Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Winter Walk

Well, I certainly haven't been a very good blogger lately. Partly this is because really, not a lot is happening, phenologically... there's more snow, more melting, tracks (which I can write about for the next 3 months), Orion (same deal)... Partly this is because I've had a pretty lazy winter break. Not so much computering... and, for that matter, not so much being out in nature. Anyhow, no point in forcing it.

Today, we did brave the cold and go for a walk at the beach. It was nice, with snow falling and the muted color pallet of winter sticks and grasses. Here's some of what we saw:
Bridge over the dead river.
Beach grasses
Stripes of snow, sand, ice, and rocks on the beach. The water, by the way, had no ice on it at all. It was quite wavy, which meant we had to watch our feet constantly. There are few things I like less than having wet feet in the winter when you're stuck outside.
This crazy looking thing is a bundle of sticks (I think) that was in the area where the waves hit, so it got coated in ice.
We saw 3 deer (and enough tracks to indicate that there are a lot more than 3 out there). Here are some shots of them.
This last is not at IL beach, but in my mom's yard, where some squirrels have dug at least 15 holes such as this right in the grass, presumably in search of there caches. It should make for a lovely lawn in the spring... oh, well!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Ice Storm

The morning is lovely and treacherous. Everything is coated in a layer of ice. Above, the umbrel flowerhead of a golden Alexander... it looks like little cups holding ice crystals aloft. Below, the complex little seeds of queen of the prairie droop under the weight of the ice.

I thought the barberry made a lovely Christmas image. (I know, it's a painfully thorny non-native... I guess that's OK. I don't celebrate Christmas, anyhow...)
Stem of compass plant.
Brown-eyed Susans.
It's not just natural things... my yard art is covered in ice as well (above) and the side of the house has tiny icicles from every board on the siding (below).
So. This should be an awesome day for driving, which is what we're supposed to be doing all day. Yippee!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

ECOlogically Speaking

I received, as one of my birthday gifts, a day-by-day ECOlogical calendar. I have, in the past, had the wall version -- which isn't terribly useful as a calendar but makes a lovely mural of the year, showing an overall picture of how the light changes, the sky changes, and the natural events that occur. The day by day one, which you could actually use as a calendar, contains more information (it must, to fill over 365 pages).

Phenologically, it's obviously very general. I mean, the solstices, equinoxes, moon phases, etc. are fully accurate, but in terms of biological and meteorological features, it had to be printed both way in advance and in such a way that it works for a large region. Nonetheless, it's a refreshing way to look at each day... not as a schedule, or a task list, but as one part of an annual cycle of natural happenings, which can and should be looked at scientifically, artistically, poetically...

Here's tomorrow's page.
Also, it's snowing again, but hardly cold enough to be snow. I think it's supposed to turn to rain tomorrow...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Falling snow makes even the suburbs look magical and peaceful. The trees have white linings to their branches. A rabbit bounded across the yard this morning, leaving fresh tracks. (And most importantly, it covers all the nastiness at the edges of the roads in a blanket of white...)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Our Darkest Hour

Today, at 11:47 am cdt, the sun kisses the Tropic of Capricorn and then begins on its six-month journey toward the northern tropic. At least, that's the pre-Copernican version of things... more accurately, today, in the earth's tilted orbit around Sol, we will hit the point where the southern hemisphere is tilted directly toward the sun. The tilt will stay the same, but the earth will keep moving around until, six months hence, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun. This (when it works) is a really good "applet" to see the whole process, where you can actually set your own latitude, or the latitude you wished you lived at, and see it from that perspective.

For us, that means... winter officially begins. Of course, with snow on the ground for a while, this seems a rather artificial starting point for the cold season. And it doesn't really mean the end of short days or low-angled, never-feels-mid-day sun, either. But it does mean that we're at least heading toward longer days and higher sun, eventually, instead of the opposite.

