Friday, August 30, 2013

Stirring up a hornet's nest -- literally!

Over the years, I have stirred up plenty of symbolic hornet's nests with my controversial stances on various issues -- but this time I did it for real.  OK, they were really Yellow Jackets, the smaller cousins of the Bald-faced Hornet -- but they get just as angry when you disturb their nests.

Yellow Jackets coming out of
an underground nest (Photo courtesy of
South Texas Nature Images on Flikr)
Of course I didn't do this on purpose -- nobody does that!  A couple days ago the wind took down a paper birch tree, and I needed some nice sticks for an upcoming Cub Scout craft project that my grandson's Pack is planning to do.  (Since I have a wood lot, it falls to me to provide a lot of the natural materials.)  I thought the white birch bark would look nice, so this morning I went out to cut off some of the branches -- and unwittingly stepped into the nest.

Yellow Jackets usually nest in the ground, often using an old rabbit hole or other tunnel, so they are very hard to see until it is too late  This one was covered by the crown of the fallen tree.   I was so intent on choosing and cutting my salvaged branches that I did not notice the wasps until a swarm was buzzing around me.

Luckily I was wearing heavy pants tucked into my boots, in preparation for tromping through underbrush in the ditch where the tree fell.  Good thing, because those little buggers grabbed onto the cloth of my pants and really hung on -- if I had been wearing shorts, I would have had stings all over my legs.  As it was, I only got 3 on my arms and one on my face as I high-tailed it out of there.  (This is why I'm always telling people NOT to wear shorts in the woods.   Sure it's hot wearing long pants -- but even worse getting scratched up or stung!)

While on the subject of Yellow Jackets, you may notice that there seem to be a lot more of them around your picnic table in the fall.  This is because during the summer they feed their young on insects, so they don't have much interest in your bottle of pop or your jelly roll.  But in the fall, after the new queens have flown and the colony starts to break up, the worker wasps switch to a sugary diet -- and start buzzing around your outdoor events.  Suddenly it seems as if the population has exploded overnight.  I myself have noticed a lot more of them around my hummingbird feeders lately -- and now I know where they are all coming from!  But really, they have been increasing steadily all summer, you just don't see many until fall.

Unlike honey bees, wasp and hornet colonies don't winter over.  The new queens fly and mate, then find a place to hibernate for the winter.  The rest of the wasps die off  with the cold weather.  So, after we get a few hard frosts, I'll be able to return to that tree and safely salvage some birch sticks.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Do clothes make the Hasid?

When I first began this blog, the pic on my profile page was this one of me and my cat, Sapphire.  This was a photo recently featured in Cat Fancy magazine in an article called "Clergy Cats," about cats who live with religious leaders. (Read more about that.)  I thought it did a pretty good job of illustrating life here on our Minnesota hobby farm.  (And it provided a good joke about how I am "outstanding in my field.")

Well, it wasn't long before somebody asked me why, if I am really a Hasid, don't I wear a suit on my profile?  The fact is, I a good suit is the last thing you want to be wearing when you are doing farm chores.  Ditto for white shirts.  To clean the barn, you want to wear the oldest rags you have -- and change them when you come inside.

However, I did think about it and replaced the old photo with this one of me wearing a jacket and standing in front of a bookcase -- the typical scholarly bio pic that was, in fact, used on a couple of my book covers.

Did that satisfy the halachah police?  Not really.  Before long I got another query asking why I wasn't wearing a brimmed hat.  Never mind that I was wearing a yarmulke -- "everybody knows" a true Hasid wears a brimmed hat over his yarmulke.

Yonassan Gershom, 2013
So OK, folks, here is a recent pic of me in a brimmed hat.  I'm a lot older and grayer than in the earlier pix, but that's life.

No doubt there will be somebody who points out that my coat is blue, not black.  Oy vey, when will it end?  First of all, Breslov Hasidim (the group I belong to) do not have a uniform, so you see all kinds of clothes at a Breslov gathering.  And secondly, it is a fact that Jews -- even very religious ones -- did not always wear black.  Neither did the American Pilgrims in the 1600s, even though we now portray them that way.  Their clothes were colored with natural dyes in various earth tones.

