Monday, December 24, 2007

Post Rodent Resolution

As 2007 draws to a close, I realize just how many rodent works I still need to read/watch/comment upon (from The Mouse and the Motorcycle and Stuart Little to the wonders of prairie dog tourism and hero rats). As I try to catch-up with rodent stuff, it is time to be thinking about the theme for 2008.

Sparkling Wine, Pink and Rodents have been very successful resolutions. Fruit and spices much less so (although we did drink some awful cordials for each). So, the basic requirements of the year's big resolution (I do have more mundane resolutions such as reading books and exercising) are that it must be something that I can share with the Mister and friends (no resolving to lower my cholesterol), something that can be spread out over the whole year and done in small increments (no resolving to go to Fiji) and something fun.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Tears for a spider

The 2006 movie version of Charlotte's Web is not as good as the book. This should be no surprise, as movie versions of beloved books are never as good as the books*, but it still saddened me as the Mister and I watched the movie last night. Unlike the horrible Secret of NIMH, which utterly ruined the Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the recent version of Charlotte's Web is true to the plot. Charlotte's Web, however, is a quiet magical story. Quiet magic doesn't translate to feature films well, and adding "action" sequences with Templeton, the rat, and celebrity voices (Julia Roberts, you have a very nice voice, but I'm sorry, you're not Charlotte) doesn't do it.

While Templeton's role in the story is comic relief, his development of compassion is one of the great transformations of the book. They tried to force this in the movie, but it didn't work and I ended up just feeling sorry for the poor rat, whose book character is one of my all time favorite rodent side-kicks.

Despite numerous problems, I'm glad we watched Charlotte's Web. I am prone to crying at no provocation these days (see reason in ROUS post), but would have wept profusely at the end of the story regardless. It's not Charlotte's death that usually gets me, it's Wilbur's abandonment by her children and then, when it looks like a few are going to stay and be friends, E.B. White goes and points out how none could possibly replace Charlotte (the movie thankfully leaves out that tear-jerking line, but I know the book well enough to know that it accompanies the "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." line that was included).

I'm pretty sure I didn't think the book was terribly sad as a child, but as a teenager and later, the truth that friends come and go but are irreplaceable has struck me as incredibly sad.

Summary Recommendation: Read the fabulous book. Skip the movie. Babe is a better pig movie. Ratatouille a better rat movie.

* The movie Joy Luck Club truly enhanced Amy Tan's book I adored. The BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, most of the Harry Potter movies and The Lord of the Rings all do honor to the great books they are made from, if, of course, not as great.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

ROUSs for sad nights

The Mister and I watched The Princess Bride last night. While it is not fully a rodent movie, the rodent parts, while not large, are critical. The fire swamp would not be nearly so horrible without the ROUSs (Rodents Of Unusual Size), the movie would not be nearly as campy without a human in a giant rat suit fighting Wesley, and Buttercup would not be nearly as annoying a heroine if she would have just bashed the ROUS herself. Altogether, the ROUSs* add a great deal.

The Princess Bride is one of my all-time favorite movies and the one to which I know almost every line. Its not a great movie by any account, but I love it. Sometimes one needs funny comfortable movies. Last night was one such night in our house. Our much anticipated reason for not drinking is no more and will not be arriving in July. We found out she/he wasn't alive on Thursday and I had surgery yesterday. It's devastating and horrible (and I'm not intending to make light of it by talking about it in a rodent movie post, but I don't want to talk about it at all, yet think that my friends need to know) but there really isn't anything to be done except grade the finals and curl up with the Mister and watch silly movies.

What are your favorite rodent minor characters? ROUS in Princess Bride? Templeton in Charlotte's Web? The beaver in Lady and the Tramp?

I haven't fully inspected the Rodents of Unusual Sweetness webpage, but I am terribly amused just by the link to "What to expect when your rat is expecting"

The ROUS T-shirt pictured above is available from

*How does one properly make a plural of an anacronym that ends with S?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Hard Times for the Groundhog

Our local marmot seems to hole up in the banks of a closeby creek. The site has tall vegetation for hiding, good access to chestnuts and cool shade for hot days. The big drawback, of course, is that once every so often (twice since we've lived here), the creek entirely fills it's banks. When it happened in April, we just assumed the marmot scurried to higher ground (Although, as our entire neightborhood is in the floodplain of the river through town, I'm not exactly sure how high the marmot could make it without crossing the highway.) When the floodwaters were rising yesterday, however, I was worried about our groundhog because he should have been hibernating. I suppose we'll just have to wait until March to see how he's fared.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Bye, Beaver

After the first substantive rain of the fall season (late October, on a day I took my ecology class on an all day field trip, pictured below), progress on the beaver lodge stalled. The Mister and I were unsure if the beavers decided that the water levels vacillated too much, or if they had just moved to slower waters. We haven't seen either since.
We cannot be sure, then, that the gigantanormous 50 pound beaver recently trapped out of the our river was one of "our" beavers, but I suspect it was. The on-line version of the local paper seems to be a month behind, so you might want to check here in a few weeks to see a grainy image of a large animal you'll recognize as a beaver only from its feet.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sparkling Update

We've been remiss here at sparkling squirrel in reporting on sparkling wines recently. There is a reason for lack of sparkling wine drinking, and, until that reason arrives (she/he is due in early July), the lack of wine sampling will likely continue.
However, to celebrate being with family and to announce our reason not to drink sparkling wine, the Mister and I did toast with some fine vintages recently. With The Mister's parents we had Jansz Tasmania, a mysterious (as to varietal) Tasmanian premium non-vintage cuvee, which I really liked for what little I sampled, and the crowd did not. We also opened a Biltmore Estates Chateau Reserve 2003 Blanc de Blanc, much preferred by Prairie Quilter, but which reminded me that chardonnay based Blanc de Blancs are not my thing.
In Colorado we drank the last (?) of our wedding sparkling (Korbel Blanc de Noir) and a bottle of true champagne, a grand cuvee purchased simply because it was relatively inexpensive. Both were good, but the later certainly not twice as good as the former, as the price might suggest.

Find a reason and drink some sparkling wine, or whatever makes you feel festive, and keep celebrating.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Parsnips and Carrots

Parsnips and carrots deserves to be among my "converter recipe". Friends who eat it leave liking parsnips. I can't count these friends as a true converts, however, because so few of them had previously eaten parsnips to think they disliked them. Among my friends, as I imagine is true among most Americans, parsnips are either a nonentity or mistakenly lumped in with turnips.

The Mister had no idea if he liked parsnips when I first met him. I served him parsnips and carrots one winter night early in our relationship and he ate three large helpings, ruining my leftover stash for the week but endearing him to me forever.*

Parsnip and Carrots

olive oil

Julienne equal quantities of parsnips and carrots. The Mister bought me a special attachment for our food processor just for this, but grating does work, as does hand chopping. Toss the carrots and parsnips into a saute pan, with a little olive oil if it is not non-stick. Cover and cook for a while, adding a little (1/4 cup or less) juice or port if you want a little added flavor, water otherwise. When your other food items are nearing ready, take the lid off add some butter and brown the vegetables a bit.

