Spring…FINALLY!

DSC00289Winter went on waaaay longer than necessary around here, with absolutely vicious ice, but finally nice things are beginning to happen outdoors if you remove a compressed pollen season from the equation.

The very first Nice Thing of May occurred on May Day itself, when fifth graders from a nearby school tiptoed through the not-yet-flowering tulips to hang May baskets on selected doorknobs. I was thrilled to discover that our house was one of the favored ones!

As a measure of how desperately late the season is, flowers that usually show up in the May Baskets hadn’t begun to think about blooming yet, not even the dandelions, so this year’s May flowers were hand-crafted from paper. And wonderful they are to behold! The blossom in mine resembles a miniature hibiscus in a rich, dark pink that seems to glow from inside. Paper flowers might not be traditional, but the upside is that I’ll be able to enjoy this May Basket all month long. I might even put away for next year.

The spring weather also brought out the house-hunters, including the young couple below who seemed to be thinking about raising a family in our old sandbox.

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Apparently a fixer-upper didn’t quite meet their needs; they waddled off after a few minutes and have not yet put in an offer.

This is probably for the best. There’s a gap in the fence along the back of our property through which an adolescent Labrador bounds now and then and I imagine this would be upsetting for a young mallard family, as would more sinister visits from area hawks, foxes, raccoons, and the coyote Younger Son saw down the street  as he was going to work early last Saturday.

To clarify: it was Younger Son who was going to work. I don’t know where the coyote was going. I’m just glad it wasn’t toward Younger Son because I don’t think his car insurance has an anvil rider. I must remember to suggest this if he encounters the coyote again.

© 2013 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

A Blessing of Wild Things

We’ve had an explosion of wildlife sightings in our neighborhood, most of them by Walking Partner and her family across the street. In April alone they have observed a great horned owl in a tree just south of their house, a hawk’s nest in the yard to their north, and this past weekend, a fox in their back yard–at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. (I’ve had foxes in my yard, too, but I have to get up at 5:30 a.m. to see them. This is soooo not fair…)

Tonight it was my turn.

Today was the first full day of sun for as long as anyone can remember, and even though I went for a brief walk earlier, I went out again after supper. Heading back home about 20 minutes before sunset, I saw, in the space of eight minutes:

  • One Little Blue Heron, in flight above the trees along the Menomonee River. I know it was a heron because its neck had the characteristic S curve, and I suspect it’s the same one Walking Partner and I watched by the bridge last summer. Little Blue heron aren’t supposed to live this far north but apparently this one hadn’t gotten the memo.
  • One coyote (my first ever, a moment of major squee!!!). It trotted across the parkway toward the river and disappeared into the underbrush, which was not that much of a trick since the coyote was the same color as the bushes, which have not yet leafed out.

All I need to make this a perfect walk, I thought, are a couple of deer. And three minutes later I passed the sledding hill and there they were, two does browsing in the soccer field at the foot of the hill..

It has been a long, long winter in my part of the world. While winter and gloom and rain make for great writing weather, lately I have been running pretty much on empty.

I think things are about to change.

© 2011 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

This is NOT Snow

…and the white streaks that appear to be running down the front of the gray house across the street are NOT the result of a poor paint job.

What you are seeing is a surprise hail event that occurred this morning (it only lasted about 10 minutes before turning into rain, so it’s hard to call it a hail storm).

The photo at right is our rear doormat; the hail came from the east and piled up against the back of the house almost two inches deep in places. When I walked outside a few minutes later I discovered that the hail was rough, not slick, and provided decent traction for walking, although Younger Son, who had to delay his departure for work for several minutes until the pelting eased up, reported that it was like driving in several inches of snow.

The consensus at the neighborhood coffee shop is that nobody, but noooooobody, had ever seen so much hail.

Apparently the fun isn’t over yet; it’s in the high 60s in Chicago but the very low 40s here, and the warm front is moving north. Thunder is rumbling and lightning is flickering even as I write this.

Like the lady said about a very different eve: “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

© 2011 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

Sugaring Off in Ohio

A highlight of my recent trip to Ohio was an afternoon arranged by my friend Nancy: a visit to Valley View Woodlands, a farm in western Champaign County, to talk with Marc Stadler about his maple syrup operation.

The weather was perfect: below freezing at night, in the 40s and sunny during the day, the sort of day that inspires a middle-aged sugar maple to convert its stored plant starch into sugar and send it roaring up the tree in a column of sap. Maple sap becomes syrup when it’s tapped from the tree and cooked down, a process known as “sugaring off.”

Marc taps his trees the old-fashioned way, with metal spouts and five-gallon buckets; larger operations run tubing from the tree right to a tank in the sugarhouse. If you look closely at the photo (above right), you can see a drop of sap falling from the spout (bucket removed for purposes of taking the photo).

I was surprised to learn that maple sap is clear, not amber; it looks and tastes like water. The  color and maple flavor develop as the sugar carmelizes during the cooking process.

As the temperature rises in spring, the microorganisms that help turn water into sap become more and more active, which in turn results in darker and stronger-tasting syrup. Mid-season syrup is a medium amber and has the classic maple-syrup taste; late-season syrup is darker and has a stronger taste, which Valley View Woodlands uses for maple candy and maple-coated walnuts and pecans {I swoon just thinking about how good the nuts must taste}.

The sap buckets are emptied into the steel holding tank (at the top of the steps in the photo at left). From there, the sap is pumped inside to the evaporator, where it’s heated and reduced to syrup.