So were the clothes of Jews.  Consider this folk painting of pre-Holocaust stetl (village) life in Eastern Europe:

"Samedi Apres-Midi" (Sabbath Afternoon)
painting by Ilex Beller (click image to enlarge)

You can clearly see men's coats in a variety of colors, even on the Sabbath.  The rabbis in the center of the painting are wearing black (a mark of honor and scholarship back then), but the common people are dressed in blue, purple, brown, etc.  The fact is, a true black dye was not invented until the 1700s, and was very expensive in the early days of the Hasidic movement.  This was the origin of "black tie" events in the secular world for the upper crust, and of black coats on the Sabbath and holy days, when it is traditional to dress more formally.  For the weekdays, most people wore less expensive clothes.



This detail from another Beller painting shows shoemakers working -- and wearing non-black clothing.  Most likely, they did not want to get shoe polish and glue on their good Sabbath coats, same as I don't want dirt and chicken poop on mine. 
When I mentioned this history of black dyes in another online conversation, I was told that people got black wool from black sheep.  Not very likely -- most "black" sheep are not a true black, either.  They are more often a very dark grey or even brownish.  Which might have made a nice coat, but it would not be the black we know today.  (It is true that recently some farmers have bred for the black color, but since black is recessive in sheep, they were not as common until genetics was better understood.  Grigor Mendel did not work out basic genetic patterns until the mid-1800s.)

Last but not least, this detail from yet a third Beller painting shows a Jewish peddler wearing a long blue coat very much like the one I have on in the photo above.  One could argue that this artist simply used bright colors for the sake of art -- but his purpose was to chronicle life in his old village, in memory of those who died in the Holocaust.  Throughout the series of paintings there are recognizable individuals wearing the same clothing.  In some of his descriptions that accompany the paintings, he actually names them.  So I'm pretty sure he is painting memories of real people and how they dressed. 

Nowadays, it seems, everybody wants to dress in rabbinical black.  I don't fault them for this -- but really, the color of my clothes is no indication of whether or not I am a Hasid. 

* * *

UPDATE:  Clothes are not the only thing people use to try to discredit me.  See also:

(Note:  The Ilex Beller paintings are used here as part of a critical art discussion about the works, which I believe falls under the category of "fair usage."  There is no intent to violate Beller's copyright.)



Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Meteors and Memories

Last night I finally got to watch the Perseid meteor showers.  I say "finally" because the previous nights this year were cloudy, and last year it rained the whole time.  But last night was perfect.  A clear sky with no moon.

About half an hour after midnight I turned off all the house lights to avoid light pollution in the yard, then took a sleeping bag and a pillow outside and lay down on the front lawn.  (My wife originally wanted to go, too, but was too tired when the time came, so she wished me well and went back to sleep.)  I was soon joined by two of my cats, who came up from hunting rodents by the chicken coop to sit on me and purr.

I did not have to wait long to see a meteor.  I counted 23 in an hour, several of them big bright streaks, but none to compare with the fireball my wife and I saw several years ago.  But even with the excitement of seeing a meteor, it was still a slow, quiet activity, with a lot of waiting between sightings.  You can't push nature, you just have to go with her pace of things.  As I lay there waiting for the next one to streak across the sky, I was reminded of when we did this at summer camp many years ago. It was a pleasant time to reminisce.

I also saw what was probably a satellite moving across the sky -- or was it maybe the space station?  I remember back in the late 50s and early 60s, when satellites were a new thing, there used to be schedules in the paper about when they would pass over.  My father and I would go out in the yard to try and spot them.  It was a big deal back then to spot a passing satellite -- way before GPS and satellite TV, long before anybody felt a need to "unplug" because nobody was as plugged in and speeded-up like today.  What we watched were just little orbiting balls reflecting the sun, the very beginnings of space flight.

The night was chilly and getting downright cold -- unusual for mid-August here, but welcome, because there were no mosquitoes.  The ground was getting damp though, and my old bones were feeling the lumps in the ground.  so after another half hour, around 2am, I went inside and called it a night.