Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Final Tribute to the Tall Ship Bounty

As I write this, Hurricane Sandy is still raging, and with so many tragedies and devastating images, the news is overwhelming.  But the one event that stays in my mind is the loss of the HMS Bounty, along with two members of her noble crew.  At this time, one body has been recovered and her captain is still missing.  Thankfully, 14 other crew members were rescued by the Coast Guard.  The ship herself now rests at the bottom of the sea.

The Bounty at anchor, with the Duluth
Lift Bridge in the background.
(I was leaning as I took this shot --
 not the bridge!)
It was only two years ago that she sailed into Duluth harbor, where my wife and I saw her at the 2010 Tall Ships Festival.  It was a special trip for us -- our 30th wedding anniversary.  My wife loves ships and comes from a line of sea captains ("Bold Daniel" Hathorne, who fought in the American Revolution, is one of her ancestors), so I thought this would be the perfect anniversary gift.  And it was.  We spent the whole day enjoying the sight of seven tall ships and exploring the festival on shore, including a performance of The Pirates of Penzance.  (With the exception of the promo shot of the Bounty under sail above, I took all the photos on this page that day.  Click the pix to see enlargements.)

Details of her hull and rigging.
 Like millions of others, I had seen this ship in Mutiny on the Bounty, as well as Pirates of the Caribbean.  I remember going with my father to see the 1962 release of Mutiny (he was a Navy man and loved anything to do with the sea), and I had recently viewed the film again in preparation for the Duluth trip. So this festival was not only a gift for my wife, it was a piece of nostalgia.

Her masts against the
clear Duluth sky.
To me, the story of the original Bounty was almost mythological in historical importance.  The opportunity to see such an exact replica up close was a real thrill.  Little did we know, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because now she is gone forever.  I'm thankful we got to see her, and will always remember that wonderful day among the great tall ships.

The Bounty docked in Duluth, 2010.  The object in the
foreground is a vintage buoy.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Why was this hornet's nest so close to the ground?

Now that the leaves are all down, you can sometimes spot interesting things that were hidden during the summer.  Like this Bald-Faced Hornet's nest that has its opening less than a foot above the ground, which is probably why I couldn't find it earlier in the summer.   I knew there were hornets around because I saw them, but I was looking UP into the treetops, where these nests usually are.  And here there was a nest less than 30 feet from my chicken coop and practically ON the ground -- not more than six feet from where I was harvesting wild plums!  I probably walked past that nest dozens of times and never even knew it was there.  I didn't bother them and they didn't bother me.

Bald-faced Hornet
This is the second time I've found a very low nest on my land -- the first was only about 3 feet off the ground, near another outbuilding.  There are plenty of trees around here to nest in, so I am wondering:  Do hornets often build so low, or do I have an unusual strain of these insects breeding here?  Hornets only use the nest for one season, after which they all die off except the new queens, who hibernate over the winter, producing new colonies in the spring.  So it is conceivable that some mutation is causing queens here to nest low.  I'll have to watch for more low nests next spring.

Before I go any further, I should mention that there is NO HONEY in a nest like this, in spite of what Hollywood might think.  In both cartoons and live action films (such as in Doctor Doolittle 2, where a bear climbs up to a nest for honey) hornet's nests are mistakenly confused with old-fashioned garden beehives.  Climb up to one of these nests and all you will get is a bunch of stings, because hornets don't make honey.  They are predators that feed their larvae on  insects.

Back of my coop -- the lighter areas
are where the hornets scraped off
wood fibers for their nest.
Where were the hornets getting their wood fibers to make this nest?  From the back of my chicken coop, where they scraped the bare weathered wood clean.  I've seen this behavior here before, both with hornets and wasps, but wasn't paying much attention this summer because of the heat wave.  It wasn't until I found the nest that I went to look at the coop.  You can very clearly see the lighter areas where they were working (click the pix to enlarge).

Interestingly, they seem to follow the vertical lines of the boards.  In cases where I have actually seen hornets doing this, they are always clinging vertically, never horizontally. Most likely, they are following the grain of the wood.  And if you listen very closely, you can actually hear them chewing.  In fact, the first time I observed this behavior many years ago, it was by first hearing a strange scraping sound, looking for the source, then seeing a hornet busily chewing along a dead goldenrod stalk.

In this closeup,  you can clearly see where they left off and the patina of the old wood (darker area on the left) still shows.  When you look at the nest itself, you also see variations in the color of the paper, with clear stripes from both the dark and light areas.  This suggests to me that each wasp goes back to the same part of the coop wall, gets a load of fibers, then returns to the same area on the nest.  But since I have not actually observed this, it is only guesswork.

