Tuesday, January 30, 2007

How Many Rock Pigeons on the Who-oops Saloon?

Coming soon: the Great Backyard Bird Count!

I've been idly wondering about taking part in a bird count for years, but only idly. I got almost serious about it when my work assignments had me learning bird calls and identifying the birds in an area by sound (as part of pre-development site assessments). The famous "Breeding Bird Survey," or BBS, is done by sound, and I dreamed that I might be getting good enough to volunteer, but never got up the nerve to put my skills to the test.

A Christmas Bird Count would be a much easier place to start, but somehow Christmas always seemed too busy already.

Now thanks to Clare, I've just learned about the perfect beginner bird count. It takes place February 16th to 19th, and you can do your count anywhere, for as little as 15 minutes, as long as it falls within those four days. All you do is count the maximum number of birds of each species that you see while you watch in one location. You report your counts online, and there are instructions and tips to get you started. If you really get into it, you don't have to stop on the 19th after all; you can report observations to eBird all year long. (Click here for eBird Canada.)

Don't know many birds? Well, in February in Saskatchewan, you don't need to know many! I got browsing through the eBird data and came up with a listing of 27 bird species that have been reported for Saskatchewan, in the Prairie Pothole Region, within the month of February. (Choose "All birds at a location," and then "Within Bird Conservation Regions that I choose in this state or province," then make your selections. Once you get a list, click on a month title to limit the list to species seen in that month.) Many of those species you might already know, and the rest you can check in a bird guide. (There are many well-known guides to North American birds, but Saskatchewan Birds is an excellent guide that won't drown you in information about birds never seen north of Texas.) For those of you in warmer climes, all I can say is "good luck"!

If you'd rather click than walk to a bookshelf or a bookstore, try the Cornell Online Bird Guide.

Uh-oh. I feel an idea coming on. Maybe I could volunteer to do a presentation at the school, to let kids know about this Great Backyard Bird Count and get them ready to take part. Most of the older kids will be off on a ski trip on the 16th, and school is closed for the week of the 19th, so a school outing to do the actual counts is probably out. But if they could go home and get their parents interested, so much the better.

Dear God, This Is Adam

© Laura Herman 2002

Dear God,
This is Adam.
Have you noticed us lately, six billion strong?
O God, hear your Adam.
We've been toiling, and toiling, and it's coming along.
You told us to fill all the earth, and subdue it.
When you gave that command, did you think we'd pursue it?
Did you ever imagine that we just might do it?
Are you proud of us now?
O God, are you proud of us now?

Dear God,
This is Adam.
Well, it's one of the voices that fill Adam's head.
O God, hear your Adam.
Can you hear this small voice, with so much being said?
We've got most of the planet pressed into service,
As donkeys with burdens of fuel for the worship
Ascend to the altar, not knowing the purpose.
Are you sure of us now?
O God, are you sure of us now?

O, Dear God,
This is Adam.
Well, a small part of Adam that keeps looking back.
O God, hear your Adam.
Are we fit for your kingdom, trailing the pack?
But God, look at your biosphere, stretched on the altar,
All the wonder of life, the hope of the future,
Lying quiet like Isaac, bound by his father.
Are you watching us now?
O, Dear God, are you watching us now?

Where is the ram?
Our knife is falling!
Surely, God, surely
there is a ram?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Best Snowmobile Rally Yet

Prairie Place Hall was packed when I left around 4 p.m. More tables were being squeezed in for riders coming in off the trail. I heard that there were 500 riders registered - the largest turnout yet. Grace told me the snow was good and deep, even out on the fields where some has blown off, and the sloughs have nice deep powder. All in all, the Arcola Optimists' Snowmobile Rally looked like a great success compared to last year.

I was at the hall to clear tables on behalf of the Girl Guides (since my daughter is a Pathfinder). We parents donate our time clearing tables, and the Girl Guide organization gets bags and bags of empty beer cans to turn in for the refund money. It's their biggest fundraiser, and it also looks good for the Girl Guides to be doing a recycling project.

But for me, it always rankles a bit. This time I was determined to enjoy it as best I could, so I looked for familiar faces and went visiting in between my rounds of the tables. Having some fun helped me ignore the loud music and the great show of consumption in all those shiny helmets on the tables and gaudy single-purpose jackets draped on the chairs.

