outside. I have recently claimed partial internal victory through the use of vinegar (summer may also be playing a factor). But I loved this little tidbit:

“Today there are more than a million ants for each person on the planet. And the total antsweight of all those ants equals the total weight of all people.”

I’m pretty sure we’ve got the neighborhood covered here, antwise.

I hesitate to say I love a book before I finish it, but so far I am loving this book (and I expect it will be in my top 10 at the end of the year).

It was worth it just for the ants.

GMOs and Cargill: The Winds ARE Shifting

SoybeansA couple of months ago I blogged about Cargill’s declining profits as their GMO products were rejected by China. Cargill saw a 28% decline in earnings in the first quarter of 2014, due in large part to China’s rejection of GMO corn. I’ve been hoping that this, plus public attitude (52% think GMOs are unsafe while an additional 13% are unsure, which means a mere 35% of the public embraces GMOs), might cause Cargill to shift away from GMOs. This is a tough thing to do in the United States, where 94% of soybeans and 88% of corn are GMO.

However, Cargill has General Mills in its back yard (both have their corporate headquarters here in the Twin Cities), and several months ago General Mills announced GMO-free Cheerios. (Not a huge step, since oats are the main ingredient and oats are not GMO. They only have to replace the GMO corn starch and the GMO sugar cane. Still.)

Not to be outdone, Cargill has announced plans to introduce a GMO-free soybean oil. This is just a little bit tougher than General Mills’ Cheerios gambit, since soybean oil is made pretty much just from soybeans, and 94% of soybeans are GMO. And of course it’s all about profits, but that’s where consumer voices come in. According to Cargill’s press release,

Despite the many merits of biotechnology, consumer interest in food and beverage products made from non-GM ingredients is growing, creating opportunities and challenges for food manufacturers and food service operators.

Some good news: So far the supply is limited, but what they have has been pretty much bought up. More good news for us (bad news for Cargill) is that it’s difficult to produce non-GMO crops because they need to develop “processes to avoid co-mingling with bioengineered crops during harvesting.” Corn with Wind Why is this good news? Because if Cargill doesn’t want seed drift (this is where GMO seeds get blown about—as seeds will do—and start appearing in fields that are supposed to be non-GMO), Cargill is in an excellent position to do something about the vagaries of this seed drift problem. Monsanto sues farmers who let GMO seed blow onto their non-GMO farms. I’ll be interested in seeing Monsanto sue Cargill.

I still am not overly fond of Cargill. But I’m very pleased with this development.

Slow Reading

Howards End LandingYou’ve heard of slow food, most likely. Maybe slow money, slow travel, and perhaps slow gardening. And now we have slow reading. In her marvelously entertaining ode to books, Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill says:

Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multilayered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers. Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language. . . . Slow reading is deeply satisfying. I read two or three chapters of To the Lighthouse, or Little Dorrit, or The Age of Innocence or Midnight’s Children, and stop, go back, look at how the sentences and paragraphs are put together, how the narrative works, how a character is brought to life. But I want to think about what I have read before I move on for only in this way will I appreciate the whole as being both the sum of, and more than the sum of, its parts.

I have never read a book in this slow manner. Certainly I go back and reread, but usually because I’ve missed something or forgotten something or want to check something. But it appeals to me, this deep study, this slow reading. To the Lighthouse is rather short, and has the advantage of being in my possession and a further advantage of having already been read. If anyone deserves rereading or slow reading, it is Virginia Woolf. Oh, happy: A lighthouse is also a building (the reading theme for June)!

Not surprisingly, Hill eschews the e-reader. In the chapter “It Ain’t Broke,” she says,

No one will sign an electronic book, no one can annotate in the margin, no one can leave a love letter casually between the leaves. It is true that if I had no books but only a small, flat, grey hand-held electronic device, I would only need a very small house and how tidy that would be with just the small, flat grey… But I was looking for a book.

I, too, have thought of how much space I would have if I didn’t have my books. But I wouldn’t enjoy this space nearly as much. My books are so much a part of me. I love to play with them—sorting and arranging, occasionally culling. I love to peruse the titles. I love finding the lost—merely misplaced—gems.

StackSusan Hill’s love of books is palpable, and she says it so well. “I love the book. I love the feel of a book in my hands, the compactness of it, the shape, the size. I love the feel of paper. The sound it makes when I turn a page. I love the beauty of print on the paper, the patterns, the shapes, the fonts. I am astonished by the versatility and practicality of The Book. It is so simple. It is so fit for its purpose.”

