Monday, August 8, 2016


Let’s celebrate the arrival of sunflowers, a beautiful, tough plant that flourishes in places as diverse as suburban gardens and the banks of the LA River.

In a recent conversation, Chris Wien, a retired Cornell professor of horticulture, stated that sunflowers, including the common sunflower, Helianthus annus, “are native to North America.”  “Sunflowers originated in the central United States,” he continued, and spread to the coasts from there.”   

One of my most moving sunflower experiences was driving through Orleans County on the south shore of Lake Ontario and seeing miles and miles of fields filled with sunflowers with enormous blooms.  Sunflowers spring up in California, despite the challenging climate there.  Sunflowers o the banks of the LA River appeared in the Friends of the Los Angeles River’s State of the River: the Long Beach Fish Study.

Wild sunflowers tend to be branchy, with several blooms on several branches.  “Somewhere along the line,” Wien observed, “people cultivated them to be less branchy.”   Single stem sunflowers are increasingly common.  Wien notes “Some new sunflower hybrids developed for use as cut flowers are pollen- free;” they will not shed pollen on a table cloth or other treasured household surface.

This close up from the Community Garden shows the branchiness of sunflowers
Some of the best experiences with sunflowers happen serendipitously.  The first year my friend Seth grew sunflowers he had a sixty-foot row of perhaps 20 sunflower plants, each about 6 feet high with seed heads about 20 inches in diameter.  Basking in beginner’s luck, Seth recalled, “It being before the YouTube era, I figured I'd let the heads dry on the plants right in the field.  A few days later I checked on them.  No seeds left.  Birds got them all.”

My friend Steve grew sunflowers while living in Virginia.  He recalled that “Watching the birds snatch the big flowers' seeds and flying away like shoplifters always gave me great pleasure and a few laughs when the multitude of flight paths would cause some bumping and rumpled feathers.”

Chris mentioned that, internationally, the most frequent use of sunflowers is as a source of oil. The second most common use is people eating the seeds.  He has heard that Russians so love sunflower seeds that in any Russian cinema, the main sound is not cell phones going off but a steady noise of people cracking open and munching sunflower seeds.

Bird food is the third most common use of sunflower seeds.  Steve is living in New York again.  He has four bird feeders filled with sunflower seeds. He writes, “Probably 30 percent of the seeds hit the ground, and nearly all those get gobbled up by the resident squirrels and chipmunks.” “The remaining seeds germinate,” he writes, “in a tight-knit group of plants around the feeder stands.”  Steve and his wife have moved some of these plants into their gardens.   

Some years ago, my wife Dorothy and my mother suggested growing sunflowers in the back yard.  The hope was that a wall of sunflowers would suggest Provence or a Van Gogh painting.

The plants never grew; a mystery animal clipped them at the base of the stem.

Since then, sunflowers have appeared among my vegetables at the Town of Guilderland’s Community Garden, coming from neighboring plants.  Since then my friend Chris rototilled and sunflowers have been popping up everywhere. 

After trying so hard to get them to grow in the yard, they appear unbidden in the garden and have transplanted surprisingly well.  A five-foot giant we gave friends Richard and Nancy shook off the shock of transplanting and started blooming in just a few days.

In our yard, sunflowers attract native pollinators.  In the Community Garden honey bees swarm them; they even attract the occasional hummingbird.

In this photograph, honeybees enjoy the sunflower as a food source!
One of the most amazing traits of a sunflower that Chris described is the flower’s flexibility.  A sunflower bloom can rotate on the stem and follow the sun from morning to sundown. 

It's morning in this photograph; later in the day,
this bloom will have turned to the left

You may see sunflowers on the roadside.  I have seen them along New York roadsides and even along the arid freeways in southern California.

At first, I thought that transportation departments had included sunflowers in the seed mix.  Then, I thought that drivers spit them out the window.

I abandoned this hypothesis; it would require a driver to spit the seed across the passenger-side of the car and out the window. 

Chris’ hypothesis is that these seeds blow off of trucks moving sunflower seeds for other purposes.  We are truly blessed by a nature that produces seeds that survive New York winters or California drought!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

July Rain

See those rain drops at the tip of this sunflower's leaves?
On the East Coast, we are finally getting real rain.  At the Guilderland Community Garden, the rain gauge showed nearly three inches of rain since last night.