And so we celebrate, as people have since ancient times,* the day the sun stands still. We celebrate the sun regaining its strength, we celebrate our ultimate source of food and energy, warmth and light. In our darkest hour, we celebrate the sun.

*Interesting to note... before, you know, our scientific revolution, before watches and our understanding of the solar system and the earth's movements... before all that, people still, of course noticed the lengthening and shortening of days that accompanied the changing of the seasons, and the phenological rhythms that guided their livelihoods. Without "sophisticated" science, you really start to notice the lengthening of days a few days after the solstice, around the 25. Sound familiar? That's right, people... we're all pagans at heart.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Do I Need Prozac Today? (Incoherent ramblings...)

"We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap." -- Kurt Vonnegut.

Phenologically, there's not a ton going on right now. Some snow falls, some rain falls, some sun shines low in the sky. There's only so much you can say. So instead, I'll talk about something else.

This week I have been teaching about natural resource usage and sustainability (as I will be for the next several months). It seems to be a timely topic, what with world leaders gathered in Copenhagen to probably fail to make deals that are too little and too late to do anything, anyhow. The thing is, I don't really get global warming. I mean, I understand the concept, but I don't understand a) why it seems so much more important to everyone than all the other environmental issues out there and b) why there's so much debate about it. Because the thing is, if climate change is not caused by humans or by CO(little)2 or whatever... who cares? All those things we could be doing to fix the warming problem would still help solve some of those other problems I mentioned in point A if the warming problem isn't what we thought. I just fail to understand why we can't all step up... well, I do understand, actually. It's a classic tragedy of the commons problem. The good of all always loses when the alternative is short term gain for me.

What strikes me most poignantly of late is the connection between social and environmental issues, which all stems from natural resources, really. I live in a country where 5 % of the world's population consumes 25% of the natural resources used. I read that even homeless people in the US use more resources than citizens of many other nations. (Seriously? That's crazy). WTF is wrong with us, folks? OK, personal epiphany story.

A few years ago, I was (self-righteously?) driving in my Prius and was passed by a ginormous truck with these huge wheels put on it so it would bounce all over (I'm not really a car person, so whatever) and it was loud and smelly and obnoxious... and I thought to myself, it's so unfair that I have to breathe the same air as that dude is breathing. I should get better air. And then, instantly, like a sledge hammer to the head, it hit me... that's what the rest of the world thinks about us. Why shouldn't we be terribly unpopular on the world stage? It's not like everyone could live like we do... there simply isn't enough "stuff." I forget what exactly they say but it's something like 4 earths... If everyone lived like Americans, we'd need 4 earths. Or maybe more. 5 would make sense, if we use 5 times our "fair share" of the world's resources.

So here's the question... would I give up my "stuff" so that others could have more stuff? Maybe some of it, but not enough. I'd probably be willing to do with a lot less if I lived in a culture that didn't value stuff so much and where it was more acceptable not to have things. But even so.

It's not all far away, either. Environmental justice. I heard on NPR just recently about 2 coal plants in Chicago that are causing health problems in the surrounding communities. Think those plants are in affluent neighborhoods? Course not.

Alright, enough. Tomorrow I will go back to taking lovely pictures of snow or drawing something. Much more life affirming.

ps -- Sometimes I wonder what, if anything, my students tell their parents and what they must think -- after an 11-year-old has translated the information -- I am teaching their kids. Extreme guilt? Socialism? (I try, at least, to somewhat avoid the former... in proper measures guilt can be helpful; too much is crippling.)

pps -- It's winter break!!! YEA!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Drop Drop Drop

Drastic temperature changes of late... from above 37 the other day to 13 right now. Doesn't seem that big, until you remember that this is the same as the difference between a 75 degree day and a 50 degree day. (or a 51 degree day). And with wind chill, it's like the difference between a 75 degree day and a 40 degree day.