While this recipe is very very tasty if you are constantly adding butter (making, in essence buttery parsnip and carrot hash browns). The vegetables can do most of their cooking by steaming and only need a small quantity of butter at the end for a few nice browned bits. The dish is, in fact, still quite tasty without any butter.

*Among many many other things.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Last Night of Squirrel Awareness Month

I was visting Squirrelman's Blog today and learned that October is squirrel of awareness month. Instead of trick-or-treating (and that happened on the 30th here anyway, you should spend some time being aware of squirrels. If you are reading this in the USA, you are in the country with the greatest squirrel diversity on the planet. I learned this from Squirrelman's odd but informative video clip of the top ten squirrel countries, which is worth a look.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Mystery Squash Season

When we returned from the road trip, the healthiest plants in our garden were the giant squash vines volunteering out of the compost pile. The friend who had been watering considered them summer squash and had picked (and left) monstrous quantities. While they were tasty steamed and then sauteed with sage and sausage, I quickly determined, solely on our inability to keep up with eating the crop, that they should be considered winter squash and they have been ripening on the vine ever since.
The forecast suggests that temperatures could drop tonight (it hasn't frosted yet), and as I looked out at the muted autumnal hillsides this afternoon, I decided to harvest the volunteer mystery squash.

For the first time in my adult life, I have Halloween decorations other than a single jack-o-lantern. The grass is from The Mister's birdseed. I think it looks particularly gruesome with our purple astroturf. But at least the squash will have been admired (or tripped on) by throngs of trick-or-treaters before it returns to the compost pile.

Butternut Squash Season

Winter squash season has arrived here in West Virginia. To one member of our household, this is an event of great joy, as it means, among other tasty things, squash soups and stews. To the other member of our household, winter squash season is a non-event.
As the former, I invite you all to celebrate autumn with a big pot of squash soup. In the past, I considered my curried squash stew to be a converter recipe: one of my recipes, like carrots and parsnips or sweet potato chips or roasted brussel sprouts which convinced anyone who ate it that they didn't really hate the vegetable in question after all. My former roommate Tuscon Trekker, in fact, thinks that my recipe for curried squash stew alone was worth all the hassles of living with me (that I put up with, and actually liked, her smelly cat was just a bonus). The Mister, however, is not a fan and I've actually forgotten how to make the wonderful concoction since living with him.

Pureed squash soups are more to The Mister's liking, or at least tolerance, and this one is almost as good as my famous stew.

1 butternut squash
1 onion
some oil
some chili peppers
some Indian spices
some wine
chicken broth and water
plain non-fat yogurt

Split the squash, remove the seeds and bake (skin side up in a little water) until cooked, about an hour*. Saute the onion in the oil. Add the chili peppers, ginger, turmeric and whatever other Indian spices sound good at the moment. Unlike some squash soups, this one is in no way trying to emulate pumpkin pie, so make sure you spice it so that it is spicy, not just cinnamon-y.

After you have forgotten about everything and the onions and spices have started sticking to the bottom of the pot, deglaze the pan with a bit of wine (cheap port works very well). Scoop out the squash flesh from the skin (which comes easily if you have baked it long enough, but don't scald yourself with the steam) and add the squash to the soup. Add some chicken broth or water or both and let it cook until your house smells wonderful.

Pour the soup into a food processor and puree until smooth. Add some plain yogurt to the quantity you are going to eat right now (yogurt doesn't ruin the leftovers, but leftovers with yogurt need to be watched while re-heated) and puree some more.


*This is the way to roast butternut squash as a straight side dish as well. You can bake a bunch at once and use them at different points throughout the week. Allegedly the soup process is faster if you just stick the squash raw in the soup, but then you need to peel it, which is a real pain, and the roasting really does bring out the flavor. Bake at the temperature of whatever else you have in the oven. I bake squash and apples or pears at the same time, usually at 350, but hotter certainly wouldn't hurt.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Gratuitous Cuteness

I can't make any real connection to rodents, sparkling wine, books or vegetables.

Do penguins count for rodents? Book Update

Some time back I picked up Hippolyte's Island, an illustrated novel by Barbara Hodgson based only on its cover. The book was light and fun. I willingly suspended disbelief where required and I spent some time thinking about penguins and looking at maps of the Southern Ocean after I finished it. The big realization, for me, is that I don't like "illustrated" adult novels. The drawings and pages of log reports in this one are fantastic, but I noticed them far more today exploring on Amazon (from which the image comes) than I did while reading it. A good story shouldn't need such superfluous material.

More recently I read Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen by Tamora Pierce. In reading these fabulous young adult fantasy novels, I noticed that I don't even flip back to the front to look at maps, even though I think that all such novels should have maps. Once into a story I want to read the story.

While reading Trickster's Choice, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how authors introduce readers to the rules of a world when the characters already live there. I was shocked to find the heroine dealing directly with a god a few chapters into the book. The heroine was not at all shocked. Such introductions are easy when the main characters are themselves outsiders (e.g. Harry Potter; Lucy and Edmund; hobbits outside the Shire), but more difficult when the characters understand magic, gifts, magi and gods, but the readers don't. I thought Pierce did a generally good job of this, but I was conscious of my lostness at several points early on. Later I found that Trickster's Choice, while the first book about Alianne, is Pierce's 13th set in Tortall, so many readers do already know the rules.

In any case, Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen both come heartily recommended to my fellow young adult fantasy fans. You know who you are. They are no Blue Sword (nothing else is), but they have a fantastic teenage heroine who survives by thinking like a spy. She's just a touch annoyingly good at everything, but she still rings mostly true-- and of course I'm all for anything that suggests that smart girls can also be beautiful and good with a blade. By biggest complaint is that the second book involved a very serious moral dilemma (and some interesting commentary about the collateral losses of a just war) and it was decided by outside forces rather than by the characters. I still want to know what she would have done.

Thanks to Sunflower Spinner for lending me the books.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Pop open some house sparkling

The Colorado Rockies, on their way to the World Series, were apparently drinking Domaine Ste. Michelle last night. Good choice, guys. If you're in a "hot streak of epic proportions" well-chilled sparkling wine should hit the spot. And nice playing, too.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Preparation for the winter

Last weekend the Mister and I journeyed into the mountains. Despite temperatures reaching into the 80s (in the mountains, in West Virginia, in October!), smart organisms were preparing for the winter.
Chipmunks were on high alert. Around the Civil War graves at Droop Knob State Park, Eastern Grey Squirrels were chasing walnuts and each other. At Bear Town State Park,
the Red Squirrels stashing acorns and conifer cones wouldn't stop long enough for us to take a clear photo.

The trees were reabsorbing their chlorophyll.
And, at least one bear at Droop Mountain was eating large quantities. Whether he (or she) was absorbing any of the nutrients I have no idea, because he (or she) was certainly piling up the scat on along the trail. We encountered at least 6 large plops in less than a fourth mile of trail. Two were still glistening fresh, two appeared to be the previous day's, and two were still very squishy but growing mold.