All of this brings up the question of where wasps and hornets get their wood fibers in developed areas.  An old weather-worn shack like my chicken coop would never be tolerated in more upscale neighborhoods.  Ditto for dead trees and other suitable debris.  Maybe they use wooden fences?  I have seen photos of nests that are more reddish in color, as if made from redwood.

Hornets, along with their cousins, the paper wasps, are very good for the garden -- which is where the inhabitants of this nest were hunting all summer.  I watched them searching among the broccoli and cabbage leaves for those little green caterpillars.  When they find one, they sting it and carry it back to their nest.  Ditto for army worms and other pests, including flies, which can be found in abundance around the coop and manure pile. Plus, both hornets and wasps visit flowers to eat pollen and nectar, and seem to be moving into the niche that has been vacated by honey bees around here.  I only saw two honey bees all summer, but lots of wasps were on the flowers, and we got a good harvest.  So unless the nests are someplace dangerous to me or my animals, I leave these very beneficial insects alone.   Besides, they give me an excellent reason NOT to paint the chicken coop!

Closeup of the nest after I collected it, showing the
variations of colors of wood pulp used.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Coolio Cat and Nightshade: Did their love transcend death?

Do bonds of friendship between animals survive death?  This is an interesting question that may not be provable with hard evidence, but I believe that, in some cases at least, they do.

Coolio Cat
Consider the story of Coolio Cat and Nightshade, two of my cats who shared a lifetime together.  Three weeks ago, Coolio passed away peacefully at the age of 15 (Read his memorial story).  This past Friday, his lifelong friend, Nightshade, followed him into the light.  Now granted, Nightshade was 14 years old, and her health was not very good lately.  But what interests me is how quickly she went downhill after Coolio's death, and how her behavior changed.  I also had a sense that Coolio's spirit was still with us, and that he was hanging around with Nightshade, watching over her.

Nightshade in her Halloween cat stance
Nightshade was always an emotionally needy cat. She was a rescue who had a terrible, abusive kittenhood.  Once we had adopted her, she quickly bonded with us and with Coolio, a young stray cat we took in when we moved here.  Although Coolio was a year older than she was, he was still young enough to romp and play and teach her how to be a happy cat.  On the other hand, she didn't trust our dogs, and would puff up and hiss if they got too close. It was this habit of rearing up like a Halloween cat, along with her somewhat grumpy facial expression, that earned her the name Nightshade.

In terms of black cat superstitions, I used to joke that although a black cat crossed my path every day, I also had a lucky white cat that canceled the bad luck out. Sort of yin and yang. Of course, I don't really believe in any of this, it was just family fun. As Groucho Marx once said, "If a black cat crosses your path, it means the animal is going somewhere." (Oddly enough, Nightshade started turning white in her old age. When we adopted her, she was pure black, but in later years she had developed several white spots on her fur.)

Nightshade also loved to ride around on my shoulder -- so much so, that I used to joke she was a reincarnation of a parrot. This was cute, but also sometimes rather painful, because, as she got older, she would dig her claws in. Even as a kitten she was always afraid of falling, which led me to believe she must have been dropped, or even thrown, at some time before we got her, especially since she was distrustful of children. (Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of her doing the parrot act, to my deep regret.)

After Coolio died, Nightshade became even more clingy.  She wanted to be held constantly, and spent a lot more time riding around on my shoulder.  Meanwhile, her health took a sudden turn for the worse.  She developed breathing problems, ate less, and seemed to have trouble keeping warm.  I would often find her sitting on top of the fridge, or next to the crock pot when it was on.  She also sat on top of the stove when we were using the oven, and would snuggle against the other cats on the couch.  And she spent more time sitting in the sun, where, presumably, her black fur absorbed the warmth like a feline solar heater.

Nightshade in her younger days,
when she was pure black
On the day she died, I had let her outside with the other cats, where she liked to sit on the front porch.  An hour or so later, I found her dead on the grass in the front yard.  My first thought was one of guilt:  If only I had kept her inside, she would still be alive.  Which wasn't really true.  There were no signs of trauma on her body, no indication that she had been hit by a car or attacked by an animal.  She had simply passed away.  Had I kept her inside, she would have died inside.  As it was, she crossed over while doing something she really loved:  sunning herself in the grass on a warm autumn day.  (I am reminded of my brother-in-law Enzo, a licensed falconer, who died of a heart attack while releasing his hawk at a bird demonstration.   He, too, went while doing what he loved.)

Because it was the afternoon before the Sabbath, I was unable to bury her right away.  (She is the third cat I've had die just before the Sabbath, and Coolio died on the Sabbath itself.  Is this coincidence, or do they prefer to go then because it is more spiritual?  The Sabbath is sometimes called "a taste of Eden," and Eden is, after all, the Jewish metaphor for Heaven.  Plus, Eden has animals in it.)