When I got home though, I went looking for information about snowmobile fuel consumption. I learned something: those figures are hard to find. Of the four major manufacturers, only one bothered to back up their claims of "solid" or "excellent" fuel economy with an actual figure. Bombardier (Ski-Doo), headquartered in Canada, offered a comparison chart showing its 600 cc class engines (the smallest engines offered) on par with a Yamaha model at about 22 or 23 mpg, while Arctic Cat and Polaris models in the same class trailed behind at 18 mpg or less. Of course, for the larger engines, there were no numbers given, just claims of "outstanding" or "incredible" fuel economy. The general silence is not surprising, I suppose; when your smallest, newest, most fuel-efficient snow machine carries a single rider less than half as many miles per gallon as our ten-year-old four-passenger car, you don't have much to brag about.

Now for some rough estimates. Five hundred riders - I wonder if that means 500 sleds, or were some people riding double? Sixty-eight miles of trail - did they all do the full 68 miles, or were there shorter loops as options? Well, I'll be friendly and assume that 400 sleds travelled an average of 50 miles each. That's - gulp - 20,000 sled miles. Even with a ridiculously friendly estimate of 20 miles per gallon on average, that's 1000 gallons of gas. And then there's all the fuel used hauling those sleds and riders into Arcola from far and wide.

Well, if they're buying some of that gas at the Co-op, it means membership dividend money in my own pocket. The event brings in funds for the hall, and the local grocery stores get to supply food for it, and I suppose business picks up around town over the weekend. Do I dare complain?

On the other hand, isn't it a bit ironic that the Arcola Girl Guides pride themselves on the environmental benefits of their recycling program, when this gas-guzzling event is such a big part of it?

I wonder. Could we take all the effort that goes into this event, and spread it over the year, providing small entertainment events to help keep Arcola residents here in town, weekend after weekend? As it is, dozens of people go off to the cities for entertainment every weekend, and do their shopping while they're there. Then our service clubs and businesses get together and try to draw a big crowd out here for one weekend to compensate. Is this the best we can do for our town, and for our world?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Solving the World's Problems

James and I have been spending one half day a week with my parents, learning from their life experience. The first week, we looked at slides from their trip to Mexico, where they had visited Mayan ruins and floated down an underground river through the limestone landscape. Then Dad took James out to the workshop to examine a removable stair railing that Dad was designing for the curling rink. There was a problem with the initial design, and James came up with a solution. Last week Dad brought his transit to town and helped James measure angles from our house to trees and other sun obstacles around the yard, so that we can estimate how much solar gain we would get from a greenhouse addition.

Today we had a lengthy discussion about energy in our lives: food energy and where it comes from; electricity and the whole chain back through coal and plants to the sun again; kinetic and potential energy and how the water gets up there behind the hydroelectric dams; heat energy and all the different ways it moves; renewable and non-renewable energy sources, and the way that distinction blurs when you consider different time scales and rates of use. James and Dad toured around my parents' house and examined the many different energy sources and forms in play there (active and passive solar, wood stove, propane backup heater, and the recently added ground-source heat pump - just to name a few) while Mom and I sat reading MacLean's and Jared Diamond's Collapse, respectively. Not surprisingly, when James and Dad returned from their explorations, we got talking about solving the world's problems.

We got wondering about the lack of individual action, and speculated that many people just don't want to face the realities. Why?
  • They are afraid that the world situation is terrible, and rather than face that fear, they just turn their attention somewhere else.
  • They don't want to know how much their own lifestyle would have to change to make a difference.
  • They are afraid that changing their own lifestyle would have little or no influence on others and on the overall picture, so rather than risking that disappointment, they just carry on as they are.
Some of these were hitting close to home; "they" was turning into "we." Mom thinks their house is too big; Dad notes that Mom doesn't want to leave part of it unheated. We got talking about how easily they could do that, and how easily I could save more energy around our own house here without going into the whole greenhouse renovation project.

Then we took in some food energy together, and James and I drove the four-wheel-drive pickup back to town.


Later I got to thinking that all three of the above probably apply to me to some extent, and maybe there are some other categories that fit me too.
  • I am afraid that political action can do very little unless the public support is there (at which point individual action should suffice), and rather than risking that disappointment, I retreat to my own little lifestyle improvements.
  • I am afraid that calling for change would bring criticism of my own imperfect life, so I keep quiet.
Now the lights are burning and the computer is churning late into the night. If only I could offset that energy use by capturing some of the wind energy that's making things rattle. Come to think of it, what is that creaking sound - so familiar that it's beneath my usual notice - and is there heat energy flowing out where the sound is coming in?

Monday, January 22, 2007

My Clicking Grounds

How do you like this blog:
I hope you don't mind when it gets a little airy.
I used to try to post at least once every couple of days. I enjoyed the reward of clicking onto someone's blog and finding a new post, maybe not every time, but often, and I tried to offer that same satisfaction to others.