I forgot to photograph the rain gauge at the Community Garden,
but isn't the intense blue of this flower, near the gauge, something?

If you are happy to be getting this rain, you can thank my writing plans for it. 

At this time of year, sunflowers are starting to bloom and I thought it would be a good idea to write about how enjoyable it is to see them.

After hearing about this, the weather gods must have said, “If he’s going to write about ‘sun,’ let’s fix his wagon and let it rain, rain, rain.”

The rain is great and let’s hope it continues for a few more days, to make up for the deficit up until now.  Those sunflowers will still be blooming by then.

Along with the rain, we are enjoying a new backyard neighbor.  A young red-tailed hawk decided it wants to watch the yard from the peak of our shed and an oak limb.  I hope this hawk is mowing down the small rodent population. 

Even if he or she is not, it is delightful to see such a big bird so near.  The other morning, when I came out, the sound of the door opening startled the hawk and it swooped off across the yard, showing its broad wingspan.
The news is filled with lots of fear and bad things lately.  But this hawk is a reminder that there is always a potential for things to get better.  In the 1960's, hawks, eagles and other birds of prey were on the decline because of pesticides and the perception that they were varmints.
The pesticides are gone and people now like birds of prey.  So these species, once on the ropes, are back again - - to the point where they can appear outside the backdoor.  That's good news if I ever heard it!

Monday, April 18, 2016

What a Difference 12 Days Makes

March in upstate New York was mild.  Pete and I got out to fish the day after Opening Day and we each caught fish, small brook and brown trout.

Then winter came back, with a dusting of snow on Sunday April 3rd and four inches the following day.

Since then, the spring has shaken off the rain and the cold and it’s very agreeable at home.  People on the West Coast and Great Lakes are also reporting nice weather.

With the arrival of the good weather, there’s a drive to get outside again. 

Our outside now has a simple and reasonably-priced glider for two people and a moveable fire pit, both courtesy of The Christmas Tree Shop.  These items may also be available at CostPlus World Market, which seems to have some of the merchandise of the Christmas Tree Shop.

We tested these outdoor accessories this past Saturday night.

dusk in the neighborhood

With a moveable fire pit, serious outdoor fire builders need to think smaller than they would with a dug fire pit or a campfire.  The manufacturer of our fire pit recommends fewer, smaller pieces of wood than can be fed into a campfire.  They also recommend having a fire at least 20 feet away from the house - -  and to have water nearby, in case things flare up.

We had small pieces of well-seasoned hardwood that, when split, fit perfectly into the pan of the fire pit.  With two or three matches, a nest of old papers and a bunch of wind-fall twigs, the fire caught on in no time.  It wasn’t the famous one match fire of the seasoned outdoor pros, but it started up and kept going.

With any fire, there’s a need to be flexible on seating arrangements.  When I have a fire, the main rule seems to be that the smoke will always blow to where I am sitting - - regardless of how many times I move. 

In a welcome change from these circumstances, smoke from our Saturday night fire either went straight up or kept blowing in one direction. 

Our night had a moon that was a bit past half.  The mosquitoes are back, but we had about an hour and half grace period before they became annoying.  The fire was descending to just embers at this point.  We put it out carefully and easily found our way inside with the moonlight.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Night Skies and April Fools

April Fool’s Day: Night Sky and Jokes

We are approaching April Fool’s Day, which brings us one step closer to spring on the East Coast. 

Yet, even in April, it can be very blustery.  I recall a party we had in April, 1995.  Everyone came in springy clothes and we were having great fun on the screened in porch.

But then, the wind came up.  The wearers of madras pants and shirts, shorts and Hawaiian shirts were all driven indoors by the wintry gusts.

Before the weather warms and the humidity starts, please take a moment for a night walk.  The constellations are clearly visible.  In his book, Secrets of the Night Sky, astronomer Bob Berman describes constellations at this time of year as “sharply etched,” before the sky “surrenders to the hazy patterns of summer.”

On the East Coast, I have enjoyed seeing the Big Dipper and Orion, the Hunter.  The experts say if you look straight up from the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper, you will see Polaris, the Polestar, which is also the first star in the handle of the Little Dipper.  So far, a large locust tree has been blocking my view of Polaris but I hope to get a glimpse of this star, so important to navigators, soon.

