Oh hello! Thanksgiving, pressure canning, etc.

Hi! It’s me, Renae! I am still alive, still in California, still vegan, still cooking, still obsessed with wildlife. The only thing that’s really new is the pervasive feeling of being traumatized that I’ve felt since the election. I keep reading about these “fake news articles” that are apparently running rampant on the internet. Apparently it’s mostly a Facebook thing and I use Facebook so infrequently that I actually have no idea how to even SEE news articles in Facebook, but I keep hoping that maybe all news articles about Trump winning the election are fake news. Please tell me that is the case: please, please, please. But enough about that because I just can’t deal with it.

I’ve decided to write a post here today mostly because it’s raining today here in the Bay Area and I’m therefore not out hiking as I usually would be, plus I took a few pictures of my Thanksgiving table. We hosted Thanksgiving dinner here for our friends Brad and April, who moved to the area about the same time we did last year. I made:

seitan “turkey”
stuffing
mashed potatoes
gravy
green bean casserole
macaroni & “cheese”
cranberry relish
sauerkraut
bread

Here are some pics:

And Brad brought a really delicious sweet potato pie and brownies for dessert.

The “turkey”, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green bean casserole I pretty much made up as I went along. The cranberry relish was from Brooklyn Supper and was really good. The bread was the poolish-version ciabatta from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. The sauce for the mac & cheese was from Avocados and Ales. The “turkey” was pretty similar to the recipe for breasts of unchicken from The Homemade Vegan Pantry (which I love), but I pressure cooked it as a large loaf on Wednesday, then used Miyoko’s recipe for the yuba “skin” and baked it again Thursday afternoon.

The mashed potatoes were really random (well, as random as mashed potatoes can be anyway); Brad asked me if they had red pepper flakes in them, while saying they were really good. One of the random ingredients was a garlic-based spice mix that I bought from Garlic World while stopping in Gilroy one afternoon trying to avoid heavy Highway 1 traffic on the way home from Monterey, and which apparently contained red pepper flakes. And here’s a rough recipe for the green bean casserole for others like me who hate mushrooms:

Green Bean Casserole
2 lbs green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-3″ lengths
1 small onion, diced
2-3 stalks celery, diced
1 cup vegan chicken or veggie broth
3 Tbsp Ultra Gel
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 avocado
3 oz canned fried onions

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the green beans. Cook until al dente, then drain and shock in cold water to stop cooking. Saute the onion and celery in some vegan butter or margarine until onions are translucent; set aside. Whisk together the broth, Ultra gel, onion powder, and garlic powder until the broth thickens. Mash up the avocado and add to the broth mixture and mix well. Stir in the green beans, onion/celery mixture, and half of the fried onions. Place in an oven-safe dish, cover, and bake at 375 for half an hour. Uncover and top with remaining fried onions, then continue to bake for 15-20 more minutes. I baked mine, covered, for half an hour, then cooled and put it in the fridge overnight so it only needed 15-20 minutes on Thanksgiving day.

Oh, and the stuffing was really easy:

Stuffing

1/2 loaf sliced whole wheat bread (about 10 slices)
1 large white onion, diced
4-5 stalks celery, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 Tbsp vegan butter (I used the vegan butter from The Homemade Vegan Pantry) or margarine
1/4 cup chopped fresh sage leaves
2 Tbsp fresh thyme
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 1/2 cup vegan “chicken” broth + 1 tsp poultry seasoning whisked in

Chop the bread slices into cubes and spread out on a sheet pan. Bake in a 240-degree Fahrenheit oven for about 45 minutes or until dried out, stirring occasionally. Melt the butter or margarine over medium heat, then saute the onion, celery, and garlic until the onions begin to turn translucent. Add the sage, thyme, and rosemary and cook another minute or so. Stir in the bread cubes, then add as much of the broth as necessary to soak the bread. Place in an oven-safe dish and bake, covered, at 375 degrees for half an hour. Uncover and bake another 20-30 minutes or until slightly crispy on top. Again, I baked mine, covered, for half an hour Wednesday night, then uncovered for half an hour Thursday afternoon.

I was so organized with my cooking and planning that I was able to go for a short hike Wednesday afternoon before it got dark, and on Thursday morning had a couple hours to just read and be by myself without running around like crazy. 🙂 Really all I needed to do Thursday was bake the bread (I had made the poolish the night before), set out all the appetizers, and re-heat everything. I am good at holidays!

