Monday, April 30, 2012

Be You Blithe and Bonny

Time to dust off your ribbons and pick some dandelions!
May Day is tomorrow, are you prepared?

Traditionally called Beltane by the Gaelic, this spring festival falls on a cross-quarter day, the mid-point between spring equinox and summer solstice. It is exactly six months from Samhain, or All Hollows Eve, another debaucherous badass pagan festival (see Twelfth Night) that modern collegiate society has parlayed into men dressing as women, and women dressing as slutty nurses, slutty witches, and slutty cops. But this is May Day, when we plant, not harvest, and herald in the Spring. Common theme descriptions of these holiday celebrations involve fires, flowers, feasting, and fertility.
And of course, dancing. And drinking.

Lots of folks in central and northern Europe still flail around enormous bonfires in celebration of Walpurgis Night, or as those eloquent Germans call it, Walpurgisnacht. Seriously guys. Way to make something steeped in flowers, flames, and amorous lagamorphs sound like walrus barf. But then again, next to the Swedish Valborgsmassoafton, Walpurgisnacht rings like the sound of dainty elves tip-toeing over rosebuds at sunset. The Finnish call the day Vappu, and commemorate it by sipping sima, a sweet homemade mead punctuated with swollen raisins, eating funnel cakes, and hanging pom poms from their hats. Hmm. 

Anyway, as is the fate of so many good ol' fashioned pagan holidays, May Day has lost more than a little of its ancient bite (boozy raisins and hat bling, anyone?). Thanks, Christians. Still, as a dyed-in-the-wool treehugger, I say it is never too late to vamp up your seasonal Earth-worshiping, in ways subtle or extreme.

Suggestions on how to celebrate this May Day: 

- Stay up all night and wash your face in the morning dew. This will apparently allow you to retain lifelong beauty.

- Weave a crown of flowers. Wear it. Get your floral on.

- Find or make a Maypole. Dance around it. Wrap it up.

- Hug a Morris dancer. Or, better yet, strap on some ribbons and bells and be a Morris dancer. Wave handkerchiefs, smack sticks together, prance and hop and jig.

- Channel old Jack-in-the-Green by dressing up like a conical bush.

- Drive your sheep herds to their summer pastures. Drive! Drive!

- Eat an oatcake. Jump over burning coals. Get smoke in your eyes. For luck.

- Run into the North Sea. Naked.

- Burn something. Preferably outside.

- Ding-dong-ditch a friend. Leave a basket of flowers, sweets, and sundries on a doorstep, and ring the bell. If the recipient manages to chase you down, you should expect a smooch. That's just how we do on May Day. Incidentally, if you can find my remote house in the Montana woods, know that I do have a doorbell...

- And if you're feeling especially freaky and Celtic, you can always grab your sweetie and reenact the um, ritual union of the May Lord and Lady. Antlers optional.

Other notable references/interpretations of the day:

In the United States, May first is also commemorated as Law Day. This must be about as fun as it sounds. Litigate! It is also International Worker's Day. I appreciate the leftist agenda and honor workers far and wide... but when has a solemn solidarity parade ever featured the fun of green face paint and pan flutes?

Please also note that May Day bares no relation to that famous distress call mayday! mayday! Which derives from the French venez m'aider, meaning "come help me" find this bonfire beach party, mon ami!
And be you blithe and bonny, converting all your sounds of woe into hey, nonny, nonny.

Happy May Day!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fun With Feathers On Screens

iPad Screenshot 1Hey! Do you like birds?

Do you possess and enjoy touchscreen digital technologies which sometimes flash the icon of a half-eaten apple? Do you like to learn new things and listen to nature sound effects while riding the train, waiting for the elevator, or zoning out during a meeting?

Maybe you have some kids? Maybe they like birds. Maybe they like screens. Maybe they are always pestering you about your precious iDevice? Maybe they often point to the sky, or to the woods, or to the sea, demanding to know who guy?!, what bird is that?

Wouldn't it be nice if there was some sort of inventive and interactive game that helped kids get tech-savvy at the same time they were getting nature-savvy? If there were a way to help them recognize birds on telephone poles during road trips? Or help them to identify the call of that owl that is always hooting outside their bedroom window? Or teach them why they will never meet a condor nosing around their birdfeeder, cracking seeds?

