Toad in the Hole April 2006 Archives

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April 30, 2006

Homie Hits the Mark

About that nonsense we're hearing from the repugs about the Spanish "Star-Spangled Banner."

Short 'n' sweet.

Posted at 01:36 AM | Comments (0)

April 29, 2006

Stroll Through the Devil's Backside

We went for a birds-n-bugs-n-posies stroll yesterday with our buds John and Mary, on bits of the Mitchell Canyon and White Canyon trails on Mount Diablo. Know how I've been bitching about the rain and cold and gray weather? Well, serves me right. Broiled ourselves, worked up a serious sweat just walking. Damn it was nice to have a different problem.

First thing was a rattlesnake on the road into the park. I had to do a panic swerve -- fortunately RAV4s don't flip over that easily -- to avoid squishing it, and then had to pull over and run back to be sure I hadn't hit it. I didn't know it was a rattler till I got close enough to see its four cute little rattles, and I was too rattled myself to remember to grab the camera. We all stood guard over it, from a safe distance, till it slithered off the nice warm asphalt and into a burrow beside the road. Pretty snake, though; you'll just have to take my word for it. Oddly greenish, though we're way out of range for Mojave rattler.

Joe and I have never been boarded by a tick out there before, but evidently they were raining from the trees yesterday; we kept finding them on each others' shirts, necks, ears. None of them got a bite out of us, which was a relief since there were both normal big and suspiciously little ones.

Deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease, are smaller than yer basic dog tick, which merely carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever. OK, not often, but it does occur here as well. We do have a modicum of protection from Lyme here thanks to the western fence lizard -- we saw several of those, as usual there -- who has some blood element that cures the juvenile ticks that commonly bite it of the Lyme spirochete. Really. I think that's just incredibly cool.

The occasion for the walk, aside from just wanting to go bird together in decent weather, was to see what's in, what's migrating through, and what's blooming. Major target was the Mount Diablo globe lily, Mount Diablo fairy lantern, Calochortus pulchellus. This is sort of a pilgrimage we make annually.

Hooray for us, they were there in good numbers, and it looks as if the bloom season is under way with more to come.

Two calochortus

I've never met a Calochortus I didn't like, even those Martian jobs from San Luis and Ring Mountain. They come in two forms, basically: upright -- sego lilies, mariposa tulips -- and dangling -- fairy lanterns, globe lilies. Their habit of growing on slopes and the banks beside trail cuts lets them catch slanting light and glow; the name makes sense when you see that. Except for there being no native fairies here, I guess.

Four calortus

They're bulb plants. The people here used to roast and eat the bulbs. Now that seems as horribly extravagant as dining on hummingbirds' tongues. Sometimes I suspect, in spite of the fact that I wouldn't be alive without a dose of industrial medicine, that we're in some important ways poorer than people who had this sort of sensual plenty. Of course, I also don't think that the only way we could arrive where we are technologically is to be as sloppy and dumb as we've been.

We saw golden eagles; redtailed hawks; a big Cooper's; Audubon's and myrtle and Wilson's warblers; black-headed grosbeaks; blue-gray gnatcatchers and bushtits; both hermit and Swainson's thrushes (an odd pairing and we all looked really hard at both, definitely a transition thing; Swainson's come here to breed and hermits come to winter); white-throated swifts; violet-green, barn, and who-knows swallows; California and spotted towhees; western bluebirds and robins; black phoebes and ash-throated flycatchers; a laggard ruby-crowned kinglet; house and lesser goldfinches (and saw goldfinches mating); white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows, still in fair numbers; acorn, downy, and Nuttall's woodpeckers and red-shafted flicker; and heard wrentits and warbling vireos and (I'm pretty sure) a western tanager. I'm sure I left a few out, and I hope John and/or Mary will add them in comments. In short: The gang's all here.

The first buttterflies were out: Sara's orange-tip, anise (ahem, yampah!) swallowtail, common ringlet, some white whose tag I didn't get, California sister, California tortoiseshell, and a gorgeous verdigris-and-copper bramble hairstreak. (Try Google images for those.)

Odd and gratifying flower mix. I've always liked blue-eyed grass or grass iris, Sisirhynchium bellum, for its habit of looking like, yeah, grass and then Surprise! popping out those gorgeous little flowers. It's fairly easy to grow in the garden too, and if you pick your locality/variety well, you can have it at heights from an inch or two to a foot.

