Teff Love!

I sure keep bombarding you with pictures of myself after swearing I wouldn’t subject you to the products of my Photo365 portrait project in order to not gross you out with my unphotogenic-ness. But I can’t resist sharing today’s portrait!

That’s right, Kittee’s completely awesome vegan Ethiopian cookbook Teff Love arrived in the mail today! Mine’s extra-awesome because it’s autographed, being as I was a tester. I will at some point soon do an actual review of it, but I can give you a mini-review now: IT’S TOTALLY GREAT, BUY IT NOW AND MAKE EVERYTHING IN IT. I’ve been making Kittee’s Ethiopian recipes for about a decade now; believe me, she knows what she’s doing. And Ethiopian food is the best food ever!

And yes, I’ve been remiss in making my Zanzibar post, and my Tanzanian food post, and actual recipe posts, but that’s because my life hasn’t slowed down very much for winter as I expected it to. In fact, there are possible life-changing things going on (no, I’m not pregnant; I feel like women my age can’t ever say their life is changing without people thinking they are pregnant). We’ve been traveling a bit.

Do you know where that was taken? Does this help?

Does THIS help?

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Happy new year!

Happy new year! I already did a recap on how 2014 was a great year for me; I’m kind of using the excuse of wishing all of you a happy new year to tell you about a great book I’m reading. You may recall that I mentioned recently that I’m applying for the Virginia Master Naturalist program in the spring and I asked if anyone had any book recommendations (by the way, thank you to Carolyn for suggesting field guides – something I need to get much better about doing). Well, I was nosing around Amazon looking for something “naturalisty” to put on my Kindle and I came across The Forest Unseen by David Haskell and it’s GREAT! Dr. Haskell is a biology professor in Tennessee who visited a small section (about a meter in diameter) of a nearby forest nearly every day for a year and recorded his observations about the life there, providing the reader with a bit of science behind it. I’m only 59% of the way through it but it just resonates with me. It’s one of the few times I’ve read a non-fiction book and thought the author would “get” me. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve read a lot of fantastic non-fiction books, it’s just that the view Dr. Haskell has of the world, and our role in it, although far more scientific than mine for sure as he’s far more educated than me, feels very much like my own. His writing style is a beautiful blend of poetry, science, and just a touch of whimsy. (“Whales move their tails up and down, rather than side to side, revealing their terrestrial ancestry. Mermaids, it seems, do the same.”) One morning I sat down to read while eating breakfast and in my half-awake state didn’t quite remember what I’d been reading, but I knew it was science-related and was for a moment confused to leap into a paragraph about the holy grail, until I read a sentence further and it all made sense:

The knight’s mythical quest led them to the blood from Christ’s wounds, collected in the grail by Joseph of Arimathea. The ticks are less selective about the theological pedigree of the blood they seek, and their quest ends with molting or sex.

Although he can get into minute details about specific organisms, he always explains its relationship to everything around it, as well as its relationship to the past. I particularly understood his passage about the golf balls, when two of them appear in his “mandala” one day and he wants at first to remove them because they are unnatural. But then he remembers that humans are animals and part of nature too, which is something I think a lot about. Is it really unnatural for us to produce golf balls? I mean, something in our nature drove us to do it! Which doesn’t also mean that I (or Dr Haskell) think that we SHOULD scatter golf balls throughout our forests; on the contrary, I think it’s an unconscionable thing to do, but I think it’s important that we stop thinking there is some big divide between the natural world and us. In fact, if we stopped thinking like that and starting feeling more at one with nature I think we’d all be less apt to destroy it.

I’ve just gotten to the day he visits the mandala following a hospital visit brought on by his reaction to finding a nearby stream raped of all its salamanders by fisher “poachers” stealing them to use as bait. Even I’ve never ended up in the hospital in similar situations (although if I really do make it back to Africa and fight poachers there I suspect there’s a good chance I’ll end up in the hospital due to a gunshot wound), but I totally understand the outrage he felt. And then he manages to describe how even in the hospital he could see the flow of nature all around him and goes on to talk about the plant origins of most of our medicines.