But wait! Such a magical game does exist!

iPad Screenshot 2Check out award-winning Birdcage Press's new virtual game My Birds of Prey from their up and coming digital division, 5 Ravens. I have collaborated with Birdcage for several years, researching and writing educational text for their wildlife books and card games, helping to get kids excited about animals. Following seemingly universal trends, the publisher is now branching out into new digital worlds. Having always favored the feel of paper in my own two hands, at first I was skeptical. Then I saw My Bird World, created in conjunction with The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and was thoroughly impressed. As an adult I had fun playing the games, had fun learning about the birds and their vocalizations. I was thrilled when the publisher asked me to write some of the text for their new raptor game, which just came out last month, and is gorgeous.

Whether you have kids or not, if you have a touchscreen device, a few extra bucks, and an interest in birds, please think about heading over to the Apple store, making a few clicks, and purchasing one of these games. I promise you will learn something new. And enjoy it. And, ahem, help keep this freelance writer in job security...

End of pitch. Thank you. And good night.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Neighbor is Who You Meet Each Day

This month I am back at the microscope, finishing up some aquatic invertebrate sampling work, or as we in the USGS call it, pickin' bugs. This means I am still guzzling tea, listening to hours of books on tape, whimpering while rubbing my sore back, and seeing larva floating around whenever I close my eyes. It also means I can provide you with a critical piece of advice when it comes to hanging out around a microscope: do not be tempted to look at your hand under such high magnification. You will not like what you see. Unless you aspire to be the Crypt Keeper. Skin is not meant to be seen so close up. We'll leave it at that.

Anyway, really I am here today to introduce you to some of my new friends, and remind you why its not a good idea to drink unfiltered water. Portraits have been provided by the resident entomological wizard, graphic artist, and heavy metal enthusiast, Joe Giersch.

The Neighbors:

First up, meet the ever-present Allomyia, case-maker, weaver of silty sleeping bags of stone.

Kind of cute, right? Sort of reminiscent of dog. With six legs. And a body like a tube sock.


Next, we have Simuliidae, the baby black fly, always with frivolous headgear. What a dandy.

And, as it turns out,  not unlike a certain dapper blue-haired British worm 
who clearly goes to the same hairdresser.... 

Incidentally, while I was looking for an image of this unsung hero of Labyrinth, I came across more than one photo of his visage immortalized on flesh. Yikes. While I will happily channel David Bowie, stuff my tights, and strut around like The Goblin King for a night, putting ink to skin to permanently honor a sassy Muppet worm on your lower back requires taking it up several more notches than I am near comfortable with. But I digress.

And here is the superstar of the lot. Lednia tumana, that rare little glacier-loving stonefly we're petitioning for endangered species status.

Admittedly, this isn't his best angle. I'm not the only one getting a distinct Nosferatu vibe here, right? The milk-pale flesh-equivalent, the shrinking posture, the contracted limbs raised up defensively against the light...

And last but certainly not least, we have my favorite little duffer, Hydracarina, the water mite. Again, this two-dimensional photo does not do the happy mini-Buddha-of-mountain-streams justice. I love finding these small friends amid the gravel and muck. Their pinprick eyes somehow seem smiley, friendly even. Yeah, they are dead, pickled in ethanol, but they seem at peace. No big deal. They have perfectly plump and rounded bodies, eight spindly legs (they're in the Arachnid family) usually curled up underneath. 

Whether pink-tinged, yellow-tinted, dappled or translucent, the sweet mites always remind me of magical Miyazaki-like forest spirits. And ultimately, all of these creatures are exactly that.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

Heads Will Roll

Rhyacophila belona

Rhyacophila potteri

Rhyacophila vaccua

*All photographs by Joe Giersch and his fancy equipment

Thursday, April 12, 2012

April Fool

    Tis a dark and rainy morning here in the woods. No blooming flowers yet, but the bright wolf lichen burns florescent on damp fir bark. The air smells good--that freshest of ozone storm scents. Things are waking up. The gigantic snow pile outside my window is shrinking slowly, slowly. I am thinking of how schizophrenic early spring weather can be, how often it matches my own moods, caught between transitions, stretching toward a new season while one hand still lingers behind, fingers brushing against the old. And all of this, of course, makes me think of Edna St. Vincent Millay, that badass American poetess famous for her feminism, scandalous love affairs, and Pulitzer. 
Stealing Magnolias
    Here is what she has to say about April...

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Most Astounding Fact

Peep this beautiful little astro-video replete with wisdom bombs from that big, badass astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. We are, all of us, made of stardust and guts, sewn up with the double-twined, shining umbilical threads of the universe. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sipping on Sun Eggs

The day pretty much began like this: me, contemplating a golden fruit.

Elsa Beskow's rendering of a Sun Egg

Last month I spent a week in Arizona, visiting my grandma with some of my lovely siblings. My grandparents moved south several years ago, and while I deeply miss their old lakeside home in Madison, the new roost does have something I like very much. A grapefruit tree. Fully laden. Just outside the window. Needless to say, one day we filled a bucket, and got to work.

Confession: I am grapefruit junkie. In high school, my book bag clinked and clanked with the sound of glass knocking against glass. I tell you, it wasn't because I was a boozer stealing the dregs from dusty misfit bottles of my parents' Ouzo, Sherry, or Frangelica. It was the tell-tale sound of my three-a-day habit. Yes, I juiced.

And if that was not enough, I liked to smell like the sour citrus fruit, too. Yes, on my teen rovings downtown on State Street, I'd often find myself drawn into The Soap Opera, a beloved old apothecary of fragrant hippie delights. I liked to hang out around the sample dram display, sniffing various essential oils. Possibly muttering to myself in a British accent.

Contrary to popular belief (ahem), I did NOT wear patchouli. Much. But I did have more than one little dram-bottle of Forest Pine essence to complement my stash of Grapefruit oil, which I went through quick enough.

My bedroom then was at the end of a long hallway on a less insulated addition to our original ranch house. For some reason when we ripped out the hideous and diseased shag carpet, I got to pick my own carpet color. Silvery white. I then proceeded to leave my windows cracked in winter, and hang strings of glass icicles from the panes. My furniture was old, dark, antique oak, my bedding light blue and posters of snowshoe hares, arctic foxes, and wolf packs. (Okay, and ultimately a six-foot-banner of Daniel Day-Lewis, the crown of my Last of the Mohicans shrine.) It is entirely possible I set a low base-temperature in there just to help entice the cats and dogs to cuddle with me more.

 My point is, Forest Pine is a pretty logical scent for a room that was meant to look like winter, and certainly felt like winter... so why the Grapefruit? Why the crisp, pucker-inducing scent of summery citrus, sun-bright and bee-kissed? Why here, in the white winter room?

I don't actually have an answer to this, folks. Why does a teenager wear moccasins to school, get obsessed with Neil Young, guzzle Chocola, and dream of being an elf who rides wolves? (Or was that just me?) Because she likes to.

I really, really love grapefruits. I love watching my aunt peel them every year for the Christmas fruit salad. I love using that crazy jagged little spoon to root out their triangular segments. I love heating up the juice with hot water in the winter (really, try it), and mixing it with ice and Patron in the summer. And I really, really love drinking the fresh-squeezed juice.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Lest we not forget our namesake

Recent little Orion blog entry by my delightful author-friend Brian Doyle. A brief ode to otters.

In the Hall of North American Mammals

March 13, 2012, by Brian Doyle

Recently I was standing in the delicious dim of a museum I had not savored since I was a small boy, many years ago, when the dinosaurs were young; I was staring at the otters in a sort of trance, remembering being in this exact reverie nearly fifty years ago, and thinking Manhattanish thoughts of salted pretzels bigger than your hand, and slightly burnt, and roasted chestnuts, and taxicab drivers cursing in Urdu, and drifts of straw near the horse carriages, and the whistle of hotel guys flagging cabs in their long gray cossack coats, when I noticed a small girl gaping at the otters also, and an eternity went by like a meditative freight train, and we have been absorbed by otters for many thousands of years, right?
Certainly thousands of us have stared at them thinking meat thoughts, and how to steal their excellent coats, and how to persuade them to harvest fish for us, perhaps, but I’d bet far more millions of hours we gawked at them in sheer wonder, a quiet crush, a sort of yearning astonishment, as if they are our smaller cousins, easier in the world, muddy and playful, water-addled, never still for a moment, until they’re stuffed and frozen in time in the Hall of North American Mammals.
After a while an uncle or dad comes to reclaim the small girl, and she leaves reluctantly, and she is me, and it is my father saying do you want to spend your whole day with the otters?
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of ten books, including, most recently, the novel Mink River.