The Big and Little Dippers are also named, respectively, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.  The idea of two bears in the sky that do not hibernate and watch over all is reassuring.

There are other constellations visible now.  I have been using star charts in Robert Burnham’s Star Book to try to identify them but its slow going so far.  There are also star charts available online. 

April Fool’s Day falls on Friday this year.  In the days before smoking was unpopular, one trick was to call a tobacco shop or newsstand and ask, “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?”  When the shop owner said , yes he did have this pipe tobacco brand, the prankster would say, “Well, you better let him out, otherwise he will suffocate!”

If you need April Fool’s laughs, visit Mick Harkin's website   We met Mick through friends Siobhan and Francis John who live in Ireland.  On his website, Mick describes himself as follows: “After a life dealing with things scientific, Mick Harkin decided to pursue something more light-hearted for a change – an investigation of things humorous. Always good for a laugh, he survived the Rise and Fall of Haight Ashbury in the psychedelic mid-sixties California and then shivered through some bone-chilling Canadian winters in the early seventies.” 

Mick is back in Ireland, capably mixing systematic research and wit in a study of what makes jokes work or not work.   The results can be found in his book, Jokes, Quotes and Anecdotes . . . an Anatomy of Wit.  The book is available via Mick’s website and offers an overview of the history of jokes and how they are structured.  The next 27 chapters consider specific joke types, such as those about lawyers, blondes and humor specific to several nations.  Each chapter opens with an overview of the anatomy of the jokes and then a selection of the jokes as examples - - and for the fun of it!

Enjoy the night sky, enjoy April Fool’s Day and let’s hope you are enjoying some real spring wherever you are! 

If any of you have a good stunt for the day, please send it along and I will include it in post's comments. 


Thursday, March 17, 2016

March Fishing

Year round catch and release angling can be found on
many Catskill streams, including the Beaverkill (photograph by John Rowen
As spring approaches, so do opportunities to start trout fishing.

In California, intrepid Pasadena Casting Club members have been catching trout in the Owens River, hard by the eastern Sierras.

New York’s statewide trout season does not open until Friday April 1, 2016.  But across the State, many catch and release opportunities are a comfortable drive from cities and suburbs.

On March 2nd, I found myself at Ben Gray Pool, in a catch and release segment of the Beaverkill.  Ed Van Put, the Catskill angling historian, advises that this pool was likely named after a nineteenth century river rafting captain.  Ben Gray would take log rafts down the Beaverkill, to the East Branch of the Delaware, where small rafts were consolidated into larger ones and floated to Philadelphia. 

It’s nearly 200 river miles on the Delaware, from East Branch, New York to Philadelphia.  If people could make money moving logs from this far away, it gives an idea of how quickly nineteenth century American cities were building up!

Even though it was after work, enough sun was left to fish the Pool.  But that was about the only thing the trip had going for it at this point.

A stiff, cold wind dominated the pool.  The wind speed was a step away from making whitecaps - - or enticing surfers in wet suits to catch a wave.

With the wind, I lost interest in wading and decided to fish with roll casts from the bank.  However, the reel had a thin leader from fall dry fly fishing and the leader would not separate from the fly line.  After what seemed an eternity of fumbling with the whistling wind for a soundtrack, I decided to forget the leader change and tied a size 10 Woolly Bugger on a leader more suited to gin clear waters and size 20 flies.

Then the roll cast fell apart as wind grabbed line at every step of the cast.

With all these problems, the reader would figure the trip was a failure.

However, on the second cast, a fish emphatically struck the Woolly Bugger.  A minute later, I reeled in a 10 ½ inch rainbow trout.

Wind, troubles with roll casting, and the arrival of dusk, chased me to the car.

It would have been better to be prepared, to have double-checked the leader, or to have donned waders to get away from the brushy stream bank for more fluid casting and the chance to reach larger fish.

These are great ideas for the next trip -- or the first trip in 2017.  In the meantime, it’s great to keep replaying the experience of catching the first fish of the season.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Bicoastals before they Knew They Were

Tarnoff's new book is now available in paperback
The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers who Reinvented American Literature.  By Ben Tarnoff.  The Penguin Press, $17 for the paperback edition.