Back at home our chipmunks seem especially excitable, our marmot (the local groundhog) is very fat, apparently feasting on chestnuts, and two beaver are building a lodge in the river which is visible from the bridge we cross on the way to work. Winter's coming!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Reprieve for the Chipmunks

It seems that Little Miss Purrful was just slumming with us last week. After 5 days of hanging around our house, and after we gave in and bought a litter box and food dish, the little cat disappeared as mysteriously as she arrived. We think that means she returned to her human family in one of the nearby neighborhoods. While we were most definitely not looking for a cat, and have found most of the local "free kittens" quite resistible, we did completely fall for this one, and even the thought that some family is delighting at her return doesn't console me. Here's another picture of the little heartbreaker.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

No Harassing The Chipmunks

The Mister has lots of rules regarding living in our house: no harassing the chipmunks, humingbirds or finches; no clawing clothes; no pawing pens as we write; if you stay here you can't have kittens.

The plain weird thing is that these rules are being expounded to a small cat who may have a home with one of our neighbors, does not have a name, and clearly makes both of us itchy-eyed.

While she may not look like a terrorizer of chipmunks, that is the Mister's midsection she is napping upon. Her winsome ways and loud and hearty purring have clearly bewitched the humans of this household. Who knows what she might do to its rodents?

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Half Mile Diet

From within half a mile of our house, The Mister and I have recently eaten:

  • chicken of the woods (a.k.a. "sulfur shelf) a super-tasty mushroom sauteed and folded into a fritatta.

  • chestnuts roasted in the oven

  • paw-paws picked by a student. I love the custardy fruitiness of a paw-paw

  • apples from the vacant lot peeled (because they are incredibly scabby) and baked into a pie and then others cooked with a little port and sorghum (hand-milled in Eastern Kentucky) until soft

  • tomatoes, squash, okra and herbs from our garden

  • habeneros from a student's garden

Of course, there are deer, squirrels, pigeons, Canada geese and ground hogs in the vicinity, but we've abstained from eating our rodent friends and their friends.

Who needs a whole 100 miles?

Sulfur Shelf image from the Sierra Club of Maryland Hiking Log, which you can link to here.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Locavore Delights

A sampling of the local (either locally grown or a specialty of a place) that the Mister and I were able to sample on the Road Trip.

Baked Goods

Butter Tarts in Ontario: a tart somewhere between shoofly pie and a pecan-less pecan pie, but buttery-er. One had raisins in it.

Pasties in the UP: labeled as both Cornish and Finnish, depending on where you buy them, we had both traditional pasties (with rhutabaga, beef and potato) and some newer variants (with carrots in one and with egg and cheese in another).

Indian Tacos at Crow, MT, Wall SD and in the Badlands. Since the stand in Interior, S.D. that used prairie turnip flour in their Indian Tacos closed, I think that the Trading Post across from the Little Big Horn Battlefield Site has the best Indian Tacos available.

Caramel Rolls (both with and without nuts) in South Dakota. They are certainly not unique to South Dakota, but there were unusual quantities of them available and almost nothing labeled as a "Cinnamon Roll".

Grape Pie in Naples, NY. Naples was a bit out of our way, but if we couldn't make a long detour for grape pie, what sort of grand road trip were we on? We ended up buying a set of four small tartlets from Cynthia, who was selling them out of her front door. We should have purchased a pie, to better see how the grapes work as a filling, but the tartlets were definitely yummy.

We also sampled non-regional baked goods made with regional fresh produce: our mothers' apple crisps, peach tart from an orchard stand on the Niagira penninsula, tart cherry gallette on Door County and, while not on our road trip, Imitation Ice Queen (who was in town for the weekend from Philadelphia) and I baked a very tasty apple pie using mostly scabby apples from our very own vacant lot apple tree yesterday.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Mein kleine Mäuschen grows up

My favorite human rodent is growing up. Das Mäuschen, the little mouse, my elder niece, started kindergarten today.

It wasn't that long ago that she was charming her way into other families photos as the very earnest 3 1/2 year old flower girl at our wedding. Nor was it all that long ago that she was scaring the neighbors shrieking from her stroller as I took her for walks.

The mouse, most definitely has improved with age, as has her equally charming younger sister, the little lion. It's just that I'm not quite ready to be the aunt of a school girl, not that I have any choice.

So, Macht spaβ, Mäuschen!, and don't grow up too very fast.

Monday, September 3, 2007

That Local Diet That Everyone's Doing

Dirtdog, my dear friend of 21 years (ack! We're getting old. People born on the day I first saw Dirtdog walking into my freshman physical science class and thought "Please don't sit with me, nerdy boy with the strange hat," can now legally buy alcohol in all 50 states.) mentioned something about that "local diet that everyone seems to be doing" as we were drinking New Glarus, WI beer, grilling Waunakee, WI brats with Waunakee, WI mustard sitting in on a deck in Waunakee, WI. Certainly there are signs that locavore lifestyles are proliferating among people of my acquaintance. One sibling's family belongs to a CSA, the other buys wondrous arsenal cheeses from an organic farmer's market. Then mention the 100 mile diet website in on-line conversations. Both sets of parents grow vegetables, although this is nothing new. The Mister is finding sources of WV pasture raised lamb. Slow Food and Heritage Food articles are reaching the Salina, KS newspaper. The Gorgeous Biologist Knitters left in Lawrence run into each other at the farmer's market every week, and those removed from Lawrence moan about the lack of a new local equivalent. People may be starting to take where their food comes from seriously.

If I thought this was entirely true, I wouldn't promote Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable Miracle about a year of eating locally, so heartily. My experience, however, is that my friends and family are a pretty non-random sample of the American population (I believe the most recent studies suggest that the median number of books read last year was 1 and the mean 4 for adult Americans. This is not true of my friends and family). Beyond that, people of my acquaintance may talk about eating locally but I'm not sure how much we do it. The Mister and I, for instance, have bagged spinach from California in our refrigerator, bananas on the counter and coffee in the pot as we speak. So, while Barbara and I may be preaching to the choir, the choir still needs the message, not just to hear their voices.

As previously mentioned, like every other biologist wanna-be novelist I know, I want to be Barbara Kingsolver. I could do without the failed marriage and horrible insomnia that led to her earlier novels, but still I want to be her. So this is not an objective review, but I suppose it says something that after writing my book, (food, family and environment being my domain [Barbara can have single motherhood, Arizona and African missionaries in the '60s]) I still want to be her, because she wrote my book as well as I would have, perhaps better, because I don't think that there is anyway I'd venture into turkey sex.

