Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Shamrock by Any Other Name ...

Last year's clover, in a sweet little vase from Catherine Reece pottery.
Perhaps because St. Patrick's Day occurs so close to the vernal equinox, I get a little preoccupied with shamrocks and clovers and other green growing things. 

It's the month when many Minnesota gardeners are getting ready to start seeds indoors, and although I feel the same urge, I haven't done much seed starting for quite a few years. I did plant some cilantro seeds in a peat pot a couple of days ago (they're sitting in a south window, waiting to germinate), and that may be the extent of it for me this year.

Some years I have started seeds of white clover, Trifolium repens, at the beginning of February in order to have a pot of them in time for St. Patrick's Day. I've even written about it here and here.

These are not the "shamrocks" you see in the grocery stores about now. That plant is a type of oxalis, aka sorrel, that does not grow wild in Ireland or any other part of the northern hemisphere. But it makes a much nicer houseplant than do the clovers, so I guess the greenhouse growers figured, why not?

Oxalis at Seward Co-op today, in a display with Irish oat bread. Note they're not calling them shamrocks.

The plant identified as a shamrock by a plurality of the Irish (46%  in a 1988 survey) is lesser trefoil, aka hop clover, aka several other common names, aka Trifolium dubium, which is a bit smaller than white clover and has yellow blossoms. Although not as well known as white clover, it is, apparently, about as widespread. Native to Europe and Central Asia, it's been introduced and naturalized in North America, Africa, and New Zealand. 

Phinney the Galway cat (at least, that's where his name comes from) with my watercolor illustration of T. dubium, one of the Irish shamrocks. (Phinney's much more interested in the pencil than the art.)

Now that I've been studying this plant a little, I'm pretty sure I've seen it in many of the grassy strips between the sidewalk and street (which we call the boulevard here in Minneapolis, an apparent idiosyncrasy of my city). It's considered invasive in many areas, but not always because it is a problem for native species; more often, it is said to "invade" lawns. But since lawns aren't exactly natural ecosystems, that's not really saying much. 

Some photos of T. dubium show the plant with much rounder slightly bluish leaves, but that could be a case of mistaken identity, since there are a few look-alike species, as this site explains. 

The reason I've tended to favor white clover (T. repens) as the shamrock, even though it was the runner-up to lesser trefoil in the fore-mentioned survey (at 35%), is because the seeds are easy to come by; and that's because it used to be considered a desirable addition to lawn grass seed mixtures; and that's because it's a legume, as is  T. dubium, and so "fixes" atmospheric nitrogen, which means that it makes it available for other plants to take it up, which makes the grass healthier and greener.

Now it's most often considered a weed by those who prefer a manicured grass-only lawn, an aesthetic that emerged after WWII and the introduction of broadleaf weed-killers, according to historian Virginia Scott Jenkins in her book, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession (published by Smithsonian Books in 1994). 

In other words, it became a weed once there was an herbicide that could kill it. In fact, the target plants were plantain and dandelions, with clover being an innocent bystander, but in order to sell the chemicals to the public, the makers had to convince them that clovers were weeds too.  

Except now it's finding its way back into the good graces of those who prefer a low-maintenance, diverse lawn that's much prettier than a boring grass carpet. Clover is also very much appreciated by butterflies and bees (including several non-stinging wild bees), mammals* (yes, that includes rabbits, you bunny haters), and birds (who eat the seeds).

My recently completed watercolor of T. repens

Clovers are also edible to humans, offering both protein and carbohydrates. In fact, according to the comprehensive history by Charles Nelson in his book, Shamrock (Boethius Press, 1991), the earliest observations about shamrocks in Ireland, reported by literate visitors, were that the Irish ate them.

And that, not anything St. Patrick did with them (if he did), is the most likely reason shamrocks have become the emblem of Ireland.

* Fun fact—Other wild animals that consume white clover:

Leaves and flowers are eaten by grizzly bears, moose, mules, deer, blue grouse and the white-footed vole.

Seeds are eaten by these birds: northern bobwhite, bufflehead, American coot, several different grouse, the horned lark, mallard, gray partridge, greater prairie chicken, willow ptarmigan, American pintail, California quail, and American robin.

Many butterflies use them as caterpillar nurseries, including the eastern-tailed blue and several sulfurs and skippers. Still more butterflies visit clover blossoms for the nectar.

 (From Encyclopedia of Life)


Thursday, March 2, 2017

Learning about and drawing a finger labyrinth

Lately I've been working on reviving an item I stopped selling in my Etsy shop about a year ago. It was a small tin box with assorted items intended to provide a few moments of calm;  I called it a respite box.