I feel like every time I get around to making a new post I have a new culinary gadget to rave about. Last time it was my Instant Pot. This time it’s my pressure canner! A couple months ago I had 60 pounds of tomatoes I needed to can in one weekend, plus 10 pounds of beets, half of which I was planning to pickle. I’ve done 60 pounds of tomatoes in one weekend in a water bath canner before, but for some reason it was feeling really overwhelming that day and I made the somewhat impulsive decision to buy a pressure canner. It was enough of an impulse decision that I didn’t have time to Amazon Prime it, so I had to find one locally. The only Ace Hardware that had it listed in stock was in Oakland, so I drove out there and went looking for it in that store, but was unable to find it. I asked for help and was told they’d have to special order it for me. I was pretty annoyed I had driven out there for no reason AND I REALLY wanted the canner at this point so I sat in my car and tried to think who else might carry it. I thought of Bed, Bath, and Beyond and went to their website on my phone and was delighted to find that there was a BB&B TWO BLOCKS from where I was that had the same canner in stock! So I went over there and looked around for it. I didn’t see it there either and was feeling a little frantic, until I looked way UP and saw it all the way up by the ceiling. So I had to find someone to get a ladder and get it down for me, but I finally got what I wanted!

I don’t know that pressure canning tomatoes really saves time in itself: the processing time is much shorter than a water bath, but once you add in the time spent venting steam before you start, then getting up to pressure, and then coming back down from pressure (which you must do naturally), really you spend the same amount of time working overall. BUT I can fit a whopping 22 pints into my canner! So basically I can do the equivalent 3 loads at one time, which IS a huge timesaver. I’d have bought the pressure canner for that reason only. But what I’m really loving about it is all the stuff I can now can that I never could before: basically, non-pickled vegetables, beans, and soups. The same weekend I had 60 pounds of tomatoes, I also had 10 pounds of beets, which is a surprising amount of beets. I pickled 6 or 7 pounds (I love pickled beets!) and used a water bath to can them, but then I pressure canned the rest. (By the way, I used my Instant Pot to cook the beets before doing either – the beets are what’s in the Instant Pot in the picture above!) So far I’ve used some of the non-pickled beets to make an impromptu borscht.

As I mentioned on Twitter the day I canned the tomatoes and beets, the “problem” with pressure canning is there is all this time waiting for the canner to come up to pressure that ends up being devoted to drinking and taking pictures of cats, who think they are canning helpers.

So anyway, now I’m on a big pressure canning kick with the goal of canning a bunch of things I can later turn into dinner on very short order – such as during the summer when they days are so long I often don’t come home from hiking until 10 p.m. and I’m starving. I’ve been soaking dried beans and pressure canning them, which I love because it’s so much cheaper than buying canned beans AND contains no sodium or other additives. For some reason I find it immensely satisfying. Last weekend I bought 40 more pounds of tomatoes (which were somehow still in season where I live) in order to make tomato soup. I used this recipe from Common Sense Home, which said I’d get 4 pints out of 8 pounds of tomatoes, so I made 5x the recipe, expecting to yield 20 pints. I somehow ended up with 35 pints! I basically have a TON of tomato soup!

But it tastes great and is really versatile: in addition to serving as regular old tomato soup (usually with grilled “cheese”, of course), it makes a good base for a ton of other soups, and regular readers of this blog may remember how much I love soup.

I used a Victorio strainer to strain the tomato soup and ended up with a large amount of a really dry tomato peel/tomato seeds/celery/onion/parsley pulp/waste, so I spread it out on my dehydrator’s shelves (I used 8 of the 9 shelves) and dehydrated the “waste” overnight. When it was totally dry, I ground it up in batches in a coffee/spice grinder, and I ended up with a whole quart of what I called “tomato soup powder”, which will be excellent to add to soups, etc. (I had previously made a pure tomato powder doing the same thing with the peels and cores from tomatoes I had canned.)

Since I knew it was going to be rainy all day today, I had decided to dedicate today to making Vegan Dad’s pressure canner chili, although I ended up with 9 1/2 quarts instead of the perfect canner load of 7 quarts that Vegan Dad promised (probably because I was overly generous when measuring pretty much everything). (Because you can do two layers of pint jars in my canner, but only one layer of quarts, the maximum number of pint jars I can can at one time is 22, but only 7 quart jars.) No problem: while canning the first 7 quarts, I soaked some of the tons of dried beans I have waiting to can, and I’ll be doing a second canner load of the remaining chili, plus a bunch of jars of beans.

That’s most of the food news here, I suppose. In non-food news, the wildlife rehab gigs I have going on here are going really, really great. One of the two wildlife hospitals I volunteer at has actually hired me as a paid staff member! It’s just an occasional substitute animal caretaker position, so I’m not raking in big bucks or anything, but I was extremely flattered to be asked to do it and I’m extremely excited about the educational opportunities it affords. And I was just made a shift leader at the other hospital, which doesn’t involve a paycheck but will hopefully give me the opportunity to work even more closely with the technicians there and learn even more. I’m also working with many of the education animals at the smaller hospital, particularly with the raptors. This is one of my favorite pictures from 2016, not because I look good (I wish I knew how to use Photoshop and could Photoshop my hair into not looking stupid), but because my buddy Elvis, the peregrine, is in it. Mark, who took the photo at our fundraiser event, says you can tell from the picture how much Elvis loves me. I don’t know if “love” is the right word to describe Elvis’s feelings for me, but I hand-feed Elvis on a regular basis and we do have a special bond, one that I had to build with him. And let me tell you, it is REALLY cool to bond with a raptor, especially a more “difficult” species like most of the falcons. AND LOOK HOW HANDSOME ELVIS IS!!

