Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spring has (sort of) sprung

Three cheers for the first day of Spring!
Pity it was still in the twenties this morning.
On the other hand, if you live in Western New York, you know not to get your hopes up.

By far the most pleasant surprise of the day was hearing a strange dripping sound outside, which grew into a loud tapping noise. The source? A woodpecker--not the sort of bird we see (or hear) every day in these parts. Good thing I'd just brought home a review copy of Robert Budliger and Gregory Kennedy's 2005 guide to Birds of New York State that had been sitting around my office for years.

Handy reference guide, although I confess I couldn't figure out which of 9 different woodpeckers I saw. I was mainly consulting the guide to find out why exactly the birds peck in the first place, and it turns out each variety has its own reason: building a nest, finding food, even flirting with the ladies. I also learned that Picoides villosus--the hairy woodpecker--has a tongue four times the length of its bill, which retracts into its mouth "in much the same way that a measuring tape is stored in its case." That may not be the one I saw, who flew to a different tree just as I was getting ready to snap a photo. Foiled again!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

At a snail's pace

Talk about timing: I write about snails as a metaphor for slowing down daily life, and mere days later, Wisconsin Public Radio's To the Best of Our Knowledge airs an excellent episode devoted to "Facing Time". It's packed with great segments, including a look at the Clock of the Long Now (a mechanical clock being constructed in the Nevada desert by the Long Now Foundation and designed to run for 10,000 years), an interview with Carl Honore "(the unofficial godfather of the Slowness movement"), and a conversation with anthropologist Wade Davis about the Australian aboriginal notion of "the Dreamtime."

I'm particularly drawn to this Slowness business, and sense a connection between it and this argument (run in Arthur's blog) by Douglas Rushkoff:

With any luck, the economy will never recover.

In a perfect world, the stock market would decline another 70 or 80 percent along with the shuttering of about that fraction of our nation’s banks. .... If you had spent the last decade, as I have, reviewing the way a centralized economic plan ravaged the real world over the past 500 years, you would appreciate the current financial meltdown for what it is: a comeuppance. This is the sound of the other shoe dropping; it’s what happens when the chickens come home to roost; it’s justice, equilibrium reasserting itself, and ultimately a good thing.

On the opposite end of the speed spectrum from the clock above is this item from the Blog of the Long Now about
an experiment in scale: By condensing 4.6 billion years of history into a minute, the video is a self-contained timepiece. Like a specialized clock, it gives one a sense of perspective. Everything — from the formation of the Earth, to the Cambrian Explosion, to the evolution of mice and squirrels — is proportionate to everything else, displaying humankind as a blip, almost indiscernible in the layered course of history.

The video is a project of the provocatively named Seed magazine, where I also found all sorts of other cool stuff I intend to share here ... eventually.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fun with snails

Behold the common gastropod: you may embrace him as a fellow resident of the planet, mock his glacial pace, express fear or disgust at the many ways in which his life does not resemble your own. Or do all of the above and more ...

First, though, someone might want to break it to the folks who put this clip together that his stars probably aren't "fighting":

Next, courtesy of BoingBoing, a different perspective on this lowly, slowly moving creature:

Snails Go west ! Funny TimeLapse from on Vimeo.

Found that one here, and in the course of trying to track it down again, I came across this "Interesting Thing of the Day" about "non-human farmers" of all sorts:

It was only recently that marsh snails (Littoraria irrorata) were added to the list of animal farmers; they are also the first in the marine world known to be fungiculturists. Marsh snails live in salt marshes and their main food is a fungus that grows on cordgrass leaves. Similar to the damselfish, they cut the cordgrass leaves to create wounds, and lay their excrement into the wounds. The excrement contains the fungal spores (like seeds) and also the nutrients for the fungus to flourish in. Although in snail colonies as many as 1,000 snails per square meter can be found, snails are non-social. Therefore, complex societal structures are not a requirement for farming.

Speaking of excrement, here--by way of an interesting blogpost I found through, you guessed it, BB--is a bit of "zombie snail" action demonstrating that nature is not always a land of rainbows and ponies (though it is a land of all sorts of symbiotic interrelationships between species). I suppose I should warn some of you that this is not for the squeamish, even though it's not that creepy.