The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary defines “bicoastal” as “occurring or existing on both coasts, esp. on both the E and W coasts of the U.S.”  This dictionary and other lexicographers consider the word to have arrived in the 1970’s. 

Ben Tarnoff’s The Bohemians chronicles the lives of Americans who were bicoastal before the term was invented.

Tarnoff describes the intersecting careers of four California writers who became prominent in the 1860’s: Mark Twain, Bret Harte, poet Ina Coolbrith and Charles Warren Stoddard, a poet and essayist.  Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard were California natives.  Mark Twain started in Nevada as a newspaper reporter but became a Californian.

In The Bohemians, Tarnoff shows how Twain, Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard created a new American writing that shifted the nation’s literary center of gravity from Emerson and the New England writers to the West.  Tarnoff offers several reasons to explain how these writers - - and California itself - - exercised such an outsized influence on contemporary American letters.

Life in the West offered new literary material not found in the East.  As Tarnoff observes, “The land itself inspired a new way of seeing . . . the country beyond the Rocky Mountains was truly another world.”  Twain and Stoddard made their way to Hawaii and the South Seas, finding more exotic experiences not found on the East Coast.  

California achieved a high rate of literacy early in its statehood, which created a vast market of insatiable readers.

Tarnoff is a vivid, well-organized and witty writer.  He shows how the writings of the four authors arose from their individual talent and the times they lived in, telling the reader just enough about each writer’s literary career and placing it on the stage of what was happening in the contemporary society and economy.

Compared to Emerson, Thoreau and other Easterners, Twain, Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard had hardly any formal education.  They became compelling writers through luck, determination and an immersion in their surroundings.  Of Harte’s view from the window of the Golden Era, a San Francisco literary magazine, Tarnoff observes, “Sometimes all Harte had to do was look out his window.  A ‘small portion of the large world’ passed below.”

Mark Twain, an outsized character, has a tendency to take over any story he gets near.  Tarnoff avoids this peril, usually showing his writers as a quartet.  

When he first started writing in Nevada, Twain often wrote hoax stories; some violated that journalistic rule to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Tarnoff’s account of Twain’s bad behavior early in his career rightfully resets Twain’s reputation with this less well-known information.

Coolbrith became a librarian in Oakland to support her family.  She loved the children she met; her book recommendations to 10-year old Jack London helped shape his writing.  Stoddard, who was likely gay, shuttled between San Francisco and the South Seas and stopped writing.  As they became famous, Harte and Crane became bicoastal, leaving the West Coast for the East. 

Twain and Harte came east by train, an improvement over travel by sailing ship or Conestoga wagon.  If you are jetting between the coasts - - or can’t travel but want the feel of the other coast - - take Tarnoff along.   He chronicles these writers and their work in a fast-paced, delightful and well-organized way!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

New Crowds at Albany Airport

Albany Airport: The parking garage, which has some of the short and long-term parking is on the left; the terminal is on the right.  Photo courtesy of Albany Airport

A few weeks ago, we were at Albany Airport to drop off a traveler.  The lines at Southwest and the security checkpoint were noticeable but our traveler got through them and was at the gate with time to spare.

Then a week later, on Sunday morning, we went to the Airport for a trip to Washington, DC.  The Southwest flight was like a dawn patrol.  It left at 6 AM and we were there an hour before the take off. 

When we arrived at 5 AM, the line at Southwest was nearly out the door.  Dorothy, in a moment of quick thinking, offered to check in the baggage and sent me to wait on the security line.  This line was just as long as the one at Southwest.

By the time Dorothy got to the check in station, she heard a Southwest staffer say the airline was closing baggage acceptance for our flight.  Because I had short sightedly packed items I needed for a conference that day, she did not want to arrive with no luggage and the staffer gave her the bags to go through security.  With a TSA pre-board she got through security fairly quickly.  I got through security, too, but was so close to the flight boarding time that I ran to the gate with belt and shoes in my hands. 

Because of this near miss with the plane, I contacted Doug Myers at the Albany Airport, to ask him about what might be causing the longer line. 

