Forum Holitorium

Among the Cranes

It has been a month since I visited the International Crane Foundation outside Baraboo, Wisconsin. You can see each of the 15 species of cranes of the world, many of which are endangered due to loss of wetland habitat. I had been there once before as a uninterested, reluctant child, brought by her bird-loving mother. This time I was the one who instigated the outing, and I had no difficulty convincing my mom to come with.

To prepare for my visit, I had started reading Peter Matthiessen’s The Birds of Heaven. What a disappointment! I just couldn’t warm up to his style and got impatient with his lengthy descriptions of the logistics of ornithologists traveling in Russia just after the breakup of the Soviet Union. When oh when would the narrator retreat into the background and start describing nature’s jewel of a bird? I set the book aside and decided I would learn by simply observing the birds myself. Facts could be gathered from other sources later.

The majority of cranes have red, white, and black plumage. There is something archaic in their eyes that hints at their incredibly long history. Sandhill crane fossils have been found dating back to 3 to 5 million years ago. Their sleek aerodynamic shape has stood the test of time. The ICF is designed so that you can often stand eye to eye with these creatures that are associated with longevity and good luck in Japan, Korea, and China.

The two species that sport no red feathers are the blue crane (Grus paradisea), the national bird of South Africa and shown above, and the demoiselle crane (Grus virgo), named by Marie Antoinette and shown below. The elegant demoiselles do have red eyes – maybe from getting up really early to traverse the Himalayas when they migrate.

The whooping crane couple (Grus americana) have a huge area all to themselves. Visitors enter what feels like a Roman amphitheater, walking down to sit in one of the rows of seats that are at the level of a waterhole.

You can sit there as long as you like, watching the birds preen in the water or hang out on the berm.

If you are lucky like I was, you may even see a crane dance.

Sadly, it is not just students who are continually victims of gun violence in the U.S.; despite their endangered species status, one in five whooping cranes is shot.

The next time I visit the cranes, I will be sure to allow more time to walk the four miles of nature trails and to visit conservationist Aldo Leopold‘s shack and farm.

On the way back from Baraboo the next day, my party had intended to stroll along a trail or two at Horicon Marsh, one of the largest intact freshwater wetlands and the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States: a birdwatcher’s paradise. The marsh is a national wildlife refuge with a rocky past. Unfortunately, heavy rain arrived about twenty minutes after we did. The silver lining: besides some low flying Canada geese, I spied a few pelicans on the water. And nothing beats hearing the wind in the reeds and experiencing a storm roll in.

The crane’s legs have gotten shorter in the spring rain. – Basho

Happy birdwatching wherever you are!

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April Braid

A cold clouds my mind. I puzzled a few days over how to tie together pictures and thoughts into a coherent blog entry. How about braiding together three strands of my preoccupations in April: baking bread, knitting neck warmers, and walking in the woods?

The leftover wool wrap in brioche stitch is finally done and protecting my neck and shoulders as I write. It was a good exercise to improvise a pattern, to go through the steps of envisioning what I wanted, researching and learning a new technique (two color brioche), and bringing this vision to life. It had been months since I last made a garment for myself. This is one I will get a lot of use out of; I have already worn it every day since finishing it. Along with one blue sock, my knitting bowl now holds yarn for two cowls – one thick, one thin – that will match most of my spring wardrobe.

It is finally warm enough to open the windows and let in fresh air. Despite my cold, I have gotten out walking every day and can’t get enough of the sunshine and milder temperatures. Tuesday I visited St. Radegund again, my favorite forest near Graz. It has been weeks since I was last there. Fresh air, sunshine, a circling kestrel, eight deer. I am learning a lot about the forest in Germany and Austria from Peter Wohlleben‘s book Der Wald: Eine Entdeckungsreise (The Forest: A Journey of Discovery). Over the course of his career as a forester in Germany, Wohlleben has turned his back on practices he learned during his training and is attempting to forge a more sustainable forestry practice by moving away from the status quo of spruce and pine monoculture (spruce and pine being trees common to the taiga further north) to the restoration of the beech forests that originally covered Central Europe.