I think I’m all typed out! If you want to know more regularly than once very six months if I’m alive and well, you can visit my photo blog, which I update daily.

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Serengeti

If I had to pick a favorite place in Tanzania, I’d say I didn’t want to, because the entire trip was so, so, so great. But if I absolutely, positively HAD to pick a favorite place, I’m going to have to say it was the Serengeti. The Serengeti was a bit of a surprise for me because its elevation is higher than I realized and it’s therefore not as oppressively hot as I thought it was going to be, and it was much greener than I thought it would be at the end of the dry season. Basically the Serengeti was even more awesome than I thought it was going to be. So was the place we stayed, but more on that in a moment. The Serengeti is also full of (big) cats so I have a ton of cat pictures! Okay, the Serengeti is pretty much the greatest place on this planet and I’d be perfectly happy to go spend the rest of my life there.

To get from the crater to the Serengeti, we had to hop on a tiny (you had to crawl to your seat) little plane and fly for about 45 minutes. The pilot purposely flew over the Great Migration (of zebras and wildebeests) before we landed and tipped the plane so we could see it:

We were met by our guide, Jairo, at the airport and he immediately whisked us off on a safari. But before I get to safari pictures, let me talk about where we stayed. Our itinerary said we’d be staying in a mobile tented camp, one that moves every couple of months to follow the migration. I’m sure that would have been cool and Mark was looking forward to “roughing it” in an even more rustic tent than the one we stayed in in Tarangire, but for some reason our itinerary was wrong and we were deposited at Lamai Serengeti, which is the GREATEST PLACE EVER. This was by far the best place I have stayed while traveling. The only bad thing I can think to say about it is that our 10th wedding anniversary (which we celebrated there) may have ALMOST been even more crazy-awesome than our actual wedding, and our wedding – which was held in a Scottish castle – was pretty damn amazing.

I guess the only other “bad” thing was the walk to our room was kind of long and steep:

But that’s only “bad” until you finally get to the room …

… and you realize you have complete and utter solitude. And then you walk in and see this:

This is about 2/3s of the bathroom. Yes the entire wall is a window and no, privacy was not a concern. No one can really access the area on that side of the building.

And then you walk out on the balcony and peer in:

And in the morning, the rising sun awakes you, filling your entire room from the wall of window, and you crawl out from between the mosquito netting and you retrieve the hot tea or coffee that’s been delivered to your door before you awoke, and you walk out on the balcony and watch the sun continue to rise. And you never want to leave, ever.

So yeah, I don’t know how or why we ended up there (Lamai is part of the same company as the nomad place I thought we were staying in, so it’s not THAT mysterious) but it was so very fortuitous. And the FOOD! Was so good! But I’m going to do a whole post on the whole food/vegan thing, so I’ll rhapsodize there soon.

At Lamai, we would wake up just in time to watch the sun rise, then immediately hustle off to safari. Unlike the other places we stayed where we had breakfast at the lodge before heading out, our guide packed a breakfast for us and we ate it out on the plains after driving for a while – Jairo would set up a table and put out a whole spread. It was really nice. Then we’d drive around some more then head back to Lamai for lunch. After lunch and maybe a quick swim in the pool, we’d do an afternoon drive until the sun set. Then it was time for drinks and dinner. Basically I have just described what I consider to be an absolutely perfect day, and we had three of them. 🙂

This is a picture of Lamai taken just after sunset as we were on our way back for dinner one night. I think the room that is closest in the foreground is Smucky and Olivia’s and ours is off-camera to the right. To the left in the mid-ground is the common area where meals were served.

To me the Serengeti looked like another planet. Another, really awesome planet. There were a lot of boulders in the areas we spent the most time (although the Serengeti is very vast and looks quite different in other areas), it’s just unlike any landscape we have at home:

Animals we saw included giraffes:

Klipspringers:

Warthogs:

Rock agama:

Cape buffalo:

Zebras:

Hyena:

Baboons:

AFRICAN DEATH STICK:

LIONS LIONS LIONS!! I have so many incredible lion pictures from the Serengeti I’m finding it really hard to restrain myself and not post all of them!!

Olivia needs to Photoshop the twigs out of this one for me (Photoshop is TOO HARD!) because they are very distracting but he’s SO CUTE I can’t delete the picture!