Blue-eyed grass

The California poppies have been cheering us up for a month or two now, but really they look most happy themselves in big sun.

California poppies

And there were still a couple of laggard shooting stars:

Shooting star

This season has been oddly out of step as well as annoyingly compressed. I'd like a few days of Spring between Winter and Summer, please.

But damn, it was a good day. And good company. E.g. a couple of California's best little-known hotshot naturalists:

Rare birds

Posted at 05:19 AM | Comments (9)

April 27, 2006

Wednesday Plant Graffiti Blogging (Hey, Ru'!)

In response to Rurality's post today --
here's a message some alliums (species unknown) were trying to send me at Chimney Rock in the Point Reyes National Seashore last week:


Translations appreciated.

Posted at 04:56 AM | Comments (7)

April 25, 2006

Where's My Barbie Action Figure?

Speaking of tin ears, I believe I just heard, in passing, a news clip of our Governator speechifying at the Goldman Awards. He was referring to the winners of those enviro-Nobelish prizes as "action heroes."

Remember when we had lurking suspicions that Ronald Reagan was failing to distinguish between movies and reality?

Next year's first nominee: Godzilla, for his action versus the Smog Monster.

Posted at 06:59 AM | Comments (0)

A Rare Medium Well-Done

Anyone who's gone riffling through all my Flickr photos might be wondering what this one was all about:


We were cruising Urban Ore a couple months ago, I suppose because I was writing a Daily Planet piece about it. There are always a few old classic Wedgewood and O'Keefe & Merritt and such stoves there, and they make me salivate. Gas stoves are more easily and reliably rehabbed than electric ones, I suppose, and anyway are more worth it. I love the ones that have warming ovens and covers that flip up to be warming shelves and matching salt and pepper shakers and all those bells and whistles. And that sound like a Mercedes-Benz when you close the oven doors, that soft authoritative whump.

Urban Ore is worth an occasional trip just to see what weird, gorgeous, or incredible thing has landed there recently. We have a red-and-multicolor wool coat on the parlor wall; it looks handwoven and we think it's Afghani. It doesn't quite fit me (which is why it's on the wall) but I couldn't resist it when I was there over a decade ago looking for used lumber, and it cost me well under $10 -- maybe $8 or so.

So, on top of one of those fancy stoves, last time, was this roast. Not a real roast, of course, but something hollow, crafted out of um buckram? -- some stiffened cloth amalgam stuff. And plastered a bit and painted. What I wondered was what I wonder about many things I see there: What was this for originally? Part of the backdrop knickknackery in a hofbrau? Stage prop? Vegetarians' scarecrow?

Twenty-some years ago, just after we'd moved into the place before this one, we got a few pieces of junk mail intended for the previous tenant. One was a catalogue of fake food, all of it that cast-plastic stuff you see in the windows of sushi joints. Only this wasn't all Japanese food; there were Mexican and fast-food USA and spaghetti and meatballs and stuff like that too. It was a bit eerie.

Eerier still was a free-with-order offer on the back page: You could get a cube representing two pounds of human fat. It was shiny and yellowish and did indeed look like human fat, only in a cube. (Why yes, I have seen some.) I suppose that was a scare object of sorts too, but all I could think of was The Merchant of Venice: "A pound of flesh ... nearest the heart."

Too bad we were broke. I'm not sure what I'd've done with an order of vinyl (or whatever) food anyway, once I had it. Chew for a very long time, maybe.

Posted at 12:57 AM | Comments (2)

April 24, 2006

Copyeditors' Hall of Shame

Obit in the San Francisco Chronicle today, a story about Ellis McCune, former president of one of the Cal State campuses, featured this gem in the second paragraph:

"Known for the bow ties he wore and the pipe he smoked, he was the epitome of a tweedy academic -- but the native Texan still loved to barbecue and feed the students whose lives he helped shape."

I'll nitpick the use of "a" with "epitome of" while I'm at it. As I read it, an epitome is of an abstraction, a sort of Platonic ideal of something, hence "the," not the more particular "a."

Posted at 02:34 AM | Comments (2)

April 22, 2006

Saturday Matinee

OK, everybody, off to the movies!