One great obstacle to the restoration of beech forests is the overpopulation of deer brought about by the absence of natural predators (wolves and lynx) and their protection by hunters. Yes, you read that correctly. Hunters want their hunting grounds to be full of deer, so they feed them. Yet they do not kill enough deer to keep the population in check. Instead of a sustainable density of one deer per square kilometer, the density today is more like 40 to 50 deer. The result: the deer eat up the young deciduous trees. More deer also means more ticks and thus more Lyme disease. Lots of questions about “my” forest in Radegund are forming as I read this book. Since it is in the Alps, I wonder to what extent the spruce and pine there are native – where the beech forest ended and the conifer forest of the Alps began. There is so much to learn about trees.

There is a lot to learn about baking bread too. Since I will soon be on the other side of the Atlantic for some time, I am putting off working with a sourdough starter. Inspired by Fanatic Cook’s recent no-knead whole wheat bread experiment, I have made two loaves with yeast and long fermentation (40 hours plus) that have turned out tasty. Since I don’t have a special pot for bread, I have just plopped the dough into a square cake pan and let it take on whatever shape it wanted. The elongated hexagon of the latest loaf is quite elegant.

May April bring you fresh air, fresh baked bread, and a warm neck!

Putting the Finishing Touches on Winter

As of yesterday, it is officially spring: daylight will soon trump darkness. Thick wool scarves should give way to thin scarves and hats and knee high socks should disappear until fall. In three months’ time it will be all linen and sandals. After a week of spring temperatures and sunlight that sent me out on many a walk in the clement weather, nature has thrown a bit of a wrench into the order of things. It’s cold again, and yesterday was one of the coldest first days of spring on record. I’ve been making the best of being back indoors by finishing up a few winter projects. Pictured above is a small purse I will use to hold business cards and other desk supplies that size; below is a close up of the button band of a large cardigan that after three months of sporadic knitting is finally done. Since the weather was too cold for a nice walk, I celebrated the start of spring by learning a technique for sewing buttons onto knitwear.

For thousands of years, buttons served as decorations. Though the ancient Greeks and Romans used buttons as fasteners, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that buttonholes and functional use of buttons became widespread in Europe. I never really learned how to sew buttons well and have winged it in the past, often choosing to secure cardigans with a wooden pin made by a family friend. But as an inveterate cardigan wearer, I figured it was time to expand my finishing repertoire. In most cases, a buttoned cardigan keeps out the cold better than a simple pin. And it was time to bring the winter cardigan project to a close in more ways than one.

Lemon slices are round like buttons. My palate is ignoring the cold and has spring fever, yearning for the freshness of herbs, lemons, and leafy greens like spinach, arugula, and dandelion greens. Last week I discovered a delicious recipe for focaccia with rosemary, olives, and lemon slices. Prepare your favorite focaccia, oil bread, or pizza dough. Drizzle the dough with olive oil and top it with 1 Tbsp dried/4 Tbsp fresh rosemary, a handful of olives, and one or two sliced organic or unsprayed lemon (with the seeds removed). Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and then pop it in the oven for as long as the bread recipe requires.

Happy spring!

The Long Winter Week

The long winter week started out last Saturday with dinner guests bearing tulips and a bottle of Rioja. Knowing that temps in Graz would drop to normal Wisconsin winter temperatures, I had made preparations, buying food to last five or six days. The grocery store is only a five minute walk, but a five minute walk at -4° F / -20° C is to be avoided if at all possible. Been there, done that enough in college. Working at home is a definite plus in winter. I was looking forward to a cozy week. The red-orange of the tulip blossoms were a wonderful companion at the kitchen table and provided a good contrast to the bright white of the moderate snowfall outside.

To get in the mood, I pulled Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter off the shelf. It tells the story of how she and her family survived an unusually harsh winter in the Dakota Territory. Though they lived in town, there were so many blizzards that the trains couldn’t run and bring supplies. By mid-February, most of the food was gone and only thanks to a risky run by two of the town’s young men to buy seed wheat at a distant farm is the town saved from starvation. How easy I have it today in comparison. No need to twist hay to burn because the coal ran out, no need to go to bed early because there is no more kerosene for light, no need to sleep in an unheated attic where the snow blows in. Though there are days where most of the calories I consume come from bread and potatoes, that is my choice and not because that is all that is left.