Whether Barbara, myself, or many other authors write it*, the case for eating locally is strong. I was planning on expounding on the many benefits, but I find that my blogging time is well-past used up, and I am interfering with far too much of my entomology learning time as I write. So I will limit myself to two points. One: there are compelling environmental, social, and taste benefits from eating locally in season. If you cannot think of them, I would be happy to expound in conversation (or would direct you to the 100 mile diet web site if you don't want to read Barbara's book). Two: I know that vegetables at the farmers market cost more (at least sometimes), that most of us don't live near any source of chocolate, coffee, or tea and might not make it without them, that your local grocery store is hideous (couldn't be much worse than ours as far as local produce goes), that you don't have space for a garden, that convenience foods are convenient . . . I know and I'm not asking you to become an exclusive locavore.

I am asking that you

  1. buy (or grow) more locally in season

  2. "put away" some local produce for the winter. Among people I know this ranges from drying apples to canning tomato sauce. Like many of you, I am not up for canning, but I am going to buy a bushel of chili peppers at the market next week and freeze most of them (sticking them in the freezer whole because the mister and I are too lazy to prep them). I am going out this afternoon to pick basil to make pesto to freeze and I hope to dry some tomatoes.

  3. If you live anywhere where you can purchase a large box of good Colorado peaches, do it now. Eat them, two a day and think of me. Or make a cobbler or a pie. Or freeze some.

  4. find local apples this fall. I have been shocked to find WV apples are as much better than grocery stores (WA and New Zealand) apples as garden tomatoes are from store tomatoes. Scrumptious.


*One criticism I've heard of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is that the idea is not novel. This is definitely true. Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan writes regularly on the subject, most notably with his 2001 Coming Home to Eat chronicling a year of eating locally (moderately recommended; good points, tiresome reading). His involvement with RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) helps ensure that Slow Food USA is an ecological as well as gastronomic movement, and I can support his Buffalo Nation treatise because it cites two of my local eating mentors, Kelly Kindscher and Alma Hogan Snell. Without at any point telling readers they should eat locally, Michael Pollan does an excellent job of explaining where our food does (and can) come from in Omnivore's Dilemma (very highly recommended). Jay Weinstein takes the opposite approach: little explanation, many directives, in The Ethical Gourmet (mildly recommended, a bit too much "Tell your cook not to buy bottled water" and "here's how to source coffee at high end stores in Manhattan" for my budget or location, but very clear priority lists for eating ethically). Vandana Shiva, Wendell Berry and to a lesser extent Wes Jackson have all written about the social and economic consequences of different agricultural systems. I haven't read the 100-Mile Diet (Plenty is the American title) yet. I will someday, but when I picked it up in Toronto, I was a bit displeased with the commentary on the back stating that Smith and McKinnon were introducing us to the idea of a food shed. It's petty on my part, since the authors themselves didn't make this claim, but as I have been reading and discussing foodsheds since my fabulous 2000 Geography of American Foodways class (and then it wasn't a new concept, just new to me), I was annoyed at anyone so disrespecting the vast foodshed literature : - )

Another Good Mouse Book

Just to ensure that Prairie Quilter and I were not romantically nostalgic about the wonders of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, I recently re-read it. It's still fabulous.
While that assessment does not demonstrate that I am not romantically nostalgic about it*, as I know I am, I feel I am unbiased enough to proclaim:
Book ---very good, stands the test of time well (and portrays lab science reasonably accurately)
Movie--- bad, and much worse for having been made from a great book.

One thing I think that Robert C. O'Brien does very well is to promote the value of human intelligence (reading and creating things) while portraying animals without such intelligence as smart, capable and compassionate creatures in their own right.

An interesting concept suggested by the books which underscores the debates among the rats is the idea that agriculture makes creatures civilized. This is not in the standard historical sense, that agriculture led people to living in one place, led to food to supply cities, led to civilization, but rather that, however ornamented their habitations may be (the rats have stained glass windows, elevators and libraries), creatures are uncivilized thieves until they grow their own food.

*My fifth grade year was, for the most part, a disasterous failure of a social experiment. My elementary school, built in the early 70s, had open classrooms called pods. K + 1 in red pod, 2 +3 in white pod, 4 and most of 5 in blue pod, and a few fifth graders and the 6th graders were in gold pod. Pods had 5 teachers, mixed grade home rooms (called "record group", not home room) and tracked language arts and math classes. Except the year I was in 5th grade in gold pod. Instead of mixing us in with the 6th graders, the 5th graders in gold pod were entirely isolated with one teacher in the one closed classroom in the building all day. We didn't interact with other fifth graders (blue and gold pod were on entirely different schedules), we were scorned by the sixth graders (with whom we never officially interacted, but had lunch and recess), and our teacher wearied of us very quickly. As far as we could tell, the 28 of us were equally divided between those who were "academically ready" for gold pod (i.e. had been in the advanced math class with mostly 5th graders when we were in 4th grade) and those who the blue pod teachers wanted most to get rid of. It was a truly crazy year in that classroom, but I'm not sure if there have been 28 people I've had such strong reactions to ever since.
The one thing our teacher did very well, however, was read to us. He chose excellent books and knew a good stopping point when he it. As he read Bridge to Terabithia to us we left one Thursday thinking, "Leslie can't be dead," then Friday "Can it really be all a dream?". Mrs. Frisby was a shockingly suspenseful book the way Mr. Rivet read it to us, and if he's out there I'd like to thank him for it.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

"Isn't Squeak getting to be a fat little squirrel?"

10 minute movie of Squeak, a golden mantled ground squirrel, learning to capture peanuts.
Thanks, Irene

Good Mouse Book

The sibling-in-law who gave it to me is quick to point out that, despite the title, Russell Hoban's* The Mouse and His Child is not about an animal mouse. That the title characters are wind-up toys in no way diminishes their longings or adventures.

There is much that could be discussed concerning this book. The middle school teacher who wrote a review for Amazon captures the range well, from literary abbreviations to shrews in Redwall to the origin of Sirius Black's name. Beyond being full of information and allusions, The Mouse and His Child, has great thematic depth. One could spend a great deal of time debating whether this is a novel about self-determination and fate; the folly of war and intellectualism; the power of persistence and forgiveness; or just a classic coming-of-age journey.

Strangely, given the previous paragraph, this is a book I have very little to say about at the moment. Rather, it is a book that I want to discuss with others who have actually read it. So read it and then we'll talk. It's a good book (although not a particularly fast read for me). I'd recommend it to many in may acquaintance, I think Jenny (I forgot your code name) would particularly enjoy it, and Starship Scribbler and Sunflower Spinner would really appreciate the illustrations and the beauty of the book itself.

Sib-in-law informs me, by the way, that the original illustrations greatly enhanced the text, so he was dismayed to find it no longer in print. He was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that the new David Small illustrations also reflect the tone of the book and enhance the reading experience, so he approves. Having never seen the originals, I can't compare, but the current illustrations are great.

Many thanks to Sib-in-law for bringing this to my attention and giving me such a lovely gift.

*It's come to my attention that Russell Hoban is also the author of the Frances series of picture books (Bedtime for Frances, Bread and Jam for Frances). Don't read The Mouse and His Child expecting a Frances story.

Illustration from Amazon, which you can link to here.