Courtesy of Twisty, courtesy of Redneck Mother, courtesy of The King of Zembla, courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica Films, no less.

Posted at 05:48 PM | Comments (2)

April 17, 2006

The Arrogant Arborist #1

As some might know, I'm a tree pruner by vocation. I had to quit doing it for money when my lungs smacked me upside the head, to mash a metaphor, but I do know a thing or two about it. The guy I mostly studied and apprenticed with, Dennis Makishima, calls his method "Aesthetic Pruning," and I haven't found a better way to name it. It combined traditional Japanese pruning and bonsai practice with the knowledge of tree anatomy and physiology that Alex Shigo and his students have made public in the last few decades. Not nearly public enough, in my opinion, but not for lack of trying. I think the problem's not so much with the serious professionals, who have by now probably studied Shigo at least a little, but with people who think they don't need to know anything more than which end of a saw to grip before they go out and mutilate a tree.

It might surprise some to know that this is the subject upon which I hold my strongest opinions. I'm not alone; Plant Amnesty in Seattle actually organizes people like me, and prosyletizes when possible.

I'm not above scowling at experienced Japanese pruners. Sometimes they do things that make my nose wrinkle too.

There's a civic Japanese-style garden in Hayward, a few towns south of here. The pruning is probably done by some dedicated volunteer out of some high-minded spirit of service, and it's probably someone I've met or heard about and I might even get zinged for scowling about it. But.

Actually, I rather like this tree. It's probably the damnedest thing I've ever seen done with Mexican weeping pine, and the effect is great:


Normally that species is pretty much Christmas-tree shaped.

The problem is that the whole garden is done that way!


It's monomaniacal. Joe calls it all "Truffula Trees."

I really don't think it shows the true-cedars to their best advantage:


And those tight, crowded twig pads can't be healthy.


Trees like air circulation, and leaves need light!

Besides, it looks silly.

Soemtimes it's just a hoot, like this angular-corkscrew pine limb:


And sometimes it looks Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and short.


There is such a thing as "cloud style" pruning, used for background stuff and shrubs like azaleas, where you want a mass of flowers to dazzle the eye in season. But that's not what's going on here. What scares me is that this is doubtless being seen as some sort of example of what a well-pruned garden of trees should be. Yikes.

Posted at 04:33 AM | Comments (8)

April 16, 2006

When the weather's like this YES IT'S RAINING AGAIN it's hard to remember that it ever gets as dry as this:


It's like being really sick and imagining what it feels like to be healthy and lively and running around easily and being all spritely, or even wanting to be that energetic. Just, you can't conjure it up.

The pic is a cow pond on the trail to Abbott's Lagoon on Point Reyes, taken last July. What's special about this cow pond is that we've seen red-legged frogs in it -- one of those rare and endangered species. We've also seen assorted rails there over the years (hope they're not eating too many frogs) and it's a good stop to take in the view on all sides: pasture and chaparral and a bigger freshwater pond; the lagoon's mostly out of sight, waiting to show itself after another quarter-mile walk. There are tons of quail and goldfinches and harriers and redtails, white- and golden-crowned sparrows in winter, song and savanna sparrows always, osprey scanning the bigger pond on their way to the lagoon and the ocean and turkey vulture stacks over the whole scene. We've seen ferruginous hawk and coyote when there was a vole boom or when the farmer across the road was plowing to plant pasture grass.

There are some places we go just because we never know what will turn up. We saw a baby California red-sided gartersnake(Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis) on that path, too, and were too entranced by its tiny aggression and general grouchy-garter-snake attitude (Stebbins calls the species "spirited") to get a photo. It actually threw itself at me repeatedly, sometimed almost flipping itself over -- and it was maybe four inches long. It was like being bluffed by a shoelace.

One of my favorite flowers, cobweb thistle, blooms there every year:


And it gets worked intensively by, among other people, the native bumblebees:

BB, CWT2,7.05

This one has big orange pollen jodhpurs on.

One of those spots that are unassuming, but when you get to know them, are irresistible because of the things you remember seeing there. The fun part is that there's usually something else too.

Posted at 06:43 AM | Comments (3)

April 11, 2006

Pointers of the Day

Not only is there a photo of a cat in a crocheted bikini on You Knit What??; there's a pointer in the comments to a tree sweater, being worn.