There is much talk of wool wraps, mufflers (in the older sense of the word as in something that covers the throat), and shawls in the book; making your own clothes and knitting were what everyone did. I started knitting a wrap for myself that will use up leftover blue and gray bulky yarn. Reversible patterns interest me because they look good regardless of what side faces forward. I decided on knitting three panels in brioche stitch. The end panels are single color while in the center panel, I am trying out two color brioche.

Pioneers need to be industrious, keeping things in good repair and being able to fix whatever needs fixing. This week I finally took time to mend clothes and hand wash scarves and wool socks. For the first time ever (and with the help of the internet), I actually darned socks. And they weren’t even my own. Since I have nearly knit through my yarn stash and thus the dream of a future in which not more than 10 skeins of yarn lay dormant looks like it will soon come true, I have started to think about What Next. A major in sock knitting and a minor in lace weight neck warmers are at the top of my list.

The cold spell has broken and above freezing temperatures are working their way in my direction. The snow will soon be gone and it is time for white to be replaced by green. I couldn’t resist a pot of basil at the grocery store. What a difference a few leaves make as a garnish. A shot of color in the kitchen is also very welcome.

May you find the patience and the right technique to repair what needs fixing!

Krapfenzeit

Snow keeps falling here in the mountains, but the days are getting longer and the cycle of seasons continues to turn.  Marking the end of Carnival, Faschingsdienstag/Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday was yesterday, and the first day of Lent is today. In Russia, Maslenitsa or Butter Week also takes place this week. The Chinese New Year or Spring Festival starts with the new moon on Friday (or Thursday in Europe and the Americas); soon it will be the Year of the Dog. This week Tibetans are also celebrating Losar, the new year, Friday through Sunday. Interesting how so many holidays around the world have converged this week.

To celebrate Mardi Gras, my high school French teacher made crepes with us, letting each of us flip a crepe with the pan in one hand and a coin in the other to bring good luck. It has become my tradition to make buckwheat crepes for Mardi Gras (without a coin in my hand). The only Austrian culinary tradition associated with Fasching (as the pre-Lenten season is called) is eating Krapfen – doughnuts filled with apricot jelly and dusted with powdered sugar. Before this week, it had certainly been a few years since I last had a jelly-filled doughnut. For whatever reason, this year I felt it was important to eat Krapfen. The two and a half I ate were fresh from a local bakery and delicious.

In Austria, Lent is a time where it is easy to use “I’ve given it up for Lent” as an excuse not to eat or drink something. On a whim, I decided that I will give up sugar for Lent. Since I am not a “Naschkatze” (literally a snacking or nibbling cat, meaning a person with a sweet tooth), this should not be too hard. A friend gave up sugar last year for Lent and felt she had a lot more energy. As winter winds down, even a little more energy sounds great. I will give it a try.

May you enjoy any celebrations that occur this week!

Aunts and Blankets

A week ago I had a dream about my aunt who has been dead for nearly eight years. I was standing in my grandparents’ kitchen and saw her sitting on the couch in the living room watching TV, bundled up in an afghan as if it were a cold winter evening. She appeared as she looked in the early eighties, slender and with short permed hair that had recently been cut. She turned her head and saw me and a smile spread across her face. A tremendous yet calm joy began to radiate from her. We smiled at each other awhile, and then I woke up.

I am lucky to have four aunts – three of whom are still here. They are all very different and special in their own way. The aunt I dreamed about liked to knit and crochet. Her specialty was afghans. When I was a child, she crocheted me a pink and lavender afghan. Though I can’t stomach the colors any more, I have held onto it because she made it for me. Funny to dream of her right after I finished making my first throw blanket. After a few attempts at knitting various cardigans, I decided the heavy alpaca-wool mix might be better as a blanket. It needs a good blocking, but it is nice and warm on my lap. It is quite different than the colorful cotton blanket with Celtic designs that has followed me around from apartment to apartment since I was a teenager.