Respite box ca. 2013
I've made a few modifications since I introduced it in early 2012, but the constants have been the hankie/altar cloth, the two sets of instructional and inspirational cards, a wire-and-stone note holder, the beeswax tea light, and the finger labyrinth. Plus the cover featuring a yellow vintage map with a crow and the word "respite" together with its definition. Of those items, the tea light was the only one I didn't make myself (and the tin, of course). (The beeswax tea light is from Minnesota beekeeper Sweet Bee Honey.)

That finger labyrinth proved to be the fussiest part and the main reason I decided to take a break from making them last year. It was also its main attraction, judging by the search terms that led people to the listing.

The labyrinth image is one I found on the internet that I could download copyright-free, and it was among the simplest versions I encountered. I reduced it to slightly over 2 inches wide, imposed over a background of a paste-paper/acrylic paint experiment of mine, which I liked because of its mottled pattern and soothing green color.

Then I would trace the path with Mod Podge (a type of glue that holds its shape pretty well and dries hard) applied with a small paint brush, in order to create a smooth raised surface for tactile tracing. After a while, the experience of tracing that tiny tight winding path with my paint brush again and again, trying with great effort to control the flow of the glue and keep the width somewhat even, felt very little like a mindfulness practice and much more like tedious neck-straining sweatshop work. So I stopped.

But I still like the idea of this box of mindfulness objects, and I do get inquiries about it on Etsy from time to time, so I've been meaning to revisit it to see if I can find a new way to make the finger labyrinth that I won't mind doing repeatedly.

I started by doodling and pondering alternative labyrinth shapes. Like, why not a simple spiral? Perhaps one that winds in and then turns around and goes back out. I made a prototype and found that I could trace its path with the glue in a small bottle, no need for a brush. 

The in-and-out spiral, wherein the path is the black line, which has a raised surface.

I was quite pleased with this first attempt and set about to review and revise the rest of the components in the box, beginning with the text of the instruction cards. That's when I realized that I had written almost nothing about the labyrinth, other than to refer to it as a tactile object. Really? Shouldn't I include a little bit of information about labyrinths in general and finger labyrinths in particular? Something about their history and uses?

So I embarked on a bit of research, reminding myself that this is not a thesis, it's just a little bit of text. But in order to write a little bit about any topic and have it be meaningful and truthful, one needs to have a somewhat thorough understanding of it. 

So far I've just read a few things I found online, but I've also downloaded an article from Science News and one from an academic journal called Agni, and I picked up a book from the library I'm looking forward to perusing. (Hopefully, I'll be content with these sources and not continue on a quest akin to walking a very large labyrinth!)

Labyrinths, mazes, and the number 7
I learned that labyrinths are different from mazes in their concept and design, in that mazes are intended to confuse and challenge you, with their many dead ends and wrong turns, while labyrinths are designed to guide you into a meditative state of mind, offering a clear path to the center and back out again.

“Walking the labyrinth is to experience that inner stillness, as the labyrinth’s intricate steps gently take the conscious mind out of the way, says the website Chakra Balancing, which has some interesting information about labyrinths and the seven chakras (energy centers in our bodies), claiming that the classical Cretan labyrinth of antiquity relates specifically to the chakras. 

Another site, Labyrinthina, also relates labyrinths to the number seven, beginning with the Hopi people of North America and their classical seven-path labyrinth representing Mother Earth.

So I began to play around with modifying my simple spiral to make it relate to this mystical number seven.

I read about how to use a labyrinth to get into a meditative or prayerful state of mind, as described in the New-agey website of the United Christ Church Ministries rather eloquently, and in terms more familiar to traditional Christians by the Upper Room. And it soon occurred to me that a continuous spiral doesn't really fulfill that function; it's just a little too simple.

But how do I address the need to make a path that doubles back while wending toward the center, and still meet my need to keep it simple enough to be traceable with glue?

So I resumed my doodling, and feel that this one may be it, although I still need to trace it in glue to see if it's too fussy.

It can also relate to the number seven if the starting point is considered to be one, and each major bend along the way is the next in the sequence, with the center being seven. It's not seven paths, but seven turning points, which seems symbolically appropriate to me.

You may notice in the above photo that my preliminary sketch wends to the right and the second one goes left. I switched it because I also read that one is supposed to trace the path with their non-dominant hand, and I'm right-handed, so going to the left first is more natural for me. It also seems intuitively that it should probably proceed clockwise. 

But I'm still learning about it, so I may change that. Or perhaps I will make it an option, to have it proceed clockwise or counterclockwise. 

However, I won't try to become an expert on labyrinths before getting on with my project!

BTW, here's a sneak peek at a prototype of the new cover, with a small watercolor painting I did of a path in a birch woods as the background (and the X to be replaced with a number, of course). 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Calendars for people who want more than pretty pictures

I think calendars make excellent gifts because they are both useful and beautiful, and they come in such a variety of themes and formats that you can almost certainly find one that speaks to a person's interests, thus fitting the gift to the person in a very particular way.