Not scared yet? Let's not forget the Giant African Land Snails, who do sound like bad news. But on to happier matters--because that which does not kill us can be taught to deliver our mail.

That's right, I'm talking about RealSnailMail (which BB covered here). According to the BBC, it works like this:
Each snail is fitted with a tiny capsule which holds a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip. RFID allows objects to communicate over short distances. Users of the service send a message via the Real Snail Mail website which is routed to the tank at the speed of light to await collection by a snail "agent". As the three snails slowly amble around the tank, they occasionally come into range of an electronic reader, which attaches the e-mail message to the RFID chip. The electronic messages are then physically carried around the tank by the snails until one of the gastropods passes close to a second reader.
It is then forwarded over the net in the usual way. "It could be quite frustrating for some people," Vicky Isley, one of the artists told BBC News. "It's completely subverting that normal system." So far, the three snails have managed to deliver 14 messages.

The accompanying blog looks pretty cool, and it tipped me off to a "Slow Art" Exhibition during last year's SIGGRAPH. (Damn, I was just too slow in finding out about it to attend!) And here is where my sudden (er, gradual?) interest in the shelled critters moves from cheap jokes and clever puns to a pointed social critique I can really get behind:

In our digital culture, we can task simultaneously, message instantly, and prototype rapidly, but, in doing so, do we create an oasis for contemplation, or do we fuel a hunger for yet more speed? As technology colors all aspects of our world, we see the inevitable pendular response in campaigns that advocate slowness.

The Italian membership organization Cittaslow's manifesto defines criteria for slow cities, focusing on improved quality of life. Internationally, people are organizing to protect regional food systems, traditions, and cuisine as part of the Slow Food Movement. There is a return to artisanship, and a renewed focus on the local, as opposed to the global.

On the other hand, an earlier BB post established that snails can make for speedier data transfer than other life forms. Finally, if it's speed you want--or the chance to exploit a few defenseless critters yourself--behold these directions for running your very own snail race.

Thank you for your time, ladies and germs. And now I am late for work, as it has taken me far longer to post this than I had hoped.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Come out, come out, wherever you are

Everybody else I know is way past Paperwhite Season, but not here at Gardening at Night Central. I've got approximately six containers housing narcissus bulbs, started at various times throughout the winter, and they all look pretty much like this now:

Actually, this sort of late blooming is right in line with the G@Nt aesthetic, which calls for starting things way too late (at night, or in the year). And it's not a bad look, as looks go--ripe with potential. Just no payoff. Not yet, at least.

Anybody reading this have any idea what's going on? These aren't zivas but Grand Soleil D'Or tazettas, which are supposed to take longer to do their business, but still. Some of them have been at this stage for weeks; others have just reached it. Some have gotten lots of sun; others less. There's plenty of water, but not too much. In short, I've done nothing differently than in other years, when I've had more success.

The hyacinths I forced (keeping no good record of when I started their 10 weeks of cold) have also been taking their sweet time, but they're basically doing fine, and I'm getting essentially one in bloom at a time, which is pretty much what I had hoped for in the first place. The paperwhites, though, are a bloomin' mystery!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bustin' out all over ... soon

In honor of Daylight Saving(s) Time and the eventual arrival of Spr*ng ...

The view outside the living room window:

Sure, it looks gray, but examine those branches a little closer and you find hints of things to come:

And speaking of buds, this tulip looks a little like candy corn at the moment, but all things in time:

These bedraggled yellow shoots are allium of one sort or another--either blooming, or plain old onions from last year:

I just hope these guys aren't popping up too soon; March, and even April, in Buffalo can easily bring either snow or bitter cold or both.

Speaking of DST, NPR has aired quite a few stories on the history of the phenomenon itself, possible health effects, malcontents, and the consequences of its recent move to March. Lotsa plugs for this book along the way.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Seed time

I know I've promised not to provide any actual gardening advice here, but that won't stop me from passing along items from other people that look worthwhile, if only to bookmark them for my own future reference. Let's start off with this collection of several annotated lists of favorite seed catalogs and companies by Gardening Gone Wild contributors.

Last winter was the first time I'd attempted to grow anything from seed since the ever-popular Lima Bean Experiment in grade school. Exactly one seedling I started indoors--an ornamental pepper (NOT from a package, but instead the offspring of one I'd planted, which ought to earn me a few bonus points)--actually made it all the way through the summer, and even then it was pretty scrawny. Since the whole endeavor cost little more than $10 (including seeds, peat pots, and plastic mini-greenhouse) and a minimal investment of time, I chalked the experience up to Lessons Learned. (Main lesson: I probably need a heating pad after all. But I enjoyed trying to use the secondary heat from various appliances around the house instead.)

Guess I'll try again this year.

PS. Last year's dismal results only applied to the plants I tried to start indoors; seed sowed directly in the ground fared quite a bit better, particularly the Swiss chard, love lies bleeding/amaranthus, and a tall, yummy kashmiri mallow called sonchal that looked and tasted great, even though I can't seem to find it listed in any book or website on either gardening or cooking. The source for all of these was the Upstate Faerie Herbal Collective, a local seed-saving operation I discovered through my favorite used bookstore, of all places, and I hope to sample more of their wares this coming season.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Down time #2: Into the woods and on the waterfront

In our last episode, our humble narrator found himself with a rare day off and a burning desire to freeze his ass off in the wilderness, or a reasonable equivalent thereof, so he set off for Woodlawn Beach and the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, both located in or near Lackawanna, N.Y., not far from the ruins of Bethlehem Steel and the shores of Lake Erie. We join him at the precise moment when any sane person would have called it a day. But not our hero!

The Botanical Gardens closed at 4, and it would still be light out for almost two more hours (thank you, sun-orbiting planet) so I decided to advance to Plan C and check out Tifft Nature Preserve on the way home. There's a good chance I visited Tifft at some point more than 20 years ago, but the memory is so fuzzy as to be nearly nonexistent. Here was a golden opportunity to take in more chilly scenes of winter:

Here, too, was precisely the kind of place I'd been looking for since I took a trip to the Muir Woods outside San Francisco back in the early 1980s: somewhere relatively near my home with manageable trails suitable for a non-hiker like me to explore on a whim. But not today: By this point, the temperature was dropping into the teens, and the thin gloves I was wearing did little to shield my shutter-clicking fingers from the bitter cold. I walked just far enough along the nearest muddy path to conclude this would be much more fun in warmer weather, then get nervous that one or more heavy gates would be locked before I could escape. Besides, I wasn't really feeling up to the challenge of subsisting on nuts and berries overnight. Even so, I appreciated yet another opportunity to place myself far from the madding crowd (of orchid lovers). Too bad there's no way I can include the sound of this babbling brook; the photo looks grim, but the actual site was more Currier & Ives.

This shot reminds me of those early Soviet films singing the praise of the village's new tractor:

Behold, comrades: three different kinds of compost pile!

Finally--to make up for the spartan nature of those other images up there--here's one I really find quite lovely:

Another wrong turn, this one more or less on purpose--I love taking the "wrong" road and then seeing where it will take me, although I harbor an irrational fear of South Buffalo and related areas--and I gradually made my way through the part of Buffalo that once held the notorious "Infected District," site of yet another video shoot. (I collaborate on a regular basis with a deeply demented man with a fondness for shooting footage in rustic sites on extremely cold days.) I realized it had been quite a while since I'd driven along the waterfront near the Erie Basin Marina, so I thought, what the hell? I even stayed in the car for the most part.

Thus, one final frosty vista ...

... and I was on my way back home at last--home to a new week which thus far has included dentistry, a wake, family politics, and other fun. Thank heavens for down time!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Down time #1: On the beach and under the dome

My schedule has various built-in peaks and valleys, and the last few weeks have been all peak: catchup from two weeks out of town, busy time at the day job, nightly four-hour rehearsals for a rather elaborate performance I am part of, news that my 88-year-old father's health has taken another turn for the worse, news that a beloved artist friend I've known for at least 15 years just passed away. So this weekend I really needed some serious down time--a concept I've never been entirely comfortable with. Saturday was built around sleep and low-key socializing, but Sunday I vowed to spend by myself, entirely on my own terms.

Up until recently, I would automatically have spent such times in a book or music store, at a movie or a concert, or in a gallery. I still love all those places and events, mind you, but lately I find myself wanting to go for a walk or a drive now and then--to surround myself with living things that don't speak or bite. (An artist friend whose day job is working for a community garden organization mentioned in our last conversation that he secretly prefers the company of plants to people, and I totally understand what he means.) When I got a membership to the Botanical Gardens here last year, I vowed to go there as often as possible, especially in the winter, so that's where I headed for the second time in a month.

As luck would have it, confusing signage and construction made me miss my exit, but no matter: I'd already been toying with a Plan B--heading a few miles farther down the road to Woodlawn Beach. I'd been there in the fall for the first time in a couple of decades to shoot video for another performance project, when its new(ish) nature center and boardwalk had looked intriguing. I've always been fond of beaches in off-peak seasons (down time of a different sort), so it was a treat to see Lake Erie in all its bleak wintertime severity, even though both the buildings and the boardwalk were closed.

In a few months, this shore will be filled once more (pending funding, as always) with people sunbathing and kids splashing around in the waves, but on the first day of March there were just a handful of fellow travelers (more than I expected, though) and these wind turbines, which have become a local icon in the last couple of years, bearing silent witness:

Even the trees are sparse this time of year, of course, which helped these brilliant red seedheads stand out amidst the bare branches:

Lest you think I was off in the middle of nowhere, this image pretty much puts Woodlawn in its proper context:

Mind you, it was just over 20 degrees out there, so I decided to continue on to the Gardens for their incomparable mix of rainforest humidity, arid desert air, and other forms of midwinter heat. The annual two-day Orchid Show (partial inspiration for my trip) was in its final hours, meaning the parking lot was full and the already cramped space inside was packed:

Here are a few obligatory shots of the featured attractions. (If you're looking for actual orchid info, click here.)

As it turns out, my travels for the day were hardly over yet, so stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion of "Down time," coming soon to a blog near you.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Hacking IKEA aloe vera, and other rainy day fun

I probably shouldn't make a habit of simply reposting all the cool stuff I find on Arthur every day, but goshdarnit, this journal of "Homegrown Counterculture" has been on a roll lately--it's like a cross between Pitchfork and BoingBoing with a little Whole Earth Catalog for good measure. I was intrigued by the subject line "Repairing is the new recycling", except that I tend to stockpile broken stuff and never quite get around to repairing or recycling it. Nonetheless, I can certainly get behind the following manifesto. (Click on it for a readable version.)

Turns out the text is the work of a Dutch art and design collective called Platform 21, and judging from their various projects, they seem to have a pretty playful approach to their mission. There are a lot of artists around the world doing work along these lines lately, and I haven't really seen enough of P21's to get a good sense of how effective or thorough their particular approach may be, but I like what I see on their site. My eyes went straight for "Hacking Ikea" (2008):

Around the world, for a variety of personal motives, professional and nonprofessional designers are making individual alterations to off-the-shelf products. In the process, they pay little or no attention to a product’s original function. Some do it for fun, others out of necessity, and still others out of a critical attitude toward mass production. IKEA hacks--the appropriation, adaptation and transformation of standard IKEA products--are among the most noticeable expressions of this movement. IKEA is a very successful and consumer-friendly multinational, with a large fan base all across the Western and Asian world. But it is also a cultural entity, an economic force and an icon of global change. Therefore it is not surprising that numerous artists and designers as well as the general public, have a special relationship with IKEA. ...

Looking around my home, it's safe to say I have one of those "special relationships," too. The site contains several examples of Platform 21's members' and guest designers' mostly tongue-in-cheek "hacks," complete with IKEA-style diagrams of the specific products being recontextualized. I've included a shoutout to another one on my music blog, but you won't want to miss this satirical response to a common phenomenon:

There is no natural daylight in IKEA, though it does sell plants. They are at the end of the route, where they fulfill the role of decorations to be quickly snapped up. This annoys Frank Bruggeman, who has therefore created IKEA GARDENING: an indictment of the plant as an interior accessory, but at the same time a positive influence. It makes people aware of cultivation: plants are given space, and decorative fruits have been planted as seeds.

The closest store to me is in Southern Ontario--i.e., on the other side of a border that doesn't look kindly on international plant trafficking--so I can't rescue those sun-deprived aloes whether I want to or not. Here's Bruggeman's hack, as photographed by Leo Verger:

Not a bad setup--my favorite part, which I may well be misreading, is the apparent call to plant the potpurri mix. Free the captives of consumerism!