While slow reading is one point made in the book, and the love of books is woven throughout, Howards End is on the Landing is a book with many short chapters, each revealing a love of books from a different angle. There is a short chapter on pop-up books. Did you know they made a pop-up Moby-Dick? I’ve been meaning to read Moby-Dick (for at least a couple of decades now). Maybe this is the way I’ll finally do it!

She talks about children’s books, short stories, poetry, reasons for not reading books (and also excuses people give for not reading books), diaries, travel books, plays, book covers, funny books, and things found in books. I’m just scratching the surface here, hoping to tantalize you.

library categoriesThe genesis of this book was a search: Hill was looking for a specific book, and as she wandered through her house in search of said book, in each room she found books—often dozens of books—that she hadn’t yet read or wanted to reread. So she committed to a year of reading from her home library (the subtitle of the book is A Year of Reading from Home).

I love this idea, but I don’t think I could do it. I simply don’t think I could give up buying books for an entire year. Granted I’ve cut back on my book-buying, but there’s nothing quite like the nature of the hunt in a bookstore, and that is the thrill I don’t think I can resist. Even if I have to confine myself to the dollar bin. Mostly.

Summer Birding

Spring migration has pretty much passed, and we’re now more into summer mode, which is to say, these are the birds that are going to stay. They hang around for the summer: We watch them build nests, defend their territory, and (hopefully) feed a family of gaping mouths.

barred_owl_granthickeyAfter a couple of weeks away from the field, it was good to get back out there again, even if the excitement of spring has passed. There are always new birds to see. Yesterday, I went out with my birding friend Eliot, starting at Fort Snelling State Park, where we saw a Barred Owl. A really good view—perhaps my best yet—only 15 feet or so away. It was awake, turned its head and looked at us for a while, seemed to register not one iota of concern, and looked away.

Yellow headedThat was certainly a highlight of the day. Owls are not often seen, and I always consider myself blessed when I see one. Yellow-headed blackbirds are generally more easily found, but they are uncommon enough that I am completely delighted every time I see them. The yellow-headed blackbird was the key bird that tipped me into birding. Maybe 30 years ago I was hanging out at Lake Nokomis and I saw this black bird with a bright yellow head. What in the world? God bless bookstores, I went to one and looked it up in a field guide. Shortly thereafter, I bought my own field guide (Petersons, which still remains a favorite; no relation). I have bought a few additional field guides since.



Other highlights of the day: a Loggerhead Shrike, my first Eastern Kingbird of the year, a Dickcissel (they always catch me by surprise; I don’t know why I have such a hard time remembering and identifying this bird!), Field and Grasshopper Sparrows, and at least two Eastern Meadowlarks. I added 12 birds to my year list.

Yes, I keep a list and count the birds. I started with a lifelist (all birds I’ve seen in my life—or at least since I started keeping the list), and then a yardlist (birds seen in or from my yard), and a few years ago I started keeping a year list. It’s fun to compare year to year, and I can also check to see what relatively common birds I still haven’t seen.Red headed woodpecker

That’s one of the things that makes birding fun. You just never know what you’ll see. Checking against last year’s list (and my memory), a few of the birds I hope to see yet this summer include Purple Finch, Purple Martin, Cedar Waxwing, Red-Breasted Merganser, Sora, Ovenbird, Olive-Sided Flycatcher, and Red-Headed Woodpecker.

Happy birding.

Super Bowl Super Ridiculous

A couple of years ago, the Minneapolis City Council approved a Vikings stadium plan that increased taxes on Minneapolis residents. This was on top of a tax increase from the Minnesota Twins stadium (also in Minneapolis). Technically, a tax shift, but since it extends my taxes for more than 20 years, I consider that a tax increase.

Full disclosure: I actually approved of the Twins stadium tax (at the time). I like baseball, the Metrodome was designed for football and a baseball should never have even been seen inside that building, and who doesn’t want to watch baseball outside? So I was in favor of it. (Not that I got to vote. The county side-stepped that part of the state statute.)

I was not at all favorably inclined towards funding a new Vikings stadium, on the other hand. These are really rich people. We were still in the throes of the Great Recession. And football: That’s only about eight home games a year. Thumbs down on a new stadium.