Posted at 07:57 PM | Comments (2)


I had an appointment yesterday in Tiburon and got there 20 minutes early, so I drove on to a motel parking lot with a nice view of the local finger of the Bay and looked for birds. The ducks were all gone, not a shorebird in sight, but watching the water was relaxing after the freeway drive.

Then there was a sort of limited oversized blizzard, graceful white stars striking the water, rising again, striking again, pelting in quick succession slap slap, and slap slap slap, slapslap. Terns, a flock of half a dozen, gracile and pale and not big as terns go. Leasts? No, not quite right. There's a crappy (free) pair of binocs in a slot under the dashboard, and they gave me a close enough look to see that the only black on the wings was a sliver on the edge of the underside; some of the birds were in black-capped breeding plumage and some had just the youngsters' black mark on white head. I had to grab the fieldguide to be sure, since it had been so long since I'd seen them: Arctic terns!

We've seen most of our Arctic terns from boats out on the Pacific; maybe the storms had urged these inland, to grab little fish from the calm Bay waters. Probably they're on their northern migration, flying approximately from the other end of the Earth, following Summer (ha! optimists!) from pole to pole. An incredible trek, airborne under their own power, nothing but muscle and feather and that combination of instinct and memory that, in assorted proportions, directs migratory species across gulfs and ranges and places that probably weren't there when the mental maps were laid down.

And they're so small. Whittled by aeons of single-minded motion to swallowtails and blade-wings, every piece of them streamlined and knife-edged, wings long enough to float forever on oceanic winds and flexible enough to fold in an instant and seize gravity, plummet to the water's boundary for fish, stitching the two great oceans of the planet, air and water, pure intention incarnate moving the substance of the water to the air and land, of the far south to the far north and back again, stepwise and opportunistic, pausing to raise chicks and then -- if I'm right about what I was seeing, a family group -- traveling with them from one pole to the other with no purpose but the journey and its hard-bought sustenance. So small, so efficient, so focused, so strong, like a sword blade forged leaf by microscopically thin leaf over the lives and deaths of centuries.

What a privilege to see them on their way.

Posted at 05:23 PM | Comments (3)

National Poetry Month Salute

Lead-gray clouds. More rain.
On the roofpeak the robin
Sings nevertheless.

Posted at 04:05 AM | Comments (0)

April 10, 2006

Feel-Good Post

It's raining again.

I'm cruising the pix for a dry place again, and as a bonus found one that features even worse housekeeping than mine. (If Joe didn't do the laundry and dishes and vacuuming and kitchen floorwashing we'd drown in filth. I do clean the bathroom and dust and chase cobwebs and like that. Sometimes.)

The ephedra I put up a few days ago was on the road from Bodie State Park. Bodie is a ghost town east of the Sierra peaks, in the sagebrush desert, an old mining town. We went there looking for sage grouse (and saw them) and poked around for several hours after. The park folks just fenced off most of the interiors of the buildings there and let the dust settle, which I rather liked.

I was wondering why people had tossed coins, a mint candy, and a lighter on this bed:

Bodie bed

And then I realized it was probably to watch the dust puffs.

The kitchen was the most heartening.

Bodie kitchen1

Don't miss the Tom & Jerry punchbowl -- either somebody was celebrating Christmas before throwing in the towel and leaving, or they found the bowl useful in some other way. Oh, and the bottle capper, which suggests home brewing.

Bodie kitchen 2

The wallpaper sags interestingly. Or maybe I'm just empathetic, and hopeful that saggy = interesting.

Bodie kitchen 3

Enamelware with squiggles! One of my favorite things. I wonder if the householders took the oven door with them or used the stove without it before they left. Or if someone has it hanging on their wall as a piece of Nostalgic Art.

There were parts of houses we could walk around in -- this is the same house as the kitchen and I think the bedroom too.

Bodie lino 1

The linoleum pattern is very similar to the one in my best friend's parents' kitchen, in the 1950s.

And there was this rather Craftsmanesque wallpaper pattern, especially the whoozits border on top:

Bodie wallpaper

So now I have something to aspire to. Sorry, Mom.