Oh my gosh I have so many! I can’t stop posting them! Just one more!

But wait, lions aren’t the only cat! Oh, no! Could there possibly be a better way to start your day than to engage in a staring contest with a LEOPARD???

She’s chasing an impala in this photo, hoping for breakfast:

Here is a different leopard in a tree!

I love you, leopard.

But what OTHER kinds of cats live in the Serengeti? CHEETAHS!!

Baby cheetah:

This was a funny incident from our final safari. We found this cheetah lounging about looking beautiful:

Then her cub saw some gazelles off in the distance and goaded her into chasing after them:

So she obligingly headed off in their direction, but then she hit a nice patch of dirt and just flopped down mid-stride and rolled around like a total goofball! IT WAS THE CUTEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN, EVER!

As you can tell, the cats were once again my absolute favorite and we saw a ton of them and I was pretty much the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, but what a lot of people go to the Serengeti hoping to see is the Great Migration. We were fortunate to witness a “crossing” – herds of wildebeests and zebras crossing the Mara River. Not everyone gets to see such an event – the manager at Lamai told me she’s lived there for 5 years and has still not managed to see one – so when Jairo spotted some wildebeests looking like they might take the plunge, from a good mile away at least (safari guides have AMAZING eyesight), he ROCKETED over to the river so we wouldn’t miss it.

What a spectacle! Why is it kind of a rare opportunity? Because even if you do manage to time your drive so that you encounter a herd at the right time, there’s no guarantee they’ll be brave enough to follow through. We later saw a “near-crossing” when a bunch of zebras tried to push each other into the water, but no one was brave enough to go first and they eventually retreated. It’s very dangerous for them to cross and many of them don’t make it. They either drown or are devoured by:

And yes, we saw a few crocs staring down the brave animals we saw crossing. I was very worried for them but all the animals I saw crossed successfully.

I’d better wrap it up here as that has been a LOT of pictures. Okay, ONE MORE, here is the last wildlife photo I had the opportunity to take on safari. It was just about time for that lazy guy to wake up and go hunting!

Next: exotic, spicy ZANZIBAR!

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Ngorongoro Crater

After our very first day of safari, in Tarangire National Park, I thought to myself that if that had been the ONLY day I had been able to spend in Africa, it would have been worth all the expense, all the planning, all the flying, all the everything. It was THAT incredible. And then the second day was even better. And THEN we went to Ngorongoro Crater.

Ngorongoro Crater was created 2 to 3 million years ago when a volcano collapsed, forming the largest intact caldera on the planet. “Ngorongoro” is pronounced just as it’s spelled and according to our guide was named after the sound the bells around the necks of the Maasai’s cattle made as they walked down the crater walls. Driving from Tarangire, we stopped at a village for a cultural visit (where Mark decided he was moving to Africa to teach children) and some banana beer and banana wine, and then at an art shop, and finally at the crater rim.

I had never taken a panorama photo before but you really kind of have to; the crater is simply immense. This is 3 or 4 photos stitched together and if you click on it, you can see the bigger, better version.

One of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the entire world lives in this crater.

After spending a lot of time taking in the impressive view from the crater rim, we made our way to the lodge. There were random marabou storks roaming around the courtyard at all times at the lodge. Those things are HUGE. And kind of weird! “Yeah, I’m just walking to dinner and there’s a marabou stork 10 feet away; that’s totally normal.”

The next morning we descended to the crater floor. The drive down was beautiful – fog completely envelopes the crater.

Lots of ungulates in the crater. This is a Thompson’s gazelle, which you can identify by the black stripe on his side.

These are grand gazelles:

We saw two wildebeests fighting – very close to our car.

It’s probably an easy life for vultures in the crater!

I told you I loved it when ostriches cross roads; they seem to do it often:

Cape buffalo, with a bird flying by:

Hyena:

Hippos lounging:

Hippos sleeping in water with bird friends:

Another crazy African bird, the bustard:

But what was my favorite animal of the crater, you ask??? Need you really ask?

The lion population of the crater is actually pretty inbred because their numbers are dwindling, so I’m kind of concerned for their future. We saw some lionesses eating a gazelle or some other kill, then they collected their cubs, who were situated away from the kill, and led them to a stream.

They had to cross the road we were parked on to get to the stream; this they did RIGHT in front of us.

The cubs didn’t want to get their paws wet….sooooooo adorable!

After drinking for a bit, they crossed the road again to get back to their original spot. If I had thought it wise, I could have reached out of the car and scooped this cub up AND BELIEVE ME I THOUGHT ABOUT DOING IT.

(PS LOOK AT THOSE SPOTS!)

But I would have had to contend with a very angry mother.