I feel like my blog has become a weather blog. It will be a long winter.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Drip Drip Drop

If all the rain we've had over the past few days had fallen as snow, we'd have a LOT of white stuff on the ground. As it is, the rainy upper-30's weather is melting what we have, and it's looking pretty ugly out there. Not to be judgmental. But there's no way around it.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Haiku Re-Do

Haiku is an interesting form of poetry. Short, fairly simple, and yet... complex. It's hard to communicate something meaningful or beautiful in 17 short syllables. But what I really like about them is that traditionally, a haiku is a seasonal poem, capturing the essence of one moment in nature. Of course, those rules are commonly broken -- modern Americans quite enjoy breaking convention and I'm all for that in most cases* -- but I do like the idea of a traditional haiku. 17 syllables, broken into three lines which often indicate a verbal pause, that capture some phenological observation. It's like the original "tweet" but way better thought-out. And less banal (read: stupid).

So here's some more serious/traditional haiku poems for the day:
Crystalline snowflakes
Sparkle in the winter sun,
Reflecting brightness.

Puffed up to stay warm
He chirp-chirps as I pass by.
Sparrow on the sill.

Robin in the branch
Facing into the cold wind --
Why don't you migrate?

*When I teach haiku in my poetry unit, I focus on having the students read and write nature-oriented haiku poems... but I always end with this one, which the kids find really hilarious... actually, they find it way more hilarious than it probably is... here goes:
Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don't make sense.

ps. Happy first day of Hanukkah.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Haiku for the Day

Nose hairs are not froze.
Spit goes "splat" when it hits earth.
Folks, it's not that cold.

Alright. I complained yesterday about the weather, I admit it. But I'm starting to feel like we're a bit wimpy. I spent 5 winters in Minnesota, the last north of Lake Superior. In those 5 winters, I experienced some serious cold, and we went outside through all of it. Layer up, put on your snowpants hat coat scarf gloves boots etc. and go play outside!

Thursday, December 10, 2009


That is the temperature this morning. In Deg F. Not including wind chill. It feels like -20 deg F, what with the 25 mph winds. Cold.

Also, ice is on.

I am watching a robin outside my window. Robins used to be migratory birds around here, that left for the coldest parts of the year. Lately, some of them have stayed all year, making appearances on days like this, when, let's face it, if you were going to go south for the winter, you'd want to be there now. I feel bad for it, landing in various bushes, never finding shelter from the wind, flitting to the next one... Hope it's OK.

And speaking of things I feel bad for, I hope the voles are OK out there. There's not much snow, and the snow that is there is rather ice-chunky. I hope they have enough to insulate themselves subnivean-ly, because it would be a chilly day to be an exposed vole. I love voles... let's not think about it anymore, since there's nothing I can do for them.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Result?

It's a bust.

At about 9 last night, we shoveled about 3 inches of snow. It was very wet snow, actually, almost solid. Like slush, sort of. Almost no air in there at all. (Really heavy for shoveling.) That heavy snow, falling on top of rain, stuck to branches and pulled down tree limbs and plants.

This morning, the driveway was still clear, but quite wet... and we drove to school in the rain. Rain. And now, the temperature is supposed to start dropping dramatically.

Rain. I can't believe it all fell as rain. No sledding, snowmen only if you're willing to have sopping gloves, no skiing... Rain.

Oh, well... what can you do?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Talk About a Let Down

Prediction made yesterday for tonight's weather: "significant accumulation" of snow.
Prediction this morning for tonight's weather: 5-9 inches of snow.
Prediction at lunchtime for tonight's weather: 3-5 inches of snow.
Prediction after school for tonight's weather: 2-4 inches of snow. Note: the amount of precipitation is still predicted to be about the same I think... just now, they think it will be sleet/rain for a while. Then, tomorrow, it's supposed to turn very very cold, which sounds like a perfect recipe for an ice rink. Also, they say there might be thunder with tonight's snow, which is pretty crazy if you ask me.

So we'll see, but it sounds like a lot of build up for not a lot of the fluffy white stuff, but we'll see... they could always change the forecast again!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Ice Almost On...