All that changed when I started subscribing to blog feeds. Now I just click onto Google Reader, and I know right away which blogs have new morsels for me. I can have my reward right away, or save it for later. No more hours of hungry clicking and gnawing on old bones.

Google Reader has taken most of the compulsion out of my blog reading. That's a good change. There are some costs, though.

I don't follow comments as much now. A few blogs have comment feeds enabled, and if there is a particularly provocative post I will subscribe to its comment feed and follow that for awhile. Mostly, though, I rely on my memory of promising spots to return to in my clicking grounds. Sometimes I have a vague suspicion that I asked a question somewhere, but I can't remember where it was, and I just don't take (or have) the time to click around and sniff out my buried bones to chew.

A curious thing: now that I know whether posts are waiting, I quite often leave them for later, and later, and still later. My former clicking habit would have brought me around to those same posts much sooner.

On the other hand, I pounce on new posts from the less active blogs. I used to get impatient with blogs that rarely rewarded my click. Now there is just pure delight and anticipation when those infrequent posts appear in my reader.

All this means that I can be more honest with myself about which blogs I really enjoy. I enjoy them for the content, not for the click rewards. That sounds like a good thing, but at the same time, am I becoming even more selective? How often do I read outside my comfort zone? How often do I even read the news? (I could subscribe to some news feeds, but they clutter up the reader too much.)

Google Reader has affected not only my reading, but also my own writing. I confess, now that frequent posting is no longer important to me in others' blogs, I am less inclined to strive for it in my own. (If you're not using blog feeds, sorry about that.) What's more, it seems that part of my inspiration arose from the time spent idly clicking through blogs. Seeing the same old post titles over again, interspersed with new posts, and enlivened by comment threads, somehow stirred up new ideas for me. Perhaps it jogged memories of dishpan musings.

Lately the kids have been doing more dishpan musing than I have. Perhaps it's not all the fault of Google Reader, after all!

Overall, is Google Reader a good thing? Well, it has probably cut my computer time by three quarters, and brought my life into better balance. Now I have the time and the attentiveness to get the kids doing dishes! No, wait, that was the four-place-setting effect.

Do I need to get out more?

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Something sparked, and a little circuit of memory flashed, and I went looking for a comment from Wayne that I had never followed up. My first hunch was right - it was attached to my introductory post for an ambitious series: "Chained to a Tree: the Powerless Environmentalist." I have yet to deliver a single installment. I have bundles of ideas, a few notes, and a draft of the first post, but I think the scale of the thing has overwhelmed my ambition.

That's okay. Perhaps someday it will come to flower. In the meantime, there's Wayne's link to a post by Phila at Bouphonia: "That Which Surrounds Us." I'm glad I remembered to look for it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Just Air

I'm no expert in the kitchen, but as I've spent more time there, learning by doing, reading, or phoning Mom, I've realized that my skills are greater than I thought. While Mom was feeding and calving out cows, melting snow for wash water, helping put up hay and build a house, and shooing the three of us kids outside, she still managed to teach me some fundamentals.

One of these is the power of air.

There are very few cleaning products in my kitchen. Strictly for cleaning, there are just two: dish detergent and hand soap. For both cooking and cleaning, of course, there's baking soda and there's vinegar. I don't use anything labelled "anti-bacterial" or "kills 99% of household germs." For disinfection, I rely on a few simple habits and the power of air.

Bacteria and other maligned and mistrusted microbes are living things. They need food, and they need water. Take away one of these needful things, and they won't grow.

Simple washing takes care of the bulk of it, by removing most of the material that could be food for microbes, and sending many of the microbes themselves down the drain at the same time. Still, there are undoubtedly a few microbes left clinging to dish and sink and counter surfaces, no matter how clean those surfaces look.

It only takes one bacterium, lingering on a surface when the next round of food arrives, to grow and multiply into a problem. It might be a smelly problem, or it might be an invisible, scentless, tasteless, toxic problem. How do I dare live without powerful disinfectants?

I don't. There is a very powerful disinfectant all through my kitchen, all the time: air.

All I need to do is make sure it has a chance to work.

When I wash dishes, I set them in a rack to dry, and make sure they are not nested closely or holding any puddles. When I put them away, I check to be sure they really are dry - no films of water get trapped in the stack of plates.

When I store jars and water bottles, I leave the lids loose. If you tighten them, you may trap just enough moisture in there to keep some microbes alive, and when you open the lid weeks or months later, there will be an odor. (I'm lucky to live in a dry climate - I don't know if this trick would work where it's humid.)

