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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Italian Pickled Peppers and Creamy Mayo-Free Coleslaw

I bought a pint of peppers at the farmers market that looked perfect for pickling (and no, I can’t stop thinking about Peter picking a peck of pickled peppers), so I made a simple quick pickle brine that included some of my potted oregano, figuring they’d be awesome on pizza. Plus, I’m a plant killer and the oregano is pretty much dead so I figured I might as well use what I can. (It’s a shame; it was a particularly potent variety and the plant smelled strongly of pizza – I was drooling when I bought it. Curse my black thumb.) Though I made it specifically for putting on pizza, I’ve been eating it by itself as a garnish with every meal I’ve had, even stir frys. Unless Mark is ready to harvest a bunch of the peppers he’s growing (he does NOT have a black thumb), I’ll have to buy another pint or two of peppers at the market this weekend. The brine gets spicy and delicious as well.

Italian Pickled Peppers

1 pint hot peppers, like peperoncini or wax
1 large shallot
2 or 3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup white wine or apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
several sprigs fresh oregano
a few sprigs of fresh dill (optional)

Combine the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt and heat until just boiling (in a small pot or in the microwave), whisking to ensure the sugar is completely dissolved. Slice the peppers (seeded if you like) and shallot thinly. Smash the garlic cloves lightly with the side of a knife. Toss the peppers and shallots together to mix them up and put them into a pint canning jar with the herbs and garlic cloves. Pour the liquid mixture into the jar.

This had a good flavor a mere half hour later, but is really best after refrigerating for 24 hours.

A tasty garnish for just about any dish!

I had extra brine, so I added some olive oil, fresh herbs, and lemon juice and made a salad dressing out of it.

Here is a flatbread pizza sporting some of the peppers (and some basil that I haven’t yet managed to kill, mostly because Mark won’t let me near it):

Mark is a big mayo-hater, and although I don’t hate mayonnaise, I do consider it pretty unhealthy, so I usually do vinaigrette versions of salads that are usually dressed in mayo, and honestly, I think they taste much better that way. I don’t usually prefer dressings to be creamy, but this coleslaw recipe uses a little bit of yogurt for a hint of creaminess.

Creamy Mayo-Free Coleslaw

1 small head cabbage (green or savoy)
1/2 small onion
2 green onions, sliced thinly
3 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp plain vegan yogurt
2 Tbsp canola or other flavorless oil
1 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp celery seeds

Grate the cabbage and the onion – I use a mandolin for this – and put in a large bowl with the green onions. Whisk together the vinegar, yogurt, oil, sugar, mustard, salt, and celery seeds. Pour the mixture over the cabbage and onions and mix thoroughly; I advise using your hands. Cover and refrigerate at least an hour to allow the flavors to blend.

Last night’s dinner, featuring the coleslaw (and you can see the pickled peppers, as well as some quick pickled carrots):

Mark spends about 10 minutes artfully arranging the food on his plate every night. He watches too much Gordon Ramsay.

Time for book and animal talk. Once again, I experienced a random segue from a fiction to a non-fiction book. Last weekend I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It’s about a girl who was raised with a chimpanzee as a sister until both she and the chimp were 5, and how this has impacted her life and that of her family. Confronted by some crows that the narrator is convinced are calling them bad names, one of the characters (who is vegan when he’s not “on the road” working for the Animal Liberation Front) responds, “Crows are very smart. If they say we’re idiots, we’re idiots.”

Well, I had already cued up Gifts of the Crow as my very next read, so I was about to find out just how smart crows are, if not whether or not they think we are idiots. Gifts of the Crow was fascinating; I read the entire thing while at Mark’s chess tournament. It’s very heavy on brain chemistry, so if you’re not interested in that sort of thing, it might not be for you, but I learned that crows:

  • Can talk.
  • If perched on a ledge from which dangles food on a long string, know to pull up on the string, making loops and stepping on them with their feet, until the food is hoisted all the way up.
  • Not only manufacture tools (the classic example is bending wire to make a hook), but will use items they previously proved unhelpful in other endeavors to assist making their tools – they are very innovative and can reassess the usefulness of tools in different situations.
  • Will place leaves over bread tossed from humans to geese, so the geese can’t find the bread and leave in frustrated confusion, at which times the crows feast.
  • Will chase squirrels into traffic during rush hour, then wait until traffic dies down to eat the dead squirrels.
  • Will pull the tails of dogs (tail pulling seems to be a favorite crow activity, by the way) to trick them out of their dog food, either by dropping food they have in their mouth, or by ganging up so that one crow distracts the dog while the other steals its food.
  • Are big “cachers” – they hide food and trinkets they don’t need right away – and if they notice a fellow crow watching them hiding their cache, they will fake the other crow out by stuffing the item into its chest feathers or in its beak and pretend to cache it in one location, but secretly hide it elsewhere later. Although they are also so smart that they know that other crows are trying to fake them out, so this is a vicious cycle. Moreover, if a crow sees another crow getting near its cache, they will make a distraction and retrieve the cache before the other bird can get to it…but only if the first crow previously saw the second crow see the first crow hiding it. Calling someone a “bird brain” is supposed to be an insult, but crows come close to OVER thinking things!
  • Can count, and understand that even if they can’t see something, it’s still there. Eight researchers in a blind tried to trick crows into thinking a field was safe to land in and not a single crow would leave their high perches until all eight people had left the blind and the field – even when the researchers left the blind in groups of random numbers to try to fake them out.
  • Learn from the mistakes of other crows. If a crow sees one of their brethren die or become injured, through misadventure or through human intervention, none of the other crows in the area will make the same mistake. Ever.
  • Remember human faces – for years. And they’ll tell all their friends if you are a good or a bad person. If you do something bad to a crow or a crow sees you do something bad to some other crow, that crow will harass you – forever – and so will others he knows. Crows who never even saw the original infraction will harangue you (proving crows have some sort of language they use to communicate with each other) even when the crow you originally slighted isn’t around.
  • Know what car you drive. Maybe you should just read the book for an explanation of that one, but yeah. They don’t just know your face, they know your car. And they’ll use your car as a vehicle to show their displeasure with you.
  • Remember and reward kindnesses in humans as well as meanness. Crows have been known to bring gifts – often some shiny, human trinket they’ve stolen – to people who have fed them or saved their life.

Basically, crows (and all birds in the corvid family, which also includes ravens, rooks, jays, magpies, and others) are ridiculously smart, rivaling apes and, in my opinion, some humans. In fact, I kind of think the only reason they haven’t taken over the planet is because they’re lazy and are just waiting for us to come up with all the technology we can. Crows don’t want to be bothered by discovering cold fusion for themselves. Once we’ve created everything crows think they need to rule the earth, I think that’s the end of us. To that end, I designed this t-shirt so when our new crow overlords arrive they know that I’m a sympathizer.

There were crows cawing nearby when I took that picture, by the way, although none stopped by. I’m sure they can read English, however, so they’re probably already putting word out that I can be counted on during the great crow uprising.

They are remarkable creatures and I hope to be involved in crow rehab in the future. First, though, the raptors…coming soon.

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Moroccan Meal: Carrot and Chickpea Tagine; Green Bean and New Potato Saute

I’ve realized I’m sad about my infrequent postings, if for no other reason than often I’d like a record of what I’ve made. Sometimes I want to repeat it and can’t remember what I did. I’ve been so busy that I haven’t spent as much time as usual cooking, but I am still cooking, and I’ve made some pretty good stuff, too. Instead of dismissing the idea I should do a post on it because I’m busy, or it doesn’t seem that exciting, or I’m tired, I’m going to just do it anyway. So with fresh resolve, I bring you a Moroccan meal of Carrot and Chickpea Tagine with Green Bean and New Potato Saute. Neither of these are original recipes. I decided to base the meal around the green beans I got at the farmers market so I hit the internet looking for ideas and came across a Moroccan recipe, so I went with that theme for the whole meal.

Smucky recently spent three weeks in Morocco, so I asked him to share a couple of his favorite pictures to give this post a more authentic Moroccan flair than my food probably will, so first let’s start off with the very handsome Smucky in front of a gorgeous backdrop:

He asked if I wanted food pictures and I said not necessarily, but when he sent me this one, it was so happy I had to include it.

Smucks apparently had an amazing time in the desert. He says I’d really like Morocco, so I guess I’d better put it on my list of places to go…

Possibly the greatest thing about Morocco are the GOATS IN TREES. That’s enough of a reason to go right there!

And now the recipes. We don’t do Moroccan too often, so this meal was a nice change of pace. If you make both of these dishes for the same meal, start the tagine first since it takes longer.

Carrot and Chickpea Tagine
very slightly adapted from http://moroccanfood.about.com/od/vegetarianmaindishes/r/moroccan_carrot_chickpea_tagine.htm

I’m not sure if it’s really a tagine if it’s not cooked in a tagine, but this was pretty tasty.

2 cups roughly chopped carrot
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp turmeric
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup vegetable broth
1 can chickpeas, drained
1/4 cup raisins (golden preferred)
chopped parsley

Heat some oil over medium high heat in the base of a tagine or in a large skillet or Dutch oven. Add all of the ingredients except the broth, chickpeas, raisins, and parsley and saute for a minute or two. Add the broth, bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the carrots are somewhat tender. Add the chickpeas, raisins, and parsley and cook until the carrots are completely tender and the chickpeas are heated through. Serve over couscous.