And finally, the only thing we DIDN’T get a good opportunity to see on safari was a rhino. Sadly this is the only rhino we saw and he was VERY far away, so far away he’s little more than a rhino-shaped blob in this photo, and this was taken with a 600mm lens on a crop sensor camera. In a way, I guess it’s kind of poignant because it’s very likely that these animals will be extinct in our lifetime. One day soon all we may have of rhinos will be hazy memories. I wish I could express to you how much I hate poachers. It physically hurts me to have so much hatred inside me, but poaching is nothing short of pure evil.

I don’t want to leave you on a depressing note; it would be inappropriate because except for the times when I was contemplating my intense hatred of poachers, I loved EVERY SINGLE SECOND of this entire trip. So let’s end with more lion cubs, which are the cutest things on the planet and therefore the exact opposite of poachers.

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Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

I’ve been asked quite a few times why I wanted to go to Africa. I thought it was self-evident but I have since learned that not EVERYONE wants to go to Africa. I actually thought that was a universal desire. Why did I want to go to Africa? It’s very simple: wildlife. I should probably rename this blog “I love wildlife” since I’ve posted more about wildlife this year than I have food. Although – no, BECAUSE – I love wildlife, I do not like zoos. I can’t stand to see animals in cages; it seriously upsets me. I don’t like and don’t support zoos. But I also love wildlife photography. What’s a girl to do? The answer is obvious: go to the place with the highest concentration of wildlife, which pretty much seems to be Tanzania. So the answer is I went to Africa to take pictures of animals that were not in zoos.

Our entire trip was planned by a small business safari company – I’ll do a post with all the details about planning the trip because I found blog posts invaluable myself – and together we decided that we’d visit Tarangire National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti, doing private safaris through each. Everything was planned for me, so all I had to do was book our international airfare.

We arrived at Mount Kilimanjaro airport from Amsterdam well after dark. Shortly after we cleared Customs, Smucky and his girlfriend Olivia – whom Mark and I had not yet met – arrived on their long, long flight from Australia. We made fast friends with Olivia and the four of us hopped into our guide, Muba’s, Land Cruiser. I was beside myself with excitement at being in Africa for the first time, and a little annoyed that it was dark out so I could see very little as we traveled down a very straight, very flat, very dusty road through the dark. Eventually Muba turned off the open road onto a narrow, rutted, dirt road through heavy vegetation. We had reached AruMeru River Lodge and on the driveway we saw our first glimpse of African wildlife, a tiny ungulate traipsing in front of the car. We shrieked in delight and asked Muba what it was: it was a dik dik, the world’s smallest antelope!

Because dik-diks were the first African wildlife I saw, they have a special place in my heart. Which doesn’t preclude me from sharing this undignified picture of one peeing:

After downing a beer at the bar, we crashed for the night. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sleep because I was so excited, but after chasing dik-diks around and staring at the southern constellations for a while, I fell fast asleep. Muba met us bright and early the next morning to drive us to Tarangire National Park for our first safari.

Tarangire is well known for having a large number of elephants:

Look how close we were to the elephants!

LOOK HOW AWESOME ELEPHANTS ARE:

See a jackal:

And giraffes!

I really do love all animals, even those that most people find ugly or gross (yes, I like opossums and snakes!), but I must confess I am a BIT partial. I can’t help it, I’m a cat person through and through. The big cats were totally my favorite animals. I think I nearly fainted from excitement the first time we saw a lion.

Come on, how can you NOT admire this animal?

I embarked on this trip knowing the big cats would be my favorite. My undying love of them was confirmed when we’d see a lion and I’d be taking a million pictures of it and then someone would say, “look, there’s an elephant!” or “look, there’s a giraffe!” or “look, there’s something-that’s-not-a-lion!” and I would say, “Who cares??? THERE’S A LION!” I couldn’t take my eyes off them. But no surprise there. What did take me by surprise, though, was how INCREDIBLY CUTE baby baboons are! I don’t know if I’d call an adult baboon exactly “cute”, but the babies were adorable! I LOVED watching them!

Ostriches have long amused me. They are just very silly animals, right? You know how this ostrich feels about me calling it silly?

What amuses me MOST is when ostriches walk across roads. I have no idea why that hilariates* me.

* I know “hilariates” is not a word, but I saw it in an Amazon review once and have adopted it because it hilariates me.

It must have been ostrich mating season because we witnessed two mating dances, only one of which was successful:

Zebras are another crazy animal! By the end of the trip I was pronouncing “zebra” like an Australian (short “e” instead of the American long “e”). At first we were all ooohing and aaahing over every zeh-bra we saw, but it didn’t take long for us to become so accustomed to seeing them we would pass them by and say, “oh, zehbras, whatever”. I never thought the day would come when I would be 15 feet from a zebra and be blasé about it. (Note: I never became blasé about lions!! Also, I saw some lions eating an unfortunate zehbra, which I wasn’t too blasé about.)