Bad Mouse Movie

The Mister and I have been watching The Secret of NIMH over several nights because we could not stand to watch the whole thing in one sitting. As this is a movie with a run time of 82 minutes, that is saying something.

Robert C. O'Brien's Newberry Award Winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a wonderful book: one of the very best rodent books around. It's a book which I will re-read soon and review. It's a book which deserves better than the mess of a mystical movie very loosely based on it.

Perhaps because if I didn't love the book so much, I would be less dismayed by the movie. That the lead mouse's name is Brisby (to avoid a lawsuit with Wham-O, makers of the Frisbee Disc), that the tension of escaping from NIMH and internal arguments about rat governance have been replaced by sword fights, and that that final resolution rests with a charmed stone, might not irk me if I didn't know a much better plot exists. However, unlike many viewers and fans, even if I didn't know they committed complete book assination in the creation, I don't think that there would be anything about the movie that would wow me. The animation is well done and the land created fantastical, yet I don't think I could have cared about rats with glowing orbs instead of eyes and charms (somehow from the National Institute of Mental Health) that cure all ills.

Read the book. Or watch the Rescuers for fun 1970's mouse animation. Or Ratatouille for a good rat movie.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Has Marmie become a mermet?

A year and four days after we moved in, the Mister and I finished unpacking our boxes. This fantastic-to-be finished-with task was marred by an element of sadness, Marmie is missing.

Marmie is a stuffed* European marmot I acquired in Zermatt, Switzerland in 1984. Not only has Marmie been a dear companion for over 20 years, he has also served in the important role of groundhog to determine the winner of the "pin the shadow on the groundhog" game at Groundhog parties, and is rather cute, if I say so myself.

A mermet is like an marmot, only invisibler. Mermie is a mermet that my brother acquired at the same time I acquired marmie. Mermie has long been known to lead Marmie into mischief.** The Mister thinks that Marmie is on vacation in Europe visiting relatives. I think that Marmie may have become a mermot. And there is that dreadful third possibility: there is another box somewhere still to be unpacked.

*stuffed toy, not taxidermy
**while a mischievous member of a fictitious species that is invisible-er than the real species sounds like something that the Mister would come up with, this was entirely the doing of my brother.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Ground Squirrels

Ground squirrels may be my favorite non-marmot rodent, although, come to think of it, I am very fond of the entirety of the squirrel family (which includes marmots, prairie dogs, and chipmunks, as well as ground, tree, antelope and flying squirrels).
As I grew up hiking in the Colorado Rockies, where the most common ground squirrel has stripes, the first wildlife biology I remember learning was the difference between a ground squirrel and a chipmunk: chipmunks have stripes through their eyes and little pointy heads.

On the recent road trip, The Mister and I drove over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. At one of the pull-outs, we encountered this attractive and well-fed Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis), and I refrained from correcting the tourists exclaiming about the cute chipmunks. That's good, because it demonstrates that I can sometimes keep my mouth shut in the face of biological inaccuracies and good because it turns out there were as many chipmunks (which we believe to be Colorado Chipmunks), begging from the rocky slope as there were ground squirrels.

Over the Continental Divide on the west side of the park (near where we encountered this moose and calf), we saw our first Wyoming Ground Squirrel. At first it perplexed us, because it was shaped and sized like a ground squirrel, but living in a colony like a prairie dog. It turns out that that is exactly was Spermophilus elegans does, and it now serves as the squirrel/prairie dog transition in my mind. We saw many of them in North Park in Colorado and along the backroads in Wyoming. They don't seem to be as suicidal as the Uinta Ground Squirrels in Yellowstone or as thieving as the Colombian Ground Squirrels in Glacier, and make a nice addition to our life lists.
Before we left ground squirrel territory entirely, we saw a few Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels dashing across the road near Pipestone National Monument in SW Minnesota. I'd seen a few previously while doing field work in Nebraska and Kansas, but this was an adult-first for the Mister. Thirteen-lines are also a spotting of significance for The Mister because he has remembered the scientific name (S. tridencemlineatus, literally "thirteen lined") since junior year of high school and actually adds it into conversation regularly.
Here's a chipmunk for comparison.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Sparkling Celebrations

We packed the road trip with sparkling wine worthy celebrations. I've already mentioned aperitifs with the siblings-in-law in Chicago and bad wine with good friends in Lawrence. To celebrate the Mister's Cousin's nuptials, we drank Tott's (I believe), which was well-suited to the gorgeous and tasty wedding cake. To celebrate Father's Day with the Mister's Father we drank pumpkin wine from Illinois. Really, it is much much better than it sounds.

Less than a week after the woodland party in Lawrence, we threw the almost-annual croquet tournament (16th, I believe, first one in 1988) and drank good sparkling wine with good friends: Hungarian, our "house" sparkler (Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noir[DSM]) and a fair pink cava (Cristalano). With my partner Moonbeam, I won the croquet tournament for the second time in 16 attempts, but only because Principal T and Bass Masseur, who were way ahead, threw it. Distinguished Diplomat and her Handsome Husband arrived, but didn't stay, as they were on their way to the hospital for sprog induction (I'd never seen anyone nine and a half months pregnant perform croquet yoga before; it is an unusual sight). Like the Woodland Evening in Lawrence, the croquet tourney reminded me how much I adore and miss my friends. Although, unlike the woodland evening, it was not twinged with "this will never happen again" sadness. My "gang" in Lawrence largely dispersed last summer, with another significant contingent leaving this year, and it will take significant work to meet up again. The Colorado group, however, is a tribute to the lasting power of friendship and tradition-- we have a great time regardless of how long it has been since we've seen each other.

While still in Colorado, we also drank to my mother's birthday (the Korbel Blanc de Noir from our wedding-- very good stuff), Father's Day (a good Spanish red, along with some DSM), my mother's real retirement and Elaine's Birthday (a slightly effervescent Vino Verdi).

Later in Madison, we drank a New Ulm Cherry Lambic with great friends from high school. Technically not wine (although it is sparkling), the is the best made in the US Lambic I've had, and really very good. I also bring it up as an excuse to mention the dear friends, neither of whom I have seen in years, whom I love. I reveled in the chance to introduce my Mars geologist friend to my chemical archaeologist friend because everybody needs a to know that there are people as nerdy, or perhaps nerdier, than they are in the world.

Speaking of people nerdier than we are, back in Chicago we attended a wedding that included rings in Elvish, menus with Latin names, diver's during dinner (reception at the aquarium) and the Dungeons and Dragons players guide. We celebrated by drinking DSM Blanc de Blanc (a great choice, I might add, even if I prefer the Blanc de Noir) and enjoying the company of friends now living in PA, TX, IA, KS, MO and IL.

Before we left the sibling's-in-law place the next morning, we drank a bottle of a cava with red and black raspberries from the farmer's market, specifically labeled as "for champagne." While our primary motivation was to try beautiful berries in sparkling wine, we could have been celebrating Sibling-In-Law's new professor job in St. Louis or the other Sibling's-in-Law signing off on his dissertation (rounding out the topics of obscure advanced degrees in my generation of sib, Mister and sibs-in-law to genetic algorithms, effect of internet on German news communication, the 660 discontinuity in the earth's mantle, economic history of San Fransisco (?) during a specific time period, 15th century (?) German Lit., and population ecology of prairie turnips).