Last summer I knit an eggplant colored merino wool baby blanket for my cousin, who was expecting her first child. Since she and her husband do not have siblings, their daughter does not have any aunts. I have always wanted to be an aunt and especially to have a niece, but that is also difficult as I don’t have any siblings either. When I lived in Poland, I learned that many of my friends had a “ciotka”, and auntie, who wasn’t technically the sister of their mother or father but simply a woman who was close enough to have this title bestowed on her. So maybe one day I too will be called aunt. At any rate, I have already behaved like my aunt by knitting a blanket that is now keepiny my cousin’s daughter warm. The cabled blanket below was a gift from a woman who you might say is an unofficial aunt of mine.

The days are getting longer, but it is still blanket and afghan weather. Since I have enough to keep me warm inside, my focus is now on jackets and cowls for staying warm outside.

May you enjoy and appreciate your aunts and blankets!

Tying Up Loose Ends

Powdered sugar

It started snowing last night in the city, more cosmetic than anything else. The street and pavement are clear, but the plants and roofs are coated nicely. It is a very peaceful backdrop to the genesis of my first blog entry in 2018. Energized after a peaceful break over the holidays, I did what many a knitter does in January: assess all the unruly yarn that has accumulated and see what I can do to tame the leftover skeins. Having turned most of the larger balls of yarn into hats a few months ago, I decided to conjure up bags and containers and a sachet. The two larger baskets still need to be felted.

Stashbusting

It is amazing how much you can make out of small bits of yarn. When I started knitting, someone told me to save all the scraps, no matter how small, and I have. After nine years of knitting, I have quite a collection. A week ago, I went on a word fast for 24 hours: no phone, no books, no computer. One of the many benefits that emerged from this fast was an impromptu organization of all those loose ends. After emptying the ziplock bag full of yarn ends (which no longer seals) and corralling all other leftover wool in my stash, I divided the ends into three categories: 4 inches/10 cm or shorter, medium lengths that could be used as ties of some kind, and longer pieces of yarn that could be wound into mini-balls and still be used for knitting.

Loose ends

The ziplock bag is now full of the 4 inch or less ends. So nothing goes to waste, I plan on using these ends to stuff a small pillow that I will knit at some point in the next few months. (Family and friends: anyone want a 7″ x 9″ pillow?) The tie length yarn is organized by color and put in the cardboard container shown above. And the mini-balls of yarn that could still become part of a collaborative effort are neatly placed in a tin (which now closes easily, without me having to push down hard on the lid). Invigorated by this action, I knit nearly a project every day in a frenzy of industriousness that Benjamin Franklin would surely have found laudatory: “Be industrious and frugal and you will be rich.”

Industry and frugality are the catchwords for January and extend into the kitchen. Over the holidays, I found my groove again with cooking and baking, two activities that were more of a chore than a joy in 2017. January is a good time to look at the best by/expiration dates on dried goods and use them up. A large pack of raisins inspired me to bake a Gugelhupf, to which I added a shot of Italian wine and two teaspoons of cinnamon to jazz up the basic buttery yeast leavened dough. The recipe called for a glaze of rum and powdered sugar, neither of which I had in the pantry. Now I can look out the window at the snow while I eat a slice – that is enough powder for me.

GugelhupfMay you enjoy the fruits of industry and frugality on the needles and in the kitchen!

On the Cusp of Winter

The promise of snow did not pan out as I had hoped. I had imagined waking up to glowing white outside, looking down from my cozy room in my refuge with a view of the forest and delighting in the arrival of winter. But I have enjoyed just a few mornings with a liberal sprinkling of powdered sugar that melts as soon as the sun warms the earth. When I find such a layer on top of apple strudel, I try to tap it off with my fork. Why ruin one of the few desserts that is not overly sweet with extra sugar?

Winter may come soon enough but most likely after I return to the city later this week. It has been a year of cultivating patience in many areas of life; I guess this will apply to enjoyment of snow as well. How fickle I have become, yearning for the next season when the reds and oranges of fall are still on view. Perhaps my focus has shifted a bit. On my walks in the woods, I have been distracted by my four-legged companion Kati. Wire-haired dachshunds approach the world differently than we do. Whereas I am content to breath in the smell of spruce and let my mind wander as I stroll, Kati stops every few meters, nose quivering, ears giving away how much more alert she is than I to the subtle smells of the forest. Or she takes off at a good clip, excited to be out and stretching her legs, stopping impatiently when she reaches the end of the leash to wait for me to catch up with her. Walks are not supposed to be this strenuous. I spend more time contemplating her than the trees now, noting how her hind legs are rarely in perfect alignment with her front legs as she trots along in front of me and anticipating when she will try to leave the path to sniff and explore dead grass. Leisurely contemplation while walking will need to wait until Kati is reunited with her owner.