It’s become clear to me that I’d better break this post up even further into three parts, one for each park we visited. I originally titled it “Tanzanian National Parks” but I’ve changed it to “Tarangire National Park” and I’ll be back soon with “Ngorongoro Crater” and “Serengeti” posts! Then Zanzibar. And also a post on planning a trip like this, camera gear I used, and yes, what I ate (being vegan was absolutely no problem!).

For those that can’t wait for the next post or that want to see even MORE pictures, you are welcome to see all of my pictures here: http://ineluctable.org/Tanzania/Tanzania/album/index.html

I’m not sure I’ll have time to post again before Thursday, so to my American friends, I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving! We are expecting snow here in Northern Virginia tomorrow – safe travels to all, especially those also affected by winter weather.

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Africa

Going to Africa ruined my life. Mark’s too.

I’ve discussed my journey towards learning to love Virginia here in the past. We came here pretty much for the jobs and in fact for a while I lamented the fact that I liked my job so much that it made it difficult for me to consider leaving Virginia, which it took me a long time to warm up to. But eventually our fabulous regional, state, and national parks and wildlife refuges and abundant wildlife – including my foray into wildlife rehab – won me over and I found that I was able to set aside some of my hatred of the traffic, McMansions, terrible drivers, and annoying people to make room for love of our natural resources. I’ve felt an increasing sense of inner peace in the last few years, a true happiness in life. Little did I realize how tenuous that transformation was, because going to Africa ruined it.

We went to Shenandoah National Park yesterday. There were no lions, elephants, giraffes, or zebras. It was depressing. It didn’t help that it was FREEZING and gray and we missed pretty much all of autumn while we were gone, but even if it had been the most splendid day imaginable, it wouldn’t have been the Serengeti. There’d still have been no lions. At one point on safari I realized that once I got home, my beloved wildlife refuge, where I revel in seeing a bald eagle or a glimpse of a fox, was going to seem extremely small and unexciting. How am I going to recapture the joy I’ve always felt there when I’ve been ten feet away from AN ENTIRE LION PRIDE?

I’ve heard a lot of people say that going to Africa changed their life. In a way, it didn’t really change mine because before I even left I told my travel agent that after this trip I wanted to return and work with cheetahs, because he’s involved in cheetah conservation and said he’d help me do so. And sure enough, I’ve returned from our trip and I want to return to work with cheetahs, so am I a different person?

Yes and no. I’m even more interested in doing hands-on work in wildlife conservation than I was before, but that’s a path I was going headlong down anyway. I realized that I think I could kill a poacher and feel no remorse, which is an uncomfortable position for a pacifist, but I really, really, really, really hate poachers. (And many of them have no more compunction about murdering humans than they do wildlife.) I think what’s changed in me is Africa has become real, and with that, the possibility of doing something different with my life – at least for a while – is staring at me. Africa never seemed real before. I’d watch the occasional nature documentary, and I look at a lot of wildlife photography, much of it taken in Africa, but it always seemed very far away and very, very different than my life. And it is both of those things, but it’s also suddenly become accessible because I’ve BEEN there and I can so easily imagine myself going back. Fairfax, Virginia suddenly seems so small to me. Too small. And so full of people who care only about themselves.

Although I rather anticipated all of this and as I said, I fully expected to want to return to Africa after our first trip to work with wildlife, our trip had an even more profound effect on Mark. Whereas I’ve been positively giddy about the trip for the better part of a year, Mark didn’t allow himself to get as worked up in anticipation as I did. I spent months preparing for, reading about, and basically obsessing over the trip, but although he’s the one that had been saving up for the trip for a couple of years as a surprise for me, it wasn’t until we GOT to Africa that he seemed super-excited about it. But he loved it. Really loved it. Much more than he has ever loved anywhere we’ve gone. And what he loved the most was a bit surprising to me because Mark is NOT a people-person by any stretch of the imagination, but what Mark loves about Africa are the people. We went on a cultural visit to the village of Mto wa Mbu near the Ngorongoro crater rim, where children ran up to us. Most of them wanted their picture taken, which they then wanted to see on the camera’s LED:

But even if you didn’t have a camera, which Mark did not, they just grabbed your hand and walked with you. Mark was overwhelmed by the inherent trust they had. In fact, Mark was so moved by it that he wants to return to that village or another and teach children. Which wasn’t quite the reaction I was expecting from him, although in a way it makes sense because he really is good with children and he’s quite awesome at teaching chess to children here at home.