Posted at 02:34 AM | Comments (2)

April 06, 2006

News Crumbs

This teaser showed up in my Google Alerts for Harrisburg PA:

>PA Secretary of Education Zahorchak Emphasizes Importance of ...
Yahoo! News (press release) - USA
HARRISBURG, Pa., April 5 /PRNewswire/ -- It wasn't just teachers who read today to students at a Hansel & Gretel Day Care center today: state Education ...

Now really. Tone-deaf much? Would you trust your kids to something called "Hansel & Gretel Day Care"? Should you worry if they dole out extra snacks to fatten them up? Where do you suppose they do the baking? And just what is that little playhouse out back made of? And why are all those birds pecking at that line of breadcrumbs?

Posted at 04:32 PM | Comments (2)

No Jelly Beans for Easter


Also no corn on the cob if we ever actually have a season. Nuts have been challenging. No surprise nuts allowed. No carrot sticks. No unsliced apples. No barbecued ribs on the bone. No possum, no sop, no taters.

(That last was in honor of Poetry Month.)

This is about the braces, of course. I got them adjusted today and heavier wire put on. Alas, they no longer glow in the dark. One geekily neat thing, though, is that the wire is Nitrile(tm, I suppose). I remember hearing about Nitrile -- "memory wire" -- a bazillion years ago; you do something like heat it, bend it to a shape; then when it cools, when you bend it again, it "wants" to return to the original shape. Cool, I thought, so what do you do with it? Make dental braces, of course.

The photo is a couple of sun bears enjoying corn on the cob at the San Francisco Zoo, a couple of years ago.

I'm trying to imagine bears in braces. They'd be grouchy. We found a barrel of surplus bear dentures in a store in the Fremont district of Seattle once, but that's another story. And another place I'd like to get back to, come to think of it.

Posted at 01:00 AM | Comments (4)

April 05, 2006

Spider Surprise


A few days ago we hung some new curtains in the kitchen. Evidently we disturbed a spider who'd come in from outside. I noticed it going up the wall above the window, fairly sturdy, husky outdoor-looking dark spider.

We have long-bodied cellar spiders in the house, and we more or less cultivate them. They're pretty harmless; I pick one up by the leg sometimes, if it's trapped in the bathtub for example, and move it to a plant where it can eat the bugs. If you disturb them on their webs, they'll do this hilarious spinning routine, which I suppose makes predators dizzy. They're so delicate and innocent-looking that an arachnophobic friend of ours dismisses tham as "those airs-and-graces spiders you have."

There was one in the ceiling corner -- which is where they generally hang out, another reason we don't bother them -- and my first thought was, "Uh-oh. That black bruiser's gonna eat one of our spiders."

Well. What happened instead: The cellar spider came to attention and ran to pounce on the intruder. It was like watching a whippet take on a Rottweiler. Only the whippet won.

It grabbed the husky spider and, from what we coould see, immediately started wrapping it up in webbing. If it bit, it was too fast to see. Evidently too fast to cope with, too. Inside of a minute, the outsider was snared and apparently helpless. It wrapped the outsider up in a neat bundle and, when I looked in half an hour later, seemed to be eating it.

I still don't worry about getting bitten by the cellar spiders, but I have a bit more respect for them as predators.

Posted at 06:06 AM | Comments (6)

April 04, 2006

How Wet Is It?

There's pond scum in the back yard where the grass used to be.

I am not exaggerating. Green algae. The underwater kind. And it's raining again now.

Posted at 06:36 AM | Comments (3)

April 03, 2006

Hey, John & Mary!

I was standing with a group of volunteer pruners and Dennis Makishima, their none-dare-call-him-sensei, in front of Chaparral House yesterday, and a merlin flew over us. Somebody else must still think it's winter here.

Meanwhile, the flowers are blooming, the honeybees (but not the bumblebees) were out working in spite of the fitful light rain, and the white-crowned sparrows were song-dueling and chasing each other around like mad. I heard the first golden-crowned sparrow I've heard actually singing this year. Red-shafted flicker in a sparse Coulter-looking pine next door, robins all around (also singing and chasing, but not quite so excitedly), bushtits, house- and lesser goldfinches, the neighborhood Cooper's, juncos, and -- still -- a couple of ruby-crowned kinglets, who seemed to be together. Ambiguous Spring day.

Posted at 05:43 PM | Comments (2)