We drank a nice bottle of Door County Winery Sparkling Wine (Wisconsin wine made from California grapes, $20 at a restaurant) just 'cause, which impressed our waitress. It's one of the better small state sparklers we've had, but then the juice wasn't local. To celebrate our second anniversary, we drank a bottle of Bollinger Special Cuvee over a leisurely dinner at the Old Rittenhouse Inn in Bayfield, Wisconsin. While it wasn't as good as the Charles Heidsieck we drank for our first anniversary, there is something about a nice bottle of true champagne which makes it better than other sparkling wines (including non-Champagne French wines).

At a Portuguese restaurant in Toronto (I had no idea that Toronto has a strong Portuguese community, but then I had really no idea about how large, urban and cosmopolitan Toronto is until I tried to navigate The Mister downtown into the city), we had a bottle of Portuguese sparkling that was a good accompaniment to the grilled octopus, raw oysters and fabulous seafood risotto. In absentia, we may have been celebrating my good friend and former roommate Tuscon Trekker defending her dissertation.

We sampled several Ontario Sparkling wines at the Niagara Pennisula wineries because we could. Three of them very good (two from Reisling and one from Vidal Blanc grapes, I believe), and the two very cheap peach and "sweet brunch" sparklers were, well, cheap and sweet.

Since returning home, we drank the Niagara sparklers to celebrate being home, a DSM bottle to celebrate living here one year, a Cristalano bottle to celebrate almost being unpacked, and I'm not sure what all else.

On the trip we also celebrated the Mister's Grandfather's 80th birthday and actual birth of Kaliel to Distinguished Dip. and her HH. Both were certainly sparkling wine worthy occasions, if we didn't actually drink it at the moment. Cheers!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Languishing Lagamorphs

Though separated from rodents by their dentation, lagamorphs (in an order which includes pikas and rabbits) can be equally cute. This pika did not languish (it lives up here, after all and needs to collect a hay stack for the long winter),

but the rabbits we saw throughout Wyoming and South Dakota seemed to lie around a lot, in the middle of the trail, in the prairie dog town and in the shade.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Book Catch-up

Desperately needing to get away from non-fiction and food books, I picked up Andrea Camilleri's Sicilian murder mystery Excursion to Tindari in the guest bedroom of the siblings-in-law. It was a great read while waiting for the train and escaping from Economic Botany. Despite my stated desire of avoiding food books, I salivated at the detailed descriptions of the detective's meals and thought they added to the passions portrayed in the book. I was also pleasantly amused by the constant digs at the Italians. Altogether highly recommended for those who enjoy a character centered mysteries.

I bought my mother Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for her birthday. I then decided that, even though the book was for my mother, and I wasn't reading food books, I needed to read it before handing it over. After all, it isn't every day that one of my favorite novelists writes a book on my favorite subject. Like many such books, it dismayed me, "This is the book that I was supposed to write," yet I still very highly recommend it. It will receive a complete review and discussion of ideas here one of these times.

While still in Canada, I scored a Canadian copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I read it completely as a fan and not a critic, and, not surprisingly, adored it. I was actually overall very impressed with some characters ended, and look forward to discussing with other fans. The Canadian, lay-out, by the way, is not as nice as the American.

Last week I hit the library looking for the two of the seven Harry Potter books I don't own so I could sit down to a true H.P. marathon. Instead of H.P., I decided to pick some featured unheard-of-by-me new novels. From the juvenile fiction section, I pulled Before the Lark by Irene Bennet Brown. The heroine is a 12-year-old in Kansas City with a harelip who decides to take on farming in Kansas in 1888. Despite a conclusion that is far too tidy, I enjoyed it and would lightly recommend it for Prairie Quilter, Sunflower Spinner, Lindsey, and others who liked young-adult prairie fiction. If you happen to read it and find the same version I had, do not be turned off by the glaring error in the book jacket: "It is 1888, and Kansas, just to the north of them, is still pioneer country" (my emphasis). The author's geography is very detailed (and they clearly head west from Kansas City), and given that I felt a flaw of the book was how much the author wanted to inform readers, including characters thrown in just to inform about immigration or Kaw people or cleft-palate surgery, I assume the glaring error is from someone at the publishing house.

In the adult section I found Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan. Like most good historical fiction, this book left me feeling completely ignorant and amazed. I began the book knowing absolutely nothing about the Mughal Empire. Upon completion, I looked up a few characters (on wikipedia, of course) and found that the characters were real people and the major events have been well-recorded. I know more for having read the book, and I want to know more: Sundaresan was definitely successful. Given an outline of recorded history, the story is the motivation: how and why these characters behaved this way. I think it is here that Sundaresan shines. She did make the characters believable with plausible motivations for irrational acts. The book is not perfect-- something is amiss with the pacing, and there is an issue that the hero and heroine are not particularly sympathetic. Still I would highly recommend it for Moonbeam, Janet, Sunflower Spinner and those fond of novels like The Red Tent. If I owned my own copy I would give it to my seattle-sister-in-law for her birthday.

Friday, July 27, 2007

"Anyone Can Cook"

Since first alerted to it by Hellx back in April, I have been looking forward to Ratatouille. Not surprisingly, I adored it, and would have to list it at the top of the animated rodent pieces I have seen this year. I'm not sure if it will lead to more rodents with discriminating palates as a sib-in-law suggests, but I really do hope it will lead to greater appreciation of food among humans, for after, all, I agree with the dead chef . . . anyone can cook.

"Passions of a Suburban Gardener"

Between Ecuador and the Road Trip, I read Dominique Browning's, Paths of Desire. I loved the concept of a path of desire (apparently a landscape arcitecture term for the places where people actually walk instead of using the paths laid for them) as a driving force in both garden maintenance and life. However, the book overall disappointed me. Perhaps it was because the story wasn't all that great and I was really craving good fiction rather than home (and life) improvement woes. Perhaps I could never get past the idea that Browning, an editor at Home and Garden, actually felt that she was speaking to the challenges that face suburban gardeners everywhere. As her Long Island acre with a dense woods of 100 year old trees, ability hire arborists and other "helpful men" as necessary and attitude of "why do all of the neighbors need their own swing sets?" were well outside my suburban gardening experience, I just couldn't swallow that she was representing "the passions of a suburban gardener" as the subtitle suggests.

Image from Amazon, which you can link to here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Smaller than a moose . . .

Mystery animal #2 was a timberwolf. It ran across highway 2 in northern Wisconsin and the Mister and I had momentary reactions that included, "that's a strange shaped deer" (it was that big), "what a large dog!", "that's a giant and really grey coyote" and "It really was a wolf, wasn't it?". It was. Very cool. No photos.