It wasn’t just the children Mark liked; he was shocked by the friendliness of everyone. Everyone you meet in Tanzania offers a friendly “Jambo!” (“hello”) and “Karibu!” (“welcome”); it’s totally unlike Washington DC. They are a very welcoming folk! People stop to help you in Tanzania just because they want to help; no ulterior motives. I’ve experienced that occasionally here at home, but it’s always been such a rare and beautiful thing because it’s so unusual. But it’s just how people are in Tanzania. Mark once asked a man in Stone Town why he was helping him and what he wanted in return and the man looked at him like he was crazy for thinking he’d want something in return for his help.

So that’s that: Mark and I both plan to return to Africa for some sort of extended stay, Mark to teach children and me to do wildlife conservation. I’m not sure when this will happen, but Mark’s teaching himself Swahili and I’m contacting various people about cheetahs.

I’ll talk a little more specifically about our trip, including some thoughts on being vegan in Tanzania, but it will probably take me a couple of posts. We did national park safaris for the first week and then spent a week in Zanzibar, so I’ll likely break it up into at least two posts.

Sunset in Tarangire National Park:

I’m often annoyed at home that buildings are obscuring my view of the sunset. This was definitely NOT a problem I encountered in Tanzania. And African sunrises and sunsets are just amazing. So amazing that even Mark, no more a morning person than he is a people person, was happy to wake up to watch the sun rise every morning.

Sunset over the Rift Valley:

Next up: my love affair with African wildlife.

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Raptor Conservancy of Virginia fundraising

Hello; long time no blog. I know, I’m a terrible person. I’m actually preparing a post about our trip to Africa (spoiler: it was the greatest trip in the history of all trips), but in the meantime I feel obliged to pass along some information about a Raptor Conservancy of Virginia (where I volunteer) fundraiser that’s going on right now because we need money! Buy a spiffy RCV T-shirt with a picture of a great horned owl on it and support Virginia wildlife!

There is not much overlap between raptors in Virginia and Tanzania – they don’t even have hawks in Tanzania; instead they have a lot of eagles – but since I just got back from Tanzania a few days ago and it’s all I can think about, here are some Tanzanian raptors to enjoy in this post, with way more Tanzanian wildlife (and yes, food) coming up:


Brown snake eagle


Juvenile Verreaux’s eagle


Martial eagle


I need to figure out what this one is!


Black kite. There were swarms of these at Ngorongoro crater and our guide warned not to leave the vehicle unattended or they would swoop in and steal things. As we ate lunch in the car, we watched a lady eating outside right in front of our car. A kite saw her sandwich and looked hungrily at it. She hastily hid the sandwich behind her back. Think about that: she hid her sandwich BEHIND HER BACK from a BIRD. That was flying over her head. That could see the tempting sandwich just as easily BEHIND her as he could IN FRONT of her. And who did in fact snatch that sandwich right out of her hands, causing her to bleed. Which she kind of had coming….

That wasn’t the only blatant act of food theft we witnessed by wildlife, but the other involved a very devious monkey stealing food that WAS hidden better than that. 🙂

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Summer update

Hello neglected blog; hello neglected blog readers who think I’ve forgotten about you. I have not. I’m even planning to photograph some food tonight in hopes of making a post But alas, no food right now.

Summer on the US East Coast has been SO AWESOME. The weather has just been ridiculously nice, almost ALL THE TIME. Frankly, it’s a bit exhausting. I have a compulsion to not be in the house when the weather is nice, but excessive heat and humidity keep me indoors for some portion of most summers, giving me time for cooking, canning, crafts, etc. Not this summer. The humidity has ranged from non-existent to pleasantly tolerable, and we’ve had I think a whopping 5 days all summer that were over 90 degrees. It does not rain on weekends. It just doesn’t. It’s raining right now (which is why you are getting an update!), but I’ve been able to go for after-work hikes 4 or 5 days out of almost every workweek. When they forecast a small uptick in the humidity and chances of afternoon storms for most of this week, I was actually relieved: all this hiking has left me with no time for canning and no time to make the raccoon hammocks I promised Jenna weeks ago. (Although frankly, though we got a lovely thunderstorm yesterday afternoon and this afternoon, I’d hardly call the weather this week terrible.) Tuesday I canned a half-bushel of peaches (I made jam, chutney, and sliced peaches in light syrup) and yesterday I finally made and repaired those raccoon hammocks. And today I’m making a blog post. Whew!

I do plan to post a seitan recipe very soon (I’m making and will photograph it tonight), but I wanted to share a few wildlife pics in the meantime since that might be a photo-heavy post and I didn’t want to tack a thousand unrelated pictures onto it. So with no further ado:

An osprey flying:

Remember all my rapturous ravings about nesting bald eagles earlier this year? Well one evening a few weeks ago, knowing the babies had fledged but also knowing their their parents would continue to supplement feed them for a few more months, I trudged off to the wildlife refuge in hopes of finding a fledgling flying around looking for a handout. AND I DID!! I got lucky. 🙂 This is what a juvenile bald eagle looks like. You’ll notice he looks pretty different than an adult. He (or she; it’s hard to guess their gender without weighing them) won’t get his characteristic white, or “bald”, head until he’s about 5 years old. The small bird in this photo is just some songbird that was flying nearby.