For myself, I want a calendar to be much more than pretty or cleverly designed (although I do admire good design for its own sake) — I want it to be highly informative, to feed my curiosity, to cater to my interest in the natural world and in other countries and cultures.

These considerations inform my own calendar making (about which I'll say more at the end), and inspire me to buy myself at least one calendar each year, even though I make and sell my own. Having found these especially interesting and informative calendars, I may end up buying more than one this time!

Here are a few calendars that would make excellent gifts for curious people.

The Minnesota Weatherguide calendar has always been one of my favorites for its phenology and weather facts, as well as wonderful nature photographs from all around my state. It includes information about the changing seasons, the angle of the sunlight, the observable stars and planets, and the Ojibwe names for the moon.

2017 Weatherguide wall calendar

My favorite version is the engagement calendar, and for a few years they stopped publishing that format, likely because it was more expensive to produce, having a photo for every week instead of just every month. Now they've brought the engagement calendar back and I've been very pleased to buy it again. Phenology notes are included for every week, along with a seasonal photograph, and I try to keep my own gardening and phenology notes on the facing pages, though I often neglect it for weeks on end.

I used to record a lot of our activities in these when we were homeschooling our two kids — more accurately "unschooling," in a mostly loose jumble of explorations and activities. When I had to make transcripts for each of them (one to enter college, the other for the military), those calendar notes really came in handy, along with some other records I had saved. (I strongly recommend that homeschooling families save their calendars!)

Some Weatherguide engagement calendars I have used.

The Old Farmer's Almanac, which is marking 225 years in 2017, has a very informative online calendar — you can click on any date and be taken to a page with interesting "on this day in" trivia. Most of it is not what I would call "useful" information, but interesting and kind of fun, nonetheless.

They also have several printed calendars that focus on a subject area, like this gardening one, which has stylish kind-of-retro graphic illustrations, along with gardening tips.

Their Everyday Calendar is a page-a-day with "facts, folklore, proverbs and puzzles."

Sample page from the Everyday Calendar by the Old Farmer's Almanac

Amber Lotus publishing has a lot of beautiful calendars, in both wall and engagement formats, which include US and Canadian legal holidays, observances of the major world religious, and phases of the moon. Each has some additional focus, such as quotes from Thich Nhat Hahn, or quotes about nature from a variety of people. Many of these are a little too corny-profound for my taste, but will appeal to others. Here's one I like, which is free of quotes; it just features delightful bird illustrations by Geninne D Ziatkis.

(If you like Geninne's art, you might also like her Etsy shop.)

Chris Hardman's Eco-logical 2017 Engagement Calendar from Pomegranate claims to offer "a new way to experience time" with information about planets, seasons, animal behavior, and "a host of information about the natural world," with a focus on the northern hemisphere. It also has world holidays and a time-zone map. It looks to be a more wide-ranging complement to the Minnesota-specific Weatherguide Calendar.

I call my own calendar the Useful Calendar because it provides a lot of information in a small amount of space.  It lists holidays from many countries and all the major religions, plus a few other international observances of an earth-friendly or literary nature.

My aim is to facilitate inclusiveness and to accommodate both curious and considerate people. A person in the US might not need to know all the major holidays in Japan, for example, but they might still find it interesting to know them. (In 2015, I wrote about why I started making the Useful Calendar, which you can read here if you'd like to know.)

I consult several different online calendars and other references when I'm researching it each year, not only to find the dates of moveable holidays, but also to continuously update and revise my content. And I provide brief explanatory notes about changes and other tidbits on how I compile and present my calendar. Then I design it in a couple of different formats to accommodate different needs. Both formats are available in two versions, one with weeks starting on Sunday, and the other with a Monday start and the weeks numbered (based on ISO 8601 week date standard).

One version fits on a single 11x17 sheet to display a full year at once, with limited notes at the bottom but no room for additional information about the holidays.

Find this format of the 2017 Useful Calendar by clicking here.

The other format is a set of cards, which have brief descriptions of most of the holidays on the back of each month. I don't have the space to write something about all the holidays, so I try to vary somewhat from year to year which ones I highlight, or what and how much I say about them.

Here's the set of 2017 calendar cards, with Monday start and week numbers, and a wooden card holder, offered as a desk calendar.

Here's the other version of the calendar card set, with Sunday week start.

And here's a look at the backs of the calendar cards, crammed with information.

The calendar cards are also available with a sleeve so they may be carried in a purse or pocket. This is one of a few patterns for the sleeves, which are "laminated" with packing tape to make them more durable. I make each one by hand.