Green Bean and New Potato Saute
very slightly adapted from http://moroccanfood.about.com/od/saladsandsidedishes/r/green_bean_new_potato_saute.htm

1 lb green beans, trimmed
1 lb new potatoes, chopped in half
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1/2 tsp gound cumin
1/2 tsp hot paprika or 1/4 tsp cayenne
salt to taste
chopped parsley

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Put the green beans in and cook until just tender, about 8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and plunge into an ice bath (or if you are lazy, run cold water over them in a strainer). Bring the water to a boil again if necessary, then add the potatoes and cook until tender. Drain and plunge into an ice bath (or run cold water over them in a strainer). Put some oil in a large skillet and add the garlic, cumin, paprika or cayenne, and salt, and saute for a minute or two. Add the green beans and potatoes and saute until heated through. Stir in the parsley.

Personally, I felt both of these dishes required a finish of lemon juice, so I served with lemon wedges. However, I pretty much think everything requires a lemon juice finish. I LOVE LEMONS.

My plate:

And this is Mark’s artfully arranged plate:

I’m going to talk about books – and music – for a little bit if you don’t mind. I know many of you are big readers like I am. So, Fortinbras was here the other day and after dinner I announced to him and Mark that I wanted to play my current favorite song for them and went over to my iPod and cued up Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata, which I’ve been playing over and over again. Well, within 10 seconds of my starting the song, both Fortinbras and Mark said, practically in unison, “Yeah, that’s DEFINITELY a Renae song!” Which I thought was interesting because for one thing they’d only heard a few notes and for another, it’s not like I listen to a ton of African music. But either there is some very predictable quality about the music I like or it’s just that there’s no one in the world who knows me better than those two.

Shortly thereafter I started reading Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead and for some reason I was reminded of Mark and Fortinbras immediately pegging Pata Pata as a Renae song, because I kind of immediately pegged Bird Sense as a Renae book. While 92.1% of the books I read are fiction (and yes, that’s a real statistic; I keep track), the non-fiction books I read are, I suppose, somewhat predictable. They are all science-related for one thing, if not physics, then neuroscience or biology, and I require good writing skills on the part of the author. (I can’t abide a poorly written book, no matter how fascinating the subject matter.) And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’m obsessed with raptors. So a book using science to explain how it feels to be a bird? I’m all over it! I’m about halfway through it and it’s great, other than a few disturbing parts about various experiments, particularly those from a century or more ago. (Sorry, I just don’t think it’s cool to rip a bird’s eyes out to find out if it needs to see to fly.)

Here is a picture of a raptor, who is definitely using his eyes to stare me down. It’s an osprey. They always get pissed at me when I walk under their nest. They fly out of it and circle around me squawking.

I learned about Bird Sense by talking to one of the people handling the birds at the raptor safari I went to, when I rather uncharacteristically struck up a conversation with her and in the course of our conversation she recommended the book. Usually I’m super shy, but I’m learning to be less shy around rehabbers and other people I might learn from, and it always pays off.

Another interesting thing is Bird Sense referred to Thomas Nagel’s philosophical essay What is it like to be a bat?. That’s not too interesting in and of itself because it makes sense that a book about what it’s like to be a bird would make a reference to an essay about what it’s like to be a bat. But what’s weird is the book I read right before starting Bird Sense was Bright Lights, Big City, a TOTALLY different kind of book, which also referred to What is it like to be a bat?. I thought that a strange coincidence!

To bring it back around to music, my other favorite song right now is Pink Martini’s Sympathique, which I discovered when a few commenters recognized the qunioa salad I posted a few weeks ago as originally coming from China Forbes, the singer of Pink Martini. A strange way to find new music, but I LOVE the song (it’s also very much a “Renae song”) and I actually understand 95% of it (I refuse to look up the lyrics, but Mark likes it when I translate it as it plays), plus the “je ne veux pas travailler” sentiment is really fitting for me right now. I pretty much always want to dejeuner though!

How abouts I wrap up this possibly too-chatty post with some pictures from Occoquan Bay NWR, where I went to celebrate the solstice Friday?

Tree swallows:

This is not a great picture, but I find it amusing for some reason, plus I’ve never photographed a pileated woodpecker before so I kept it. (And it reminds me of Still Life with Woodpecker.)

Doe, a deer:

Bunny:

One of the creeks:

Well, je ne veux pas travailler, mais j’ai besoin d’argent, soooo je vais me couche…

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