There are always tons of bunnies around the refuge near sundown.

This is a funny story; I was walking through the refuge one evening thinking to myself that I’ve never seen a raccoon there. And I’ve been there many, many times. Five minutes later? BAM:

This is just an HDR of a favorite bench overlooking a creek at the refuge:

And a few HDRs from lovely Huntley Meadows Park.

Okay, back to the refuge. One night a couple of weeks ago when the weather was just absolutely outstanding, I went to the refuge and was somewhat surprised to find not another soul there. It’s not that unusual for me to be the only person there, but the weather was so incredible I thought surely there’d be others there that night. Not that I’m complaining because I’ve noticed recently that SOME of the people that have recently discovered this place don’t obey the rules and jog or bike on the hiking trails, neither of which is permitted and both of which really annoy me because it scares animals away. (I think perhaps people have trouble distinguishing PARK from WILDLIFE REFUGE; it’s NOT a park.) ANYWAY, I happily had the entire refuge to myself and it was like walking through a magical fairyland because there were tons of butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies fluttering around. So I was traipsing around taking a million pictures of butterflies and practicing HDR shots, thinking the night was a total success because I got some really nice pictures. I was really happy. Finally I started to head back to my car as it was well past closing time, when I came upon a small meadow ringed by small trees that shielded me from view, and through two trees I saw movement. Fortunately I hadn’t packed up my camera or tripod, so I looked through my lens and witnessed the following:

Three foxes cavorting! It was sooooo cute! I felt so privileged to see it. It wasn’t until July of this year that I had even managed to get ANY pictures of a fox that wasn’t just a blurry streak running away from me, so to sneak up on this scene was really exciting. I went home positively elated.

Alright, that’s it for now. I’m off to make some seitan, photograph it, do some treadmillin’, and I don’t know, maybe try to get some stupid sleep since my weekend is totally booked and I won’t be making up sleep time then? I don’t know what kind of crazy life I lead where I have to get up even EARLIER on the weekends than I do weekdays, but apparently that’s what I’ve gotten myself into. I can’t believe how quickly this summer has flown by. I want this summer to go on for three times longer than it has! If I weren’t so anxious to go on our Africa trip in October, I’d want this summer to NEVER end! Although I could use a little bit of weather that’s more conducive to productivity…or at least sleep.

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Deer encounter

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World Turtle Day

Today is World Turtle Day, which I admit I only knew because I follow The Wildlife Center of Virginia on twitter and they’ve been talking about it for the last two days. But knowing that it was I was delighted to run into a box turtle crossing my path as soon as I got to Occoquan Bay NWR this morning!

Then, whoa, a few minutes later another turtle ambled up!

But my favorite was the painted turtle that slowly approached me down the closed portion of the trail where the eagle nest is:

He was awesome!

Unfortunately, eaglets (who were the reason I was at the eagle nest) apparently don’t celebrate World Turtle Day as they were nowhere to be seen this morning, but the abundance of turtles made up for it!

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Exploration with eagles

Only accessible via kayak, Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge – just across the bay from my beloved Occoquan Bay NWR – has long been on the list of places I MUST visit. In fact, I’ve been pestering Mark to buy a kayak for some time now, just so I could get to Featherstone. So when a Friends of the Potomac River Refuges board member organized a kayak trip out there just after a brand-new kayak rental company opened nearby, I was all over it. Mark and I were the only people to sign up, which is everyone else’s loss because the weather was GORGEOUS and there were bald eagles soaring over our heads the whole time, and basically the day was simply perfect. AND I got to explore a new refuge!

I was a bit nervous about taking a camera kayaking since we are beginner kayakers, but it didn’t me long to talk myself into taking my mirrorless camera, which is weather-sealed (and therefore can withstand some water falling on it) and it’s not going to Africa with me, so if I destroyed or lost it, I’d be upset, but it wouldn’t affect my Africa budget. I’m very glad I took it because although it sucks at taking pictures of moving objects far away and therefore I didn’t get any clear photos of soaring eagles, look what we saw up in a tree we paddled up under, sitting still and posing for me:

As we kept paddling around the tree, it soon become apparent that eagle wasn’t alone!

Eagles apparently don’t mind kayakers. They will usually fly away if you walk too close to one, but we paddled very close to this pair and they acted like we weren’t there.

My trip to Featherstone lived up to my hopes and then some, plus Mark enjoyed it too and now he wants to buy a kayak after all! Can this spring GET any better?!

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