I have often had the intention to make something of an almanac zine as well, to allow for even more text about every holiday and maybe some additional facts, but as a one-person operation working on a time-sensitive project, I have tended to run out of time. I actually have a 2017 almanac zine in progress, but if it isn't done by early January, I'll likely abandon the project for this year. Or complete it for my own use and as a prototype to adapt for 2018.

Thanks for reading. I hope I helped you find a really swell calendar for someone on your gift list!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

How an old book becomes a new journal — with shiny beads, even

This fabulous old book, a children's reader published in 1929 (the year my mother was born!), had not only a fabulous cover, but also lavishly illustrated end papers. In order to preserve the original end papers while making it into a journal, I chose to do this one as a coptic stitch.

First I cut the covers from the spine and text block (the pages inside).

Then I cleaned the covers with a little bit of Murphy's oil soap. I have to be careful to not rub too hard  because anything I use, even plain water, will also remove some of the dye in the original book cloth (I don't know why that is so, but I've experienced it a few times now.) You may notice that near the spine edge on the lower front, there's a little faded area around a stain I was attempting to remove.

After trimming the edges of the cover boards to make them as smooth as possible, I sealed the cut edge with a clear acrylic called Gel Medium. This will keep moisture out so the book covers don't warp, and it gives it more of a finish, rather than leaving a raw edge here.

You also get a glimpse of the end papers above, and a better look at the verso (left) side below. It's a classic illustration that spans two pages, so there was a facing page that was the same as the one on the back cover, which I used to make a bookmark. 

The front image brings to mind the Emerald City, only this is more like a carnelian city (not quite ruby, or I'd have attempted a lame joke about emerald slippers). It's an idealized modern city rising out of the clouds or the prairie mist or something, with a couple of stereotyped Native Americans looking on, maybe thinking "Holy shit!" Hey, this was published in 1929, remember. 

To assemble the journal using a coptic stitch, I poked holes in both covers as well as in each signature, and then, using a heavy waxed linen thread, sewed covers to signatures with a chain stitch, starting by sewing the first (last, really) signature to the back cover and working my way forward (and didn't think to take more photos of the work in progress, sorry).

I added greenish-black glass beads when I got to the last (first) signature and front cover, unthreading the needle for each one. They don't look too shiny in this photo, so you'll just have to take my word for it. (The little figurine is being the Vanna White for the journal's photo shoot here.)

Then I made a library pocket for the back cover, and a bookmark from a portion of the recto side of the endpaper from the front, which matches the back cover, so it shows the part of that illustration that the library pocket covers up. (The library pocket is made from recycled paper that has a lot of flecks in it, btw, in case you noticed.)

I also made my own "library card" with a little information about the journal, and put that in the pocket as well.

This journal is about 5" x 7" and has 240 pages of 70lb recycled paper. That's a bit heavier than what you would get in a factory made journal; you can definitely write and draw on both sides of this paper, in ink even. And it's for sale in my Etsy shop.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Endangered Bees of Hawaii

The news today that seven species of wild bees native to Hawaii have been put on the endangered species list is the result of years of research and advocacy by the Xerces Society. Read more about it in this article on NPR.

I first learned about these little-known tiny pollinators of the Hylaeus genus, called masked or faced bees, when researching my 2016 Useful Calendar, which  featured watercolor illustrations and info about 12 wild bees from around the world. 

I then made a small zine with those illustrations and more information about each type of bee, and about wild bees in general (because there's only so much room for that sort of thing on a calendar). The zine, called The Flower Lovers, is available from my Etsy shop or, in Minneapolis, from Moon Palace Books (on Minnehaha Avenue and E. 33rd St., next to Peace Coffee).

I also made a page on this blog, About the Bees, with info and links about the 12 bees.

Here's an excerpt from my bee zine, the part about Hylaea, updated to reflect this new development:

Masked bee / Hylaeus spp.
Description: Also called yellow-masked or yellow-faced bees, Hylaea are distinguished by the bright white or yellow patch on their faces. Just 5 to 7 mm long, their slender black bodies may resemble wasps, but are not as shiny. They have tiny plume-like hairs on their abdomen and thorax.
Where found: About 700 species are known worldwide, most notably on islands; they are abundant in Australia, and the only bee native to Hawaii. Fifty species exist in North America, from the Arctic circle to the tip of Florida. Sixty species are endemic to Hawaii and found nowhere else; of these, some are thought to be extinct, having not been seen in 80 years.
Nest: They are solitary bees that mostly nest in hollow stems and twigs; some nest in the ground if they find an abandoned burrow made by another insect (they do not have strong mandibles for digging their own burrows). They have also been known to nest in nail holes and manmade nesting structures using paper straws.
Habitat: The name Hylaeus means “of