On Sunday I buried her next to Coolio -- and here is where things got strange.  I dug the hole as usual, lined it with dry grass, and laid her in it, wrapped in a soft blanket.  After saying my final goodbyes, I filled in the hole and marked it with rocks.  Then suddenly the wind came up, and there was a feeling of light and happiness.  For a fleeting moment I had a mental image of Coolio and Nightshade walking together, healthy and happy again.  Then it was over.  Some might say it was just my imagination, but I am convinced that Coolio's spirit was waiting for her, and that they went together to the spiritual Garden of Eden.


The graphic I used for years on eBay.  These kittens are,
of course, long ago adopted out to forever homes,
after which their mother, Chayah Cat, was spayed. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Firing Big Bird would be just the beginning for Romney

A week after the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney is still baffled as to why the Obama campaign is focusing on his "Big Bird" comment and his promise to de-fund PBS.  Once again,  rich-boy Romney shows how out-of-touch he is with average Americans.  He is apparently unaware that there are plenty of people who can't afford cable TV to access the Discovery Channel.  In many rural areas, it's not even available.  Welcome to th Digital Divide.

Romney is also apparently unaware what a goodwill ambassador Big Bird is around the world.  He and his Sesame Street friends enter the living rooms of over 120 million viewers in more than 140 countries.  Many of whom, quite frankly, are baffled as to why Romney would attack such a good show -- a show that has won more Emmys than any other children's program.  (see the New York Times blog article, Romney's attack on Big Bird sows confusion abroad and feeds it at home ).

For many lower-income families, both in America and abroad, PBS is their only access to good, commercial-free, child-safe educational programming.  I didn't grow up on Sesame Street (now I'm really showing my age) but my grandchildren have, and I can see the positive effects on their early learning.  Which is why the Obama campaign has seized on the PBS issue.  It's not just about saving Big Bird (although he has become a symbol of the debate), but about the negative values that Romney holds regarding education. 

Romney has already said he wants to do away with the Department of Education, as well as eliminate Pell grants, Head Start, and low-interest student loans.  He thinks we don't need any more teachers, that everyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and that if you want to go to college or start a business, you can just borrow the money from your parents.  (Which, in my case, would not fund much more than a lemonade stand.)  Now he wants to do away with one of the best learning tools we have.

PBS is also a good source of top-of-the-line science and nature programs like Nova and Nature, as well as specials on astronomy, physics, space exploration, evolution, and medical breakthroughs, to name a few. Some of the most amazing hummingbird footage I've ever seen came on the PBS video I got for signing up as a supporter of Nature this year.  Of course, you have to believe in the validity of science to appreciate this fine programming -- which may be why Romney's more conservative supporters hate PBS.  After all, these are the same people who don't believe in evolution (upon which all our DNA research is based) and want to teach creationism in our schools.

Which brings us to the real reason Romney went after PBS: to pander to the Far Right.  If he is any kind of an accountant, he can't really believe that cutting PBS funding will even make a scratch in the federal budget. The government money that PBS receives is less than one percent (.00014 to be exact) of the total budget -- about $1.50 per year per person.  Considering what we all get for that buck-fifty, it's a pretty good deal.  However, polls have shown that many uninformed Americans think that PBS gets a huge percentage of the national budget.  It seems Romney also thinks that, since he keeps linking PBS with "borrowing from China."  Plus, the conservatives have been trying to shut down PBS for years.  So for those who already drank the Kool-Aid, PBS is a right-wing rallying point.  In fact, Romney has been harping on PBS and Big Bird since at least December 2011 (read more on that... with examples)

After the debate, Romney said that Big Bird would survive under his administration, but he'll have to have commercials ("look at Corn Flakes" in Romney's words.)  Oh yeah -- let PBS become just like all the cable shows, pushing sugary drinks and nutritionless cereals, violent video games, toys the kids don't need, and relying on advertisers' ratings for what shows to include.  If Romney really wants to stop the flow of US cash to China, he might start with all those cheap made-in-China toys that break within days or -- even worse -- end up being toxic.

And speaking of toxic, remember that Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, don't believe that human-made pollution is causing climate change, or that fumes from coal plants are bad for your health.  (In spite of the propaganda, there is no such thing as clean coal.)  Nor do they value our national parks, about which Romney has said that he "can't see the point in them."  (He wants to make the Grand Canyon available for drilling and mining -- see "How might our national park system fare under President Romney? for more info.)  So of course, Romney would not be too thrilled that PBS ran an excellent series on the history, beauty, and benefits of our national parks.  (I suppose a guy who needs an elevator from his garage to his house doesn't do much wilderness hiking.)

One last thought:  The cost of a whole year of PBS programming is equal to only six hours of defense spending.  Frankly, I'd rather spend my $1.50 to keep on hiring Big Bird.

Cartoon courtesy of the LA Times