The Recent 8,552 Miles

Congratulations to Jennifer (Sunflower Spinner), her answer of 8,432 miles, only 120 miles (less than 2%) off of the actual odometer reading of 8,552 miles wins her and and a guest of her choice a fabulous meal at our place in West Virginia.

The runner-up prize, awarded jointly to Prairie Quilter and Glenn (at 8,431 Glenn was technically closer than Prairie Quilter at 8,888, but I like P.Q.'s guess better) is a great meal at our place at West Virginia.

Janet, Irene and the siblings-in-law are all awarded consolation prizes of tasty meals in West Virginia. Prizes must be redeemed in person.

So where did we go on this great adventure? Essays to come, but for those of you who are list readers:
Visiting Phase:
Economic Botany Conference (Chicago), Cousin Wedding (KS), 80th birthday celebrations (central Kansas), Woodland Evening (Lawrence KS), rhubarb crisp with the Mister's parents (central Kansas), rhubarb crisp with my parents (CO), croquet tournament (CO), hospital to see brand new baby, Rocky Mtn. National Park, prairie dogs of Wyoming, Big Horns, visiting Crow Elder friends (Crow Res, MT), Little Bighorn Battlefield, Devil's Tower (WY), Black Hills, SD (Custer State Park in Particular), Wind Cave, Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, Minuteman Missile Site, Corn Palace, Pipestone National Park (MN), good friends in Madison, Wisconsin State Capitol, Chicago (Siblings-in-law), Crazy Friend Wedding, relatives (small town IL).
Travelling Phase
Kettle Moraine State Forest (WI), Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Green Bay (4th of July), Door County, Northwoods, Apostle Islands and Bayfield, Canoeing on the Manotowish, Porcupine Mountain Wilderness (MI), Keweenaw Peninsula, Painted Rocks National Lakeshore, Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Agawa Canyon Train (Ontario), Toronto, Canada's Wonderland (crazy roller coasters), Niagara wine region, Niagara Falls, Finger Lakes (NY), Corning Museum of Glass, Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, home.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


The Mister and I arrived home at about 4:30 p.m. yesterday. Guesses for final mileage and mystery animal number 2 can be made until tomorrow.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Chipmunk with Discriminating Palate

Before we set off on the Summit Loop in the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness, the Mister and I carbo-loaded with some rice cakes, not just any rice cakes, but the the really good ones (genuinely: brown rice with tamari and seaweed). The woods were full of frisky Eastern Chipmunks. One such critter ran over to us, sniffed the ground, took a piece of rice cake, and spit it back out.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Brief bear blog. The Mister and I are sitting out on our motel balcony in Copper Harbor, Michigan looking out over Lake Superior and drinking Michigan wine (well, sorta Michigan wine; wine made in Michigan from California grapes), when two bicyclists enter the parking lot. Ever the eavesdroppers, we look up when they say, "Was that a bear?" and, indeed running past the bottom of the staircase is a full-grown black bear. We run down the stairs and watch it disappear into the shrubbery while assuring the bicyclists that they are not crazy.
A great end to a great day (although I notice that darkness and Michigan wine are not enhancing my typing skills).

Monday, July 9, 2007

Porcupine Plans and Mystery Animal 2

I'll admit that in my fascination with the squirrel family (including chipmunks, marmots and prairie dogs) and animated rodents (usually mice and rats), I didn't give much thought to the possibility of seeing a porcupine until we were well into Wyoming and even then I had to check that they were rodents (they are).
So, after seeing three dead on the roads of Wyoming and Montana, we started looking for live ones at Devil's Tower.
The Mister has a rather magical way with wildlife. I've seen more animals with him than in all of my life previous. If anyone could see a porcupine by force of will, it would be the Mister and it would have been at Devil's Tower, where we hiked late into the evening and every pine made sounds (bark beetles?). But no.
So we still haven't seen one of the second largest rodents in North America alive, but two people yesterday mentioned seeing live ones recently and tomorrow we are headed to the Porcupine Wilderness, so we'll see.
Completely unrelated, we have a new mystery animal. Over near the Michigan border yesterday, a mammal bounded across the road. While unlike the teaser animal (answer to the teaser in the comments below), this animal we had seen in zoos. It's larger than a white tailed prairie dog, smaller than a moose, faster than a golden mantled ground squirrel and slower than the a pronghorn antelope.

Halfway Challenge

Exciting game here on Sparkling Squirrel: how far will the Great American Great Lakes road trip lead us? Big prize (probably dinner with the Mister and me in West Virginia) to the reader who comes the closest to the actual total mileage of our summer road trip.
Useful information: today marks 5 weeks into our trip, which will likely be about 8 weeks.
We hit 5,000 miles last weekend at Chicago.
While that was halfway time-wise into our trip, we intend for it to be less than halfway, distance-wise.
According to mapquest, we are 994 miles from home by the shortest driving route.
We are not taking that route.
We have campground reservations for the next two nights in the Porcupine Wilderness and no definitive plans beyond that, other than taking prairie dog to Canada. We may try to hit the U20 Wold Cup finals in Toronto, we'll definitely sample Ontario wine.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Teaser Continued

The creature was kind enough to pose for this photo. It is quite the cutie.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

What the marmot saw

From his rock in Custer State Park, this yellow-bellied marmot seemed fairly unphased by his view. We'd driven by the area at noon and it wasn't burning. Coming back from Wind Cave at 3:30, it was impressive. Recent reports suggest the fire has consumed 22,000 acres and is half contained.

Why I Make a Poor Wine Critic

Two weeks (and over 3,800 miles ago), I sampled my first ever sparkling wine from Luxembourg. While it was offered as an aperitif, it was not opened until dinner was ready. Dinner, in this case, was kale and chorizo soup and fabulous from-scratch biscuits, prepared by the siblings-in-law. The meal was great. Along with the rest of the time we spent with them, the meal reminded me how much I like my siblings-in-law. My siblings-in-law, in fact, are one of the unexpected bonuses of my life. It's not startling that a great guy such as the mister would have a great family, or that my brother would have good taste, but the chances that both of my sisters-in-law would be vegetable-loving people I genuinely enjoy spending time with is fairly unlikely.
In any case, I left this meal thinking about the wonders of kale and lucky siblings-in-law. I didn't note the name of the wine, the price, or anything about it. I recall it being slightly pink, tasty, and not a great accompaniment to the hearty soup. Too many thoughts of friends and family and no thoughts of wine. Poor critic skills.


Upcoming on Sparkling Squirrel-- rodent games, prairie dog tourism, Luxemburgian and Hungarian sparkling wine, Hero Rats, and a mammal (non-rodent) spotted in the Black Hills which neither the Mister nor I had seen before. Any guesses?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

More Reptiles Than Rodents

As we have seen chipmunks and squirrels at the Chicago Botanic Garden, prairie dogs at Kanopolis Lake and around suburban Denver, and squirrels in my parents' backyard, it is probably untrue that we have seen more reptiles than rodents on our current roadtrip.