Anyway, it’s a great book, I very much recommend it, and if you read it I think you’ll get a feel for how I think about the world (albeit my thinking about the world being much less knowledgeable than Dr. Haskell’s!). I’d say it was exactly the kind of book I was looking for to get me into “Master Naturalist” mode, but honestly I had no idea a book so perfect for that would even exist! I mean, I also bought a biology text book, but though The Forest Unseen may contain fewer pages, fewer facts, and fewer diagrams, it has a message that I really want to receive. :)

In other Master Naturalist news, I was training a new volunteer at the Raptor Conservancy on Sunday and she mentioned that the way that she got involved with RCV was she had gone through the Master Naturalist program with another one of our volunteers a couple of years ago, so that was a funny coincidence. What’s more, I asked her what she had done for the volunteer component for the program and she said she had majored in environmental science and had thus done water monitoring for her volunteer work. I had always assumed I’d just use my wildlife rehab hours as my volunteer hours (and possibly pick up some volunteer work with bats as part of it), but since by day I’m a contractor for the EPA’s Office of Water, I’m kind of thinking maybe I should get into the same monitoring program she did. I did feel like my application for the Naturalist program was EXTREMELY wildlife-oriented, when of course there is so much more to it than wildlife – I could stand to be a lot more well-rounded, which is actually a big part of why I wanted to DO the program in the first place. And when people ask me what I do for a living I’m always, “I’m an EPA contractor for the Office of Water, but I do database stuff, not cool stuff out in the field.” I do really like my job, but I feel like it would be even more meaningful if I were also doing cool stuff out in the field. See, I feel like everything’s connected, just like Dr. Haskell explains over and over again.

So, yeah, new year’s. I can only hope that 2015 is as good to me as 2014 was. That’s asking quite a lot, considering there is little chance I’ll make it back to Africa so soon. And after all of the material things I accumulated in 2014 (all except the car were “for Africa”), I feel like I need to focus quite a bit on frugality in the upcoming year. But if I get to spend as much time outside next year as I did this year, and if I can devote even more time to learning new things and coming to an even deeper appreciation of the world around me and figure out exactly how I can best contribute to conservation of nature and wildlife, then 2015 will be a good year too. It’s starting off on the right note: we’ll be traveling to both Charleston and San Francisco in January, which I’m looking forward to.

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions because I think you can and should resolve to improve yourself any day of the year, but this year I made a resolution to drink more cocktails. That’s a good resolution, right? Although I’m a big fan of beer and wine, and I drink at least glass of wine a day, I very rarely drink hard liquor. In fact, the only times I ever drink hard liquor are with my father on holidays when he makes the two of us Manhattans, a tradition he picked up from his parents. But he makes it with a mix, which I think is silly, so this year I decided I was going to perfect a REAL Manhattan and to that end spent hours on the internet researching and bought a bunch of ingredients. I’m even planning to make – and can – my own maraschino cherries come cherry season! I also informed my father that we will be conducting ongoing taste tests throughout the year. In the name of science! We had the first taste test on Christmas when we pitted his whiskey and mix versus his whiskey and my bitters and vermouth. And the “real ingredients” won! I was biased, of course, but Dad was not. Mark participated but as expected had no opinion and after swallowing his Manhattans returned to his Bud Lite. The following photo was the one I used for my Photo365 portrait of the day and depicts the three of us just before tasting the “ingredients” Manhattan:

So that was fun and I look forward to more taste test trials with Dad in the future, although speaking of my dad, I would also like to make a small tribute to his and my mom’s dog. Their dog, Shannon, was a few weeks shy of 18 years old and was limping on Christmas. They were hoping he had just landed on it wrong and it did seem to get a little better the next day, but he quickly went downhill after that. Following a visit to the emergency vet, they think he may have developed a brain tumor, and a day later they made the painful decision to let him go before he suffered too much. I think by reading this blog, even just a post or two, you understand how much I love animals. Imagine all of the love you’d heard me express for animals, add it all up, and probably add some more in, and you might begin to understand how much Mom and Dad loved Shannon. So while I’m down here marveling over how great things are, my parents are suffering and that makes me very sad. My parents aren’t vegan or even vegetarian, but I assure you that the love and respect I have for animals comes 100% from them. We always had cats and dogs growing up and my brother and I were pretty much expected to consider them siblings. (Well, I’m not sure my father considered any of our cats to be our siblings, as he’s a dog person, not a cat person, but still…) My parents’ love of their pets shaped who I am today and I know how devastated they are. So here’s to Shannon, who led a full and happy life:

In more light-hearted news, Josiane said she’d like to see more of the self-portraits I’m doing for my Photo365 project. On the days I go for hikes – and so far the weather has been mild, allowing me to do so frequently – it’s easy: I jump in front of the tripod while taking a landscape shot. On days I can’t get out to hike (curse these short winter days), it’s harder to think of ideas. I’ve taken an awful lot of pictures of myself standing in front of my bookshelf. But some days I try to incorporate a theme that explains what I did that day. We had a Dogue Hollow Wildlife Sanctuary board meeting on Sunday afternoon so for that day’s photo I decided to demonstrate what it’s like working with raccoons, so here you go:

And with that it’s time for me to go find a cocktail and ring this new year in….

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2014

I don’t usually get all reflecty at the end of the year, but 2014 has been more of a year than most, I guess. It reminded me in a way of 2004, a year in which I received a second degree, got engaged, moved to a new state, got a new job (which I still have!), traveled internationally for the first time, and got married. Those last four things were in the same month! Likewise, 2014 saw me doing a lot of different things and fulfilling dreams.

The year began inauspiciously enough: shortly after we returned from Christmas spent in Charleston, SC with Mark’s family, Mark’s uncle was diagnosed with colon cancer. This has been the worst thing about 2014 and in fact whenever I think about how great 2014 was to me, I think about how hard it’s been for Mark’s aunt and uncle and the rest of their family. And in Virginia, the beginning of 2014 was so cold they had to invent new words to describe it, like polar vortex. I shoveled so much snow I felt like an honorary Canadian, although unlike some parts of Canada, the temperatures of the Mid-Atlantic fluctuate enough that even a foot or two of snow usually melts within a few days, so although I occasionally drove Mark’s Jeep instead of my snow-hating Miata, I did keep from going cabin-crazy and I never once missed any of my weekend volunteer work.

Right around the beginning of the year my volunteer work officially expanded to include raptors as well as raccoons. In addition to cleaning cages and exercising and feeding the raptors on a weekly basis, I help out with the programs to which we take our education birds on weekday evenings. I attended WAY more Cub Scout meetings in 2014 than I EVER thought I would!

The frigid bite of winter was offset a bit when I made the down payment for our trip to Tanzania in February. From that moment forward, I had warm, sunny Africa on my mind a good 70% of the time. I spent HOURS preparing. I pre-ordered a special lens for the trip and when it finally arrived, took every chance I could to practice with it on the wildlife I could find around here. Probably the highlight was the magical day I found these foxes play-fighting:

In February, I took my car – a 1995 Miata with 150k miles – into the shop for repeated alignments when it began pulling to the right and wouldn’t stop despite their efforts to diagnose the problem. My mechanic lent me his personal car – a 2004 Miata turbo with racing upgrades – one of the days he had my car as he was determined to solve the problem even though it doesn’t actually prevent it from being safely driven, and long story short, Mark bought the 2004 for me a couple of days later! As I was (and still am) extremely attached to my ’95, I never expected to get a “new” car, and especially not two weeks after buying a trip to Africa! And after years of poking fun at people like my brother, father, Fortinbras, and Mark for owning more than one car, I now own two cars. (I joke a lot about the luxury of having two Miatas – seriously, it IS rather convenient at times! – and the combined blue book value of the two cars is probably a third or less of the cost of most of the cars in my neighborhood, but I feel REALLY spoiled.) AND ONE IS A RACE CAR.