I wrote so many letters and emails. I made phone calls to Governor Dayton, Mayor Rybak, and Sandy Colvin Roy (my city council member at the time). No matter, even though polls found Minneapolis residents overwhelmingly against funding the stadium, the city council passed it. (Many city council members lost their seats in the following election, including Roy, who chose not run when she didn’t get the endorsement. Democracy in action, but two days late and a dollar short.)

So we are paying this special tax in Minneapolis for the “honor” of having the eight-games-a-year Vikings. And we now also have the honor of hosting the Super Bowl in 2018. According to the Star Tribune, there were a few demands (about 154 pages worth), including:

  • Free police escorts for team owners.
  • 35,000 free parking spaces.
  • Presidential suites at no cost in high-end hotels.
  • Free billboards across the Twin Cities.
  • Guarantees to receive all revenue from the game’s ticket sales.
  • A requirement for NFL-preferred ATMs at the stadium and for officials to cover or remove ATMs that “conflict with NFL preferred payment services.”
  • Free access to three “top quality” golf courses during the summer or fall before the Super Bowl.
  • Local police provide officers, at no cost, for anti-counterfeit enforcement teams focused on tickets and merchandise.
  • Government licensing fees be waived for as many as 450 courtesy cars and buses.
  • Pay all travel and expenses for an optional “familiarization trip” for 180 people to come to the Twin Cities in advance of the Super Bowl to inspect the region.
  • Two “top quality bowling venues” be reserved at no cost to the league for the Super Bowl Celebrity Bowling Classic.
  • At least 20 color pages of free space, in aggregate, in leading daily newspapers to promote the game and four weeks of free promotions on at least six local radio stations, including at least 250 live or prerecorded ads.

The host committee, co-chaired by U.S. Bancorp chief executive Richard Davis, says it has $30 million in private pledges that will help offset public costs to stage the game.

Hmmm. Who do you think will be the NFL-preferred ATM at The People’s Stadium? (This is what it was originally called—The People’s Stadium; not so much anymore, I’m guessing.) Do you think it will be Richard Davis’s U.S. Bank? Would he be that blatantly self-serving? I am guessing yes.

In Minneapolis, Mayor Betsy Hodges’ spokesperson said that even though she was uncertain what had been agreed to, “what we know at the city is that whatever the committee agreed to will be covered by private fundraising.”

I see that Richard Davis has $30 million in private pledges to offset costs. But what if the costs exceed $30 million? What if it’s $100 million? Will Richard Davis and his bank cover that?

We can hope. But I am not holding my breath.

A Tribute to My Aunt

My favorite aunt (and godmother) died this morning. It was not unexpected, and we had time to say goodbye. But it’s still hard.

This aunt—Mardie (short for Mardel)—is the person who got me interested in nature. She lived in “the cities” (Minneapolis-St. Paul) when I was growing up, but she came home every other weekend—usually arriving Friday evening and leaving Sunday around suppertime. I think I was at my grandparents’ house 9 out of 10 of the weekends she visited, eagerly awaiting her arrival, and often spending the night.

bittersweetWe had a lot of extended family Sunday dinners in those days, including my cousins (three boys, all older, as is my brother, so of the five of us I was the youngest and the only girl—an interesting position of both weakness and strength). Anyway, often an hour or so after these Sunday dinners, Mardie would suggest a walk. Depending on the time of year, it might be to find pussy willows (spring), or cattails (fall), bittersweet, or to search for fossils or arrowheads. We had dozens of these outings, and I have no idea why, but a lot of them included walking down railroad tracks (mostly on the railroad tracks). We never encountered a train.

Mardie was interested in everything out there—birds and flowers, butterflies, trees, and she was forever pointing things out. Look at that! Isn’t this beautiful! Rocks. Shells. Dragonflies. Nothing in nature was bad. A cathedral of beauty and infinite things to discover. This is what she taught me. A wonderful, priceless gift.

We had so much fun, especially when some of the other aunts were visiting (most of them lived in Colorado). We planted flowers in the spring, harvested peas, raspberries, and carrots from the garden through the summer, and at night we would often play cards. Canasta, in particular. (My grandmother did not approve.)

She loved Katharine Hepburn. She hated gladiolus (I only learned that recently). She taught me that it’s okay to be uncertain. She taught me the importance of holding a confidence, even when it’s not specifically requested. She never forgot my birthday once. She had the best taste in clothes.