However, relative to the expected quantities of each, the reptiles are surprisingly abundant. More turtles than squirrels were trying to cross Kansas backroads. Rain on the prairie and foothills has apparently led to a bumper crop of small lizards both in Central Kansas and Roxborough State Park. Snakes at both sets of parents' places and warnings of many more. Good year for reptiles. And, thus far, not a ground squirrel (thirteen-lined, golden-mantle or otherwise) in view.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bad Sparkling, Good Company

While in Chicago, the Mister and I found bottles upon bottles of sparkling wine we needed to try-- sparkling from Michigan, Luxemburg, Switzerland and a Lambrusco. We had the opporuntity to sample several of them last night at a "Woodland Evening" with our friends in Lawrence.
The Swiss sparkling was unexpectedly red and advertised as having hints of strawberry. It was definitely fruity, and the strawberry hint was the overwhelming smell of over-ripe (read rotten) fruit.
The Michigan blanc de blanc was dry and yeasty with an off-smell.
The Lambrusco was dark red and overtly grapey-- similar to sparkling communion wine or Andre cold duck done better.
Three bad sparkling wines in one evening, a total bust, except we were there to see friends, so it was wonderful.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Chipmunks in Suburbia

West of a certain point (perhaps Chicago), chipmunks indicate woods, and west of another point, (perhaps Lawrence), woods mean mountains. As a Coloradan, I still associate chipmunks with being in the mountains. Squirrels are suburban. Chipmunks are exotic.

This perhaps explains why I was so astounded by the number of chipmunks running around the Chicago Botanic Gardens looking very fat and very happy.
The gardens, by the way, are large and grand, and worth visiting, but not worth a large detour.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


"Shall we have an apertif before we go out to dinner?" asks one of the true intellectuals, my sister-in-law, while pulling out a bottle of French sparkling wine, some truly blackcurrant creme de cassis, and a chunk of "fruit of the goat" she picked up at the farmer's market.

It is immediately clear to me that I am not home in small town West Virginia, where apertifs are not part of our regular routine, mores the pity.

Apertifs represent the transition to my siblings-in-law world, which, to me, represents all that is cool about big city life. Their apartment is crammed with books and original artwork and not in the least bit cluttered. They have Gastronomica, The Journal of Food and Culture, sitting next to the guest bed. They discuss foreign films (and see most of them too.) And they have apertifs.

We've just arrived on a long road trip. Apertifs are served. Maybe it's all an act. I eat it up, and in the case of my sparkling apertif, drink it down.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Ecuador Post Reading

If you've come to read the Ecuador posts (or just see the Ecuador photos), I highly recommend starting at May 30 "The Best Laid Schemes" (click on older posts) and reading your way up. I posted the thoughts and photos in basically chronological order (starting with the broken leg, moving through eating guinea pig, and ending with the flight home), which makes them backward on the blog, although I am sure you all can handle it.
Please comment, too.

Prairie Dog Travels First Class

In the past I prided myself on being a traveller and not a tourist. Six weeks in Asia with my high school Chinese class convinced me that I would never again spend my days shopping at local "factories" or eating overpriced steak instead of Thai food while in Thailand.

Since then, I have recognized the fun in being a tourist, for a few days, in an American or European city. It was great to go to St. Louis for the weekend and hit the botanic gardens, the zoo, a prairie park, the art museum, a hockey game, Oktoberfest and several good restuarants without giving any consideration to "how people really live in St. Louis"-- we were there as tourists and it wasn't all bad.

This trip, however, confused me.

It would have been different had Happy Cricket been able to show us her Ecuador-- her community gardens, her non-tourist town, her local boyfriend. But, as it happened, we arrived as tourists. We don't speak Spanish well, we (relatively) have money, we wanted to see a lot in 11 days, we look like gringos, and, well, we are gringos. We're willing to spend $5 on a meal and we like warm showers.

We did some traveller things. We hauled our backpacks onto buses filled with locals. We walked great distances across towns rather than taking taxis. We drank fresh-squeezed green juices from glasses we knew couldn't be clean and sampled street and bus food. We ate a fabulous breakfast in a bus station.

But then, we did rich American tourist things also. We stayed at a resort with private hot springs pools and views of the Andes. We bought a piece of original art. We payed extra for the express tickets at the TeleferiQo. I made a young woman's day when I agreed to add a $2 manicure to accompany the complete $3 pedicure she was giving me. A pedicure and a manicure! What kind of traveller does that make me?

This confusion is further emphasized by the fact that we flew business class all the way. We flew on the Mister's accumulated airline points, so we did not pay for first class, and we could only get the dates we needed flying first class. Still, it was a different world. The Prairie Dog has been with us across the country and to Scotland in coach. Nobody has ever commented. In the front of the plane, Prairie Dog was the hit of the flight attendants. They cooed over him, asked his name, and took him to show other flight attendants.

On a Miami to D.C. flight where potato chips were selling for $3 in coach, the Prairie Dog was offered warm cashews and bloody marys.


Although they are not rodents, vegetables, books or sparkling wine (and thus technically don't belong on this blog), volcanoes are cool. And, in accordance with our modest plan, we did admire them. So I offer some images.In the order that blogger seems to have arranged them, these are
Volcan Tungurahua from Riobamba, Volcan El Atar from Riobamba, Volcan Pinchincha from the top of the TeleferiQo, Quito from the flanks of Volcan Pinchincha after riding the TeleferiQo to 4100m, agriculture on the flanks of Tungurahua near Baños, a log turned steps in the middle of a waterfall near Mindo, Volcan Chimborazo (highest point in the Americas) from the bus, Volcan Tungurahua from Baños (note the steep steps on the left side of the photo. We were thrilled to reach these as we had been following a trail just as steep for over a mile straight down the ridge.) and Antisana from Papallacta.

Cuy: Eating the Guinea Pig

To be completely forthright, I knew I was headed to Ecuador where cuy (guinea pig) is considered a treat before I selected the New Year's Resolution. So there was no way I was going to make it through Ecuador without sampling either cuy or gaunta (agouti).
Outside of the food market in Baños, I had my chance.
The Mister and I selected our purveyor of cuy based on three attributes: the meat smelled tantalizing while roasting, the place was packed with locals, and the window listed "cuy con papas" (with potatoes) so we knew we could order a plate meal rather than a whole pig.
It was tasty.
The next day we were at the Saturday market in Riobamba, an extraordinary affair that spills from the permanent food stalls, through blocks and blocks of specialty merchandise (one street all potato sellers, another all things made from used tires), and covering at least three other plazas. At what is the bus station on non-market days, we hit the live animal vendors. One could purchase a chicken at any stage of development, a rabbit literally pulled from a gunny sack, and adorable young guinea pigs. Unlike the bunnies and the chickens, who seemed oblivious to their fate, the guinea pigs all huddled in the corners of the cages, pretending that they couldn't be seen and whimpering in that rodent snort-whimper-squeal sort of way. I'm not totally sure I could have eaten one had I seen the market first.

Oh, yes, it did taste like chicken. Dark meat.