I have come to the conclusion that dog ownership is best left for people who live in the countryside, people who wish to lose weight, people who do not shirk from taking responsibility for the welfare of another being, and people who can handle the smell of meat. I am just a temporary dabbler, an adjunct dog sitter, and do not inhabit the space in the Venn diagram where these categories overlap. Far from it. Yet my week with Kati has shown me how quickly a good natured dog can win even me over.

May you see the world differently through the eyes of an animal!

Middle High Autumn

I find myself happier with less. I find I no longer need to seek things out; instead, the important things and ideas find me. I find myself listening. Looking. Observing. More. Not enough though, because I nearly stepped on a fire salamander, so engrossed I was in a conversation, my thoughts darting to possible futures instead of taking in the wonders in front of me.

Fall brings with it a quiet of its own. I am at a point where I am interested in seeking out new rhythms and focusing more on the silence between the beats. When I need to clear my head and breathe deeply, I head to the forest. Somehow the colors of the leaves – those on fire as well as those stalwartly green – seem more vibrant to me this year.

In September I read two books that found me, two books not on my reading list. The first was The Abundance of Less by Andy Couturier. Couturier interviewed ten people living in rural Japan who are treading softly on the earth by making do without money as much as possible. One of the people he interviewed said that we human beings want things because we have too much information, yet the changing weather and seasons are enough. Another says you need a life where you can be aware of nature and perceive it closely.

I stop to admire water drops on leaves and walk away carefully, leaving them for others to appreciate.

The second book was Being the Change by Peter Kalmus. One of the important messages is that although we cannot save the world, we can still change it, and every action counts. Kalmus is a climate scientist who has slashed his CO2 emissions by ninety percent. He writes eloquently about the change in perspective that is necessary to temper global warming and speaks from his own experiences with meditation about how practicing can lead to greater equanimity. What if more people cultivated equanimity?

What both books have in common is the ethic of choosing not to take everything we can take. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it should be done. Opting out is often a very good option. I don’t need to climb a mountain to appreciate its beauty and be changed by its presence.

Snow has already fallen in the Alps. In the valley where I am typing these lines, freezing temperatures were predicted. Instead of a dusting of frost on the grass, my observations early this morning revealed two magpies in a linden tree nearly devoid of leaves. It is darker longer, and the silence of evenings is intoxicating. Apples are at their peak of crispness; wool begs to be knit into sweaters.

May you choose not to take everything you can!

 

In the Kingdom of the Monarch

When I hear the word butterfly, I see a monarch butterfly. Still common in my hometown, this was the only butterfly I could identify until relatively recently. I was happy to see quite a few on a visit a few weeks ago to Richard Bong State Recreation Area, one of Wisconsin’s state parks. According to its homepage, the area was slated to become an airport for jet fighter planes but was spared at the last minute – as in shortly before the concrete for the runway was poured. How the world desperately needs more of these happy endings!

Monarchs thrive on a diet of milkweed, a plant that produces prickly pods that split to reveal silky seeds.

Pesticide use in North America and deforestation in Mexico, where monarchs spend the winter, have a direct impact on the monarch population. For readers in North America, growing milkweed in your yard is just one way to help out the monarch butterfly. Refraining from using pesticides also helps pollinators like the one in the picture below.

It has been good spending these past few weeks where remnants of the Midwestern prairie yield to Lake Michigan. The unseasonable heat and lack of rainfall is troubling, yet my wish to be here in this familiar landscape while the weather was summery came true.

The colors and the sounds (especially blue jays, crickets, and cicadas) have been soothing, the expanse of the sky a reminder of how limitless and open life can be.

Soon I will be experiencing the Alps in autumn, covering up with wool sweaters and opening up my umbrella. But now it is time to listen to the breeze whispering through the prairie grass and soak up a little more warmth while I still can.

May you enjoy the colors, sounds, and vistas around you!