I launder the dishcloths often, but if I'm going to reuse one before laundering it, I rinse it (to take away the microbes' food) and spread it out over the faucet so it will dry quickly. Watching how others treat the dishcloth made me recognize my own habit of pursuing dryness. Sometimes they would leave it in a damp mound in the bottom of the sink; once someone hung it with its edge trailing in dishwater left to soak! Didn't they know it would never dry out that way? Did they even know the reason for letting it dry?

My mom got us through years with no running water and no refrigerator, with never a single case of food poisoning. She was careful with leftovers, holding them in a somewhat cooler spot in the house or sometimes in a pail dug into the ground outside and covered with an insulated lid, and using them up quickly. She did her canning in a pressure cooker, following instructions to the letter, and never used any canned food that seemed even slightly off. But there were subtle things she did, too. Without even realizing it, I picked up her habits of keeping things reasonably clean and getting them thoroughly dry between uses.

I can never remember how to make a white sauce, though she recited the three ingredients to me often, but that's okay, it's in the book she gave me for our wedding. What's more important is the stuff I didn't even know she was teaching me, the stuff I will never forget.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Taking a Lower Profile

Tim's discussion of unthinkable thoughts stirred up my courage to post the unpostable.

My unpostable, unspeakable, unthinkable thought for the week: going bra free.

Tell me: has anyone ever dared to whisper to you in a dark closet, that bra wearers have an increased incidence of breast cancer? That in cultures where bras are not worn, women have the same rates of breast cancer as men?

I did not know this.

In fact, I discovered it just the other day, when I came home miserable from a demeaning encounter with a doctor, and decided to find out some facts for myself.

Tell me something more, ladies: when you think about keeping your breasts healthy, what comes to mind? BSE? (No, I'm not talking about mad cows - say, have you heard the one about why they called it PMS? Never mind...) No, really, what comes to mind? Do you even think about breast health, or do you frame it more like "avoiding breast cancer" and "avoiding sagging"? Do you shy away from even thinking about your breasts? Do you dutifully do your round of BSE when you think of it, anxiously searching those scary chest appendages for the dreaded lurking lumps, hoping to achieve the ultimate in breast care: "early detection"?

This week I noticed that one of my breasts had sprouted a double chin. My native intelligence said, "I've gained some weight, and the extra tissue was looking for a place to go, found a gap under the bra band, and made a break for it." My learned fear said, "Go to the doctor. If you see any changes in your breasts, go to the doctor. Oh no, oh no, oh no..."

That day I made an appointment - for the cat to get his annual vaccinations.

The next day, after asking spouse and mother for opinions, and for news of what sort of doctor might be waiting behind the office door in Arcola these days, and after much imagined dialogue and much foot dragging, I made an appointment for myself.

The imagined dialogue continued off and on through the next few days. There were dreams of the cat looking like he had been through chemo, and of myself being pinned against a wall by some sort of farm equipment, right at chest level.

On a good day, the waiting room has only two or three people in it, but there were already a few more than that when I arrived. By the time I was called in, the place was full, and the working men who had come in after me for end-of-the-day appointments were saying they should have brought lunches.

I sat for a while in the narrow examining room, looking around at posters of inner workings. Earlier in the week, I had imagined a flippant little speech about the double chin, but today I felt like just saying it as plain as I could.

The door behind me opened. "How are you, Laura?" said the stranger.

"Fine, how are you?" said I.

"If you're fine, why are you here?" If there was a smile or a twinkling eye with that, I missed it.

So I told him, and he frowned and questioned my terminology and asked, "Do you want to show me what you're describing?"

If I'd answered that one literally, I'd have walked out.

He did the examination, told me it was nothing to worry about, and gave me a little lecture about how a tight-fitting piece of clothing can leave a line in the flesh under it. (No, really? Okay, Doc, I get it. Sorry I didn't use just the right words when I told you I suspected exactly that.) Not a typical breast mass, he said, but for my peace of mind, he would request an ultrasound.

And off he went, leaving me sitting there with my bra unhooked and crumpled under my sweater, and the examining room door open.

If you're thinking that all of this is shockingly personal revelation, perhaps this will put it in perspective. On my way out of the office, I checked with the receptionist about the ultrasound appointment - she's also the church secretary, and we often chat on the phone about details for the church bulletin. When I phoned back to the office later, the other receptionist gave me the appointment details - the one who sometimes gives James a ride to Scout meetings.