At least, it's almost on ponds and really small lakes.

And, yeah. This picture was taken at my mid-day lunch break. That's a bright out as it's getting today.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Moon Rising

The moon, a waning gibbous, rises through the tree branches. It was quite lovely tonight -- I first saw the moonrise from the car, and it was huge and orange and hazy from thin clouds. By the time we arrived home and set up the tripod to take a picture, its color had lightened and the moon illusion had diminished, but it still hung large on the horizon like a face looking down upon us.

Interesting moon fact: There was a full moon on Dec 2 this year and there will be another on Dec 31... 2 full moons in one month. That only happens... once in a blue moon! (This is one reported origin of the phrase; a more common explanation is that a blue moon occurs when you have 13 full moons in a calendar year as opposed to 12. Either way, it happens about once every 3 years. Not quite as rare as the idiom leads you to believe.)

Also... we'll see about tomorrow, but today was still quite cold, and our small dusting of snow is still on the ground even though today and yesterday were sunny!

Ice Not On

This is the small bit of ice on the lake yesterday morning (Dec 4). We're definitely not at ice on yet.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Snow Day?

So all yesterday afternoon, my classes were convinced that school would be cancelled today for a snow day. Now, it was true that the snow was falling quite hard for a little while... looking out the windows, we saw a lot of white swirling around in the air. But on the ground? Nothing had stuck to any pavement, which was too warm. The snow was beginning to stick on the grass... but there was less than a quarter inch at this point. So the chances of a school cancellation, given that we are located north of the Mason-Dixon line... pretty remote. But nonetheless, they were excited!

Me, too, because the snow was quite lovely.
Snow on purple coneflower, Dec 3. (Can you tell which way the wind was blowing, boys and girls?)
Snowflake on my coat, Dec 3.

ps. This morning we woke up to the sound of snowplows. I'm not sure why... this is how much snow we actually got. Please note that that 2 is a centimeter measure... all told, we got about 1.2 cm of snow that stuck to the ground. (And, this morning the radio says the wind chill is 12 deg F. But it's supposed to hit 40 deg over the weekend... so we won't have our 1.2 cm for long...)
(We're at school, btw.)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Other Shoe? Just Fell

So... Yesterday morning was sunny and around 50... quite nice... but even then, the air just smelled like winter in some odd, un-pin-point-able way. By lunchtime, it had clouded over. By the end of school, it was cold and a but windy out. Today, cloudy, high in the mid-30's, and we're expecting a dusting of snow overnight.

I kind of think that this time, we're in it for the long haul... it's December, we've less than 3 weeks until winter break... it's time for me to get the hats and gloves out of storage and settle in. (I wore a turtle neck under a sweater today for the first time this year. I didn't make that decision lightly; it's a phenological event in and of itself!)

I wonder... how long will it be before I have anything to report about besides the weather?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Winter" Wildflowers XII

Well, it may be time to end this series, as with prairie dock, I seem to have bitten off more than I could chew. Not surprising, really, because it's such a large leaf... I worked a while on the shriveled, enshadowed left side, and couldn't even think about finishing the insect-eaten, folded right. And soon, I might have to tackle compass plant, and that hurts to even think about.
Prairie dock's large leaves -- we used to call them elephant ears -- are a noticeable feature in the winter prairie despite not being very tall. (The flower stalks are tall, but mine never flowered...) Dark brown, they shrivel up and curl in on themselves, making for some really interesting shapes. They also have noteworthy texture; they feel like a very rough-grade sand paper.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Winter" Wildflowers XI

OK, I'm going to come right out and say it -- this gentian may have been beyond my capabilities as a sketcher. But here it is nonetheless. It's a fascinating flower when it blooms (see previous entry under gentian label) and is really lovely in the winter garden, as well. The pods open with a curlicue flourish. At the slightest touch, hundreds or even thousands of ivory seeds spill everywhere; in a breeze, they travel. I hope some land and grow new gentians next year!