“Albany Airport,” Myers explained, “is an origination and destination airport, rather than a hub.”   “As a result, lines ebb and flow during the day.”  “Further,” he explained, “the Airport is generally seeing more traffic with the economic recovery, a 5.5 percent increase in enplanements since 2008, and the arrival of Jet Blue is attracting more passengers.”

Myers has observed the lines become especially crushing on Monday and Tuesday mornings and Sunday evenings, with the crowds driven by business travelers and returning vacationers.  The long lines we were in seemed to be mostly vacationers headed for Florida’s warmth - - although temperatures in that state have not been that much hotter than the Capital Region until recently - - and people headed for Vegas.

The trend towards longer lines is not likely to end soon.  Myers observed that when Jet Blue began service in Albany, “the load factors were above national averages.”  Jet Blue may spur more air travel on other airlines.  When a low-cost carrier enters a market, it introduces competition and motivates existing airlines to offer lower fares, which will persuade some non-fliers to take off.

Myers advises travelers to give themselves an hour and a half instead of an hour.  “If equipment at the security checkpoint breaks, the lines can back up and lines can stack up for check ins, he observed.” With the greater travel volume and the arrival of Jet Blue, Capital Region air travel can no longer be mocked as “Smalbany.” 

The arrival of Jet Blue at Albany Airport has also added to crowds at the Airport.
Photograph courtesy of Albany Airport

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Real Story about Ground Hog Day!

A sleeping bear, courtesy of LaggedOnUser

Over the last week, I have been reading Alf Evers’ magisterial history, The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock.  His well-written book is filled with surprises, reading it is like coming around a corner on a hike and finding something surprising. 

A surprise that a hiker or angler does not wish to have is to come around a corner meet a bear.  Evers, who died in 2004, has a chapter on bears near the halfway point in his book.  Some of the stories concern unexpected people/bear encounters in the woods; did you know that poorly sung hymns can be useful when meeting a bear?

But the most amazing thing in this chapter is the real story of Ground Hog Day.

In popular culture, February Second is celebrated as Ground Hog Day.  Depending on whether the ground hog sees a shadow, winter will drag on or end mercifully soon.

According to Evers, however, the ground hog is a late arrival to this tradition.

In the Catskills, Evers writes, February second was celebrated “until well into the twentiethĵ century . . . as “Bear’s Day.”  He goes on to quote an account of this holiday from the Reverend Charles Rockwell’s 1867 book, The Catskill Mountains.

On February second, Rockwell wrote, “bears wake from winter sleep, come forth from their dens, take a knowing observation of the weather for a few minutes and then retire to their nests . . . “  “It is further claimed,” he wrote, “that if the sky is clear . . . and the weather is cold . . . they sleep quietly on until the first of April, thinking the cold weather will continue thus long. . . if the weather is mild and cloudy, they look for an early spring.”

When I mentioned Bear’s Day to several friends, they all had a similar reaction. “If it’s Bear’s Day,” one wag said, “you can’t reach into the den and pull the bear out can you?  Ha Ha Ha.” 

Reverend Rockwell had an answer to this one.  It was possible to learn what the bear saw from seeing tracks entering and leaving the bears den.  It was also based on observing tame bears that Colonel Lawrence kept at his tavern in Kiskatom. 

Why do we celebrate February second with an allegedly cute and rolly poly rodent?  Evers suggests bears became scarce in the nineteenth century as Catskill wilderness was rolled back by farms and loggers and hunters killed them. 

Ground hogs typically must live in sunny meadows and fields.  The farmer and hunter set up the conditions for the bear to fade away and for the ground hog to capture the holiday. 

If we went back to Bear’s Day, ground hogs - - and people - - might be happier.  A bear’s large size commands respect and emphatically tells people to keep a distance. 

By contrast, ground hogs can be unpredictable; in New York City, the Staten Island Zoo celebrates the day with a ground hog named Staten Island Chuck.  In 2009, Chuck bit former Mayor Bloomberg.  In 2014, Mayor De Blasio dropped Chuck’s stand-in, Staten Island Charlotte.  In 2015, Jimmy the ground hog bit Mayor Jonathan Freund on the ear at the Sun Prairie, Wisconsin celebration. 

After these stories, remind me again.  Why I think people will be less inept around bears than ground hogs?