Don't get me wrong - I trust that these women keep confidences appropriately. In a small town, most people are really quite careful about privacy. But there are definite limits to the privacy here, and you get used to it. It won't bother me if I get some intense looks when people ask, "How are you, Laura?"

Fine. Really.

My breast seems to be recovering nicely on its own.

But for your peace of mind, I will go to Regina for the ultrasound - and to shop for some camisoles and sturdy sweaters and shirts with big patch pockets on the front. I may be bra free, but I'm not culture free. "Nobody wants to know that you're cold, dear" rings in my ears.

And if I get some intense chest-level looks from folks on the street, I'll just smile.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

How to Get the Dishes Done

Remember the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and the Monopods? Remember how they did the dishes?

Sadly, our dish-washing system has often resembled that of the Monopods: wash the dishes before dinner, to save time afterwards. Actually we tended to wash them before dinner because of all the time we had already saved after lunch, breakfast, and yesterday's dinner by just piling dishes on the counter, until there were no clean dishes left.

We adults also saved time (and peace and quiet) by just washing the dishes ourselves instead of arguing with children about the importance of the task. But like the old line my Dad used to sing in auction-sale season - "We'll save a lot of money saving money we ain't got" - we just couldn't seem to save enough time for the work by working. So, time after time, the dishes piled up until they spilled over into other parts of our lives. Then something after dinner would get cancelled and the counter would get cleared off - for an evening.

This Christmas we finally stumbled on the simple, elegant solution. It arrived in the form of a four-place setting of simple, elegant (to my eyes) Corelle Sandstone dishes. I found the set in the Sears Bargain Centre, missing one dinner plate, and thought I'd give it to a relative who didn't have enough dishes for serving meals to guests. Then I took a peek inside the box and coveted those dishes for myself.

So I bought the four-place setting (rounded out with a replacement plate from open stock), brought it home, set the plates and cups out on the table and admired them . . . and gave away our twelve-place setting of white-with-blue-clip-art Corelle instead. It's a bit chipped and stained from fifteen or so years of daily use, but the gift was graciously received. Meanwhile, back at our house, the miracle appeared: a clean counter.

Twice a day.

I was planning to buy a couple more sets of Sandstone, to get life back to twelve-of-everything normal, but life-with-only-four is much better than normal. Maybe we'll even start getting out the real china (found at a garage sale before we were married) if we have to set the table for more than four. Or we could always borrow our old Corelle back for parties . . .

Friday, January 05, 2007

Should I Go?

Homes on the Range: Conservation in Working Prairie Landscapes
is the theme of the 8th Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference and Workshop. This event is held only every third year, and the location roams around the prairies, so this is the first time since 1989 that it has been held in Regina. The theme sounds great - I've been suggesting something along those lines for our Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan workshop for years - and it's only two hours' drive away, but hang it all, now that it's here, I just don't want to go. I get sort of drawn in looking at the program, but at the same time part of me starts gagging on all the big stuffy words. Oh, I understand them all right, but I can feel that stale conference air already, and smell the exhaust in the parking lot, and I just can't shake the feeling that I've got enough in my head already, and better things to do.

Or not do.

Flora of Saskatchewan Project

... has a new home on the Web. There you can download Vern Harms' Annotated Catalogue of Saskatchewan Vascular Plants, check on the status of the project, or sign up to help.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


We start homeschooling with James on Monday.

I've been putting off getting organized for that by trying to organize my entire life, or at least the tottering piles of boxes in the bedroom. Thus I've been encountering all the debris of unfinished business and unmade decisions and unmanageable aspirations.

Meanwhile my head is ringing with echoes of dissonant holiday conversations. Thanks for all the advice, folks. Why didn't you offer it a month or a year ago, when I could have made use of it?

Every once in a while I think about blogging, and the only topic that really entices me is some variation on "Going Offline." "How to Quit Blogging." (Just do it.) That or a post about "Ice as Geography," but that's just another reaction to Kate. Too much reacting, not enough knowing where I'm going and walking on by.

All this has got me thinking about toughness. I need some.

What is emotional toughness?

Where does it come from? Do I need to get out there and collect scars? Is it something I can cultivate? Or is it something you have to get before you turn six? Or are some lucky folks born with it?

And if I can cultivate it, then there's the big question.

Can I get tough without getting mean?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

January 2nd? Oh, yeah, now I remember. I guess I'm too late for any resolutions.

Oh well.

I cleaned off my dresser, though! Aren't you proud of me?

Now I have the stuff spread all over the bed.

Umm, gotta go . . .