Spring finally arrived and was so welcome I spent every possible moment outdoors. I bolted out of the office every afternoon and headed immediately for a park. I luxuriated in fields of bluebells! I discovered tons of parks I had never had the chance to visit or never even knew about. I realized that as built-up as Northern Virginia is, we have an amazing combination of regional, state, and national parks and trails that kept me busy exploring night after night.

Spring never actually ended…the hot and humid summers this area is notorious for never arrived this year. Instead we pretty much had spring from April to September. I may not have loved it as much if we still had a pool, but as far as my nightly hikes were concerned, summer ’14 was AMAZING. It was like my reward for suffering through the brutal winter. I was in seventh heaven: every single afternoon saw me headed to a different park, hiking for miles and taking pictures, driving home with the top down as the sun set. We didn’t even go on a proper summer vacation and yet it was the happiest summer I’ve had for a while.

Mark and I discovered a mutual love of kayaking early on in the season and every weekend after I’d finished up with the raptors or raccoons, we’d rent a couple of kayaks and paddle for a few hours. Spending time on the water in that way only deepened my appreciation for the area we live in. I loved spending time IN the Potomac in addition to gazing down UPON it. Mark and I plan to buy our own kayaks for next season. Meanwhile, we introduced my brother to kayaking and he’d come down every few weekends throughout the summer to accompany us. I took Fortinbras kayaking for his birthday. We dragged Smucky out with us during his annual summer visit:

I started running, which is TOTALLY weird. I HATE running. Really hate it. But in an effort to get treadmill workouts over with faster, I started running for part of them. Eventually I gained enough confidence to do easy trail runs, which of course I prefer to being inside and as I mentioned, this summer was AWESOME for running outside, even if I couldn’t quite believe I was willing to risk people SEEING me attempt to run. I ran my first 5k this fall – by which I mean I ran 5k without stopping to walk any of it – and that feat was actually part of a 5-mile total run (it was not a race event; just me on the treadmill) I did in an hour. Honestly, out of all the stuff that happened in 2014, the fact that I RAN is to me by far the oddest. I’m not sure I’d have believed you if you had told me on January 1, 2014 that I’d be (mostly) running 4 to 5 miles at a time.

Possibly related, I lost weight. I don’t own a scale so I don’t know how much or what I started out at – I was never overweight but definitely weighed more than I did in college – but several people have TOLD me I’ve lost weight so I guess I must have. Well, that and the fact that I had to buy new pants, some of which are size 2 and still require a belt. :)

I switched from Linux to Mac which is another thing I’d have told you on 1/1/14 that I would NEVER do. It wasn’t due to frustration with Linux (which has gotten MUCH easier to use for personal computing over the years) but because I wanted to try Adobe Lightroom (so I guess it WAS therefore frustration that Lightroom hasn’t been ported to Linux), and also because I wanted the smallest, lightest, but still usable – including with Lightroom – laptop I could get to take to Africa and I just couldn’t find something that beat the 13″ Macbook Air or its outstanding battery life. As it turns out, I LOVE the Air. I thought I’d use it only for travel but as it turns out I haven’t even opened my Ubuntu Thinkpad or my work laptop since I got the Mac. I also LOVE Lightroom, although I remain deathly afraid of Photoshop. I’m slowly trying to improve my photo processing skills, which is an ongoing battle.

Then I WENT TO AFRICA, which was my favorite thing I’ve ever done, but my thoughts about that are too much for this post, so see the several previous and upcoming posts about that. I’ll just say it was phenomenally awesome. While there Mark and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary, which means we’ve been married for a DECADE, which is CRAZY.