She was extremely self-deprecating, yet one of the strongest, most independent women I’ve known. A single woman all her life, she was a role model extraordinaire. When we were saying goodbye, she told me she had had a good life, and she gave me some advice: Do what you want. Have fun.

I love you. And I will miss you.

May Reprise

May was mostly about birds and books. Not only did I read a lot of books in May (22), I bought a lot of books in May (33). That’s the first time this year that I’ve bought more books than I’ve read. I feel pretty good about that because I used to buy 2-3 times as many books as I read each month.

May books 3

May is usually heavy on the books front: It’s my birthday month and also WisCon month (feminist science fiction convention in Madison that we often attend) and both occassions are rife with books. (We did not make it to WisCon this year but we celebrated in spirit by buying a lot of books.) Of the books we bought, 12 were brand new (an extravagance!) purchased at our favorite local bookstores, Moon Palace Books and Micawber’s. The rest were used, and 11 of them were from the dollar bin (primarily Half Price Books). I am very fond of the dollar bin (technically the $2 bin these days). Ten years ago they sold poetry for 50 cents in the dollar bin. That’s how I built my poetry collection and what a perfect way to discover new poets. I still have hundreds of unread poetry books (which is one of the reasons I don’t buy much poetry any more, excepting new books by my favorite poets). Of the 33 books bought in May, only one was poetry. The rest were evenly divided between fiction and nonfiction.

You may think buying 33 books in a month is a lot. And it’s true that it’s more than we’ve bought in any other month so far this year. But last year we got 53 books in May. So you can see we have scaled back! And comparing the first five months of the year, we’ve bought half as many books this year. This is good. And since I’m reading more than I’m buying (mostly) and I get rid of most of what I read, I’m starting to free up a bit of shelf space. It’s almost even starting to become noticeable in the house.

ClaireAs for all those books I read in May, 10 were poetry and the rest were evenly divided between fiction and nonfiction. The standout books were The Days of Anna Madrigal, by Armistead Maupin (the final book in his Tales of the City series); Recovering: A Journal, by May Sarton (I will read all of her journals and then likely reread them); Kate Remembered, by A. Scott Berg (particularly recommended paired with a Hepburn movie binge); and Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran (first in a rather off-beat new mystery series).

The other major piece of May was birding. May is warbler migration, and I spent a lot of time traipsing river paths and looking in treetops. It paid off. I keep a “year list”—all the different birds I see in a given year. Going into May I had seen 88 different kinds of birds. By the end of May I had seen 136. Really serious birders see tons more birds than I do, but I’m quite happy with my current level of obsession. And at times it does feel like an obsession. I would rarely leave the house without binoculars (you never know what you might see during migration!), and sometimes I would get anxious if I didn’t have a birding trip planned into the day. Scarlet Tanager

In addition to some great warblers (e.g., Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Parula, Blackburnian Warbler, Golden-Winged Warbler, Black-Throated Green Warbler), I’ve seen Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, Indigo Buntings, a Blue-Headed Vireo, and a Scarlet Tanager. I added two new birds to my yard list (a list of birds seen either in or from my yard)—a Harris’s Sparrow and a Magnolia Warbler. An absolutely lovely birding month.

I did a bit of gardening in May as well. I have tomatoes and cucumbers planted, along with a lot of herbs: basil, sage, lavender, parsley, lemon balm, rosemary, calendula, thyme, chamomile, and perhaps a few I’m forgetting. I’ve also harvested a nice batch of plantain that’s now macerating in olive oil (good for all manner of summer skin things) and a small batch of dandelion doing same (supposed to be great for extremely dry skin in winter). This is my first work with dandelion. I am particularly fond of these things that I can harvest just outside my back door.

Other May highlights: a fine day at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts seeing the Art in Bloom and Matisse exhibits with my friend Nancy, followed by drinks and lupitas at Pepito’s.

African QueenHmm. Not a lot of additional highlights. Oh, I have also learned that much as the library is a godsend for books, this is not so much true for movies. About half of those I’ve borrowed from the library have been damaged. Sometimes you only miss a few minutes of the movie, but more than once it’s just skipped to the very end about halfway through. My friend Sheila (total library devotee) told me she has given up on the library for movies. I am leaning in that direction as well. However, I still have a few requests waiting to be filled so I will continue to give it a try, and The African Queen has just come in!