The syrup must be monitored constantly during the process to assess the concentration of sugar. Below, Marc holds a syrup hydrometer that he has just used to check the density of the sap after drawing off some into the testing cup in his left hand. Although it looks as if he’s about to dip the hydrometer directly into the sap, he’s actually using it as a pointer as he talks about how the syrup flows through the different sections of the evaporator.

The perforated walls in the background are not traditional sugarhouse architecture; the Valley View sugarhouse was originally a corn crib. It provided just the right amount of ventilation on the day Nancy and I visited, but apparently it can get pretty moist inside on rainy days.

A traditional wood-fired stove heats the evaporator with hickory, apple, and other logs from the farm’s woods.

The drawn-off syrup is then filtered before being taken to the house for final processing and bottling. Alas, I missed the bottling part, but it gave me a new appreciation of the pint of maple syrup we have in our refrigerator. I’m looking forward to catching up with Marc this summer and bringing home a trunkful of syrup and candy and candied nuts!

© 2011 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

Wake-Up Call

The yellow emergency horns at the top of this high school are half a block from my dad’s house, where I’m spending the week. Monday morning these horns started blaring at 4:30 a.m.

Emergency horns that are half a block away are very, VERY loud. They also do not sound like emergency sirens because there’s no wail effect. I don’t know whether this is because Ohio sirens are different from the ones I’m used to in Wisconsin, or because of something to do with the Doppler effect. I’m hoping someone with a physics background will explain it in the comments.

What the sirens do sound like is a car horn that’s shorted out in the neighbor’s driveway, which is about five feet from the wall of the bedroom where I was sleeping. I peeked through the curtains at the imputed offender, scowled, and went back to bed.

Three or four minutes later, the sirens wound down, and then I finally heard the familiar wail. Also, there seemed to be thunder in the distance…

I scrambled into the living room and turned on the TV. Let’s just say that seeing a weather map with a huge red “rotation” heading right toward you certainly accelerates the wake-up process.

I woke my dad, who had slept right through the first round of sirens. Fortunately, the second round was the last. By the time I got Dad and his walker halfway to the basement door, the weather map showed that the storm had turned north and the alert had expired for our county.

Dad fixed himself a cup of coffee and sat in the living room to watch the rain.

I went back to bed.

The rest of the week, I’m happy to say, has been less dramatic. Last night there was the Incident of the Burned-Out Light Bulb, which plunged the whole living room into darkness because it turned out the rest of the living-room light bulbs were dead, too, but that was a lot easier to fix than living in a Red Cross shelter until we could replace the roof.

© 2011 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

Spring’s coming, via I-65

This past Saturday I drove to Ohio to spend several days with my dad. It was still winter when I left the house and the glacierettes along our driveway were topped with an inch of fresh snow.

But spring definitely is on the way. I shared the last rest stop before Indianapolis with a large flock of north-bound robins, who seemed to be dining on fallen crabapples and worms and grubs they found in patches of exposed mud.

© 2011 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

Artist Date: Snowdrops

I was heading for the car to go grocery shopping last Friday afternoon when I saw a shaft of sunlight illuminating a patch of snowdrops in the shrubby area behind our house.

Spring had sprung, and it was backlit.

Snowdrops in my backyard, March 26

I dropped everything and went to find the Toy Camera. And before I knew it, I was in the middle of the first real Artist Date in a long time. (As practitioners of the Morning Pages exercises know, Julia Cameron recommends most emphatically that artists—including artists of words—treat themselves every single week to something that nourishes their creative soul.)

A couple of lifetimes ago I was a pretty good available-light photographer. Then the river of life swept me down a side channel, and by the time I came up for air, digital photography had bloomed. While I do not miss the smell of darkroom chemicals one tiny bit, I do miss the precision of a Nikon F2. A comparable digital SLR has been beyond the budget up to now, so I’ve been making do with Toy Camera, a point-and-shoot with a decent pedigree that I bought the day of Younger Son’s high school graduation. I got it for very good price, perhaps because it was already obsolete.

I have maintained all my photographic career that it’s not the camera that counts; it’s the person behind the camera. I still believe this, but when you’re used to a Real Camera, a point-and-shoot can feel… primitive.

For one thing, Toy Camera likes to contemplate a scene before actually registering it. I’m a life-long Catholic; I’m just fine with contemplation. Some of my best friends…etc. But when there are baby ducks involved, a contemplative lens results in dozens of .jpgs showing where the baby ducks used to be.

The other problem is that I miss f-stops something fierce. I try to control the depth of field by playing around with the focus, and Toy Camera starts going all HAL on me: “I’m sorry, Anne. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

However, for grabbing a quick snapshot of snowdrops backlit by the afternoon sun, Toy Camera works just fine. The snowdrops never once tried to waddle out of the frame. It was a very satisfying Artist Date, even if I did get leaf bits all over my jeans and dirt stains on the elbows of my parka.

Amaryllis bud, March 28

I realize as I’m writing this that all those Bud photos I’ve been posting for “blogging practice” qualify as Artist Dates, too. And speaking of Bud: here’s Sunday morning’s photo from Day 4 of the Grand Opening. It looks as if another four-flower extravaganza is on the way.

FWIW, the potting medium involved is a custom mix of 1 part vermiculite, 1 part peat, and 1 part mixed compost (a bag of this, a bag of that, a bucket from the backyard compost heap).  I’m pretty sure this is the secret.

© 2010 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go