I came home from Africa and found that winter had pretty much begun again in Virginia and I felt a little like the glory of the year was ending. The days are far too short – and often too cold and/or wet – for me to go to parks after work. And I had difficulty accepting the fact that when I DID make it to a park there weren’t any lions there. So I started a Photo365 project to try to inspire me to enjoy photography other than wildllife photography on the days I can’t get to any wildlife. I broadened the project theme to any portraiture (instead of my original theme of just self-portraits) to give me a break from taking pictures of myself if I happen to find a willing victim model some days, but 95% of the time it’s still going to be pictures of me, which is a bit hard to swallow because I almost universally look terrible in photographs. I didn’t have high expectations for my commitment to this project because I thought it was going to be pretty difficult to think of 365 ways of hiding behind a cat for a photograph ;). But then Mother Nature graced me with two consecutive weekends of very nice hiking weather and I managed to go for a hike every day of the last two weekends, which provided me the opportunity to take a few self-portraits outside, where I’m happiest, though there are no cats to hide my face behind. (Why, oh, why are there no lions in Virginia parks??) And I learned that I CAN actually take a picture of myself that I don’t hate, and I don’t even have to turn my back to the camera (although I liked this one and used it as this Saturday’s photo):

In fact, this weekend I ended up with way more photos than I needed for the project and I don’t really know what to DO with them. I don’t actually have a USE for a bunch of photos of myself. I guess if Mark and I ever get a divorce, I’ve got an arsenal of photos I can put on dating sites that might not make people gag, haha. The one above and the one below were taken Saturday in my favorite-place-that’s-not-Africa: Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which probably explains my easy smile.

Sunday I went to Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck NWR, which is just across the bay from and part of the same complex as Occoquan Bay. I don’t got there nearly as often because there just aren’t the same opportunities for wildlife viewing (although there are a LOT of migrating tundra swans there right now), but I’m so glad I went on Sunday afternoon because the lighting in the forest was GORGEOUS. This was the photo I selected for the project for that day:

… but I took several others that I don’t hate.

So I’m actually rather surprised by the “success” of this Photo365 project as I’ve gotten more comfortable in front of the camera – I read some articles on how to pose for portraits so I don’t always look like I have a double chin – and I’m being forced to get better at photo editing. Now that I’ve gotten a bunch of pictures of “Renae in nature”, I’m going to have to start coming up with more creative ideas for the daily pics, which is really hard because although I’m a LITTLE more at ease in front of the camera, I’ve learned that I look positively DREADFUL if I don’t smile in photos. Basically I can deal with the results if I’m flashing the camera my winning smile (haha), but other than that, I’m at a loss.

But enough about me. Those pictures of me don’t make me want to puke, which is nice, but look how BEAUTIFUL my walk was Sunday:

I feel like I’ve just spent a bunch of time gloating about how great my life is, and in a way I guess I have. But know how grateful I am for that, and how much I treasure and appreciate it. And to be fair, maybe some or even a lot of it is just having the right attitude. Maybe I could have found 14 paragraphs of negative things to say about the last year…though for this year in particular that probably would be hard – I WENT TO AFRICA! – but I’ve learned over the years how to concentrate on the good and the beautiful and not dwell on the bad and the ugly. I do feel like a particularly lucky person, though. A lot of this year has been characterized by my wishes coming true – some of them for material things (lenses! laptops! cars!) and some of them for more esoteric things. As a small example, last weekend I went to Prince William Forest Park and I saw but could not photograph a pileated woodpecker before he flew off into the deep forest. I only have one very blurry photo of a pileated woodpecker taken a couple of years ago. I mentioned to my father that I missed getting a picture of that bird and how BADLY I wanted to take one. Then this weekend at Occoquan, what does the universe deliver to me?

And did the universe stop there? No, the universe thought I might also like to see a fox since it can’t give me lions right now.

These were taken with a 50mm lens, which I mention to tell you how close he was to me. If you aren’t into photography, that means he was very close to me. :)

And maybe this post has been an explanation of why I so rarely updated this blog this year and when I do I usually don’t have recipes. GEEZ, I’m busy. Busy, but grateful. Happy holidays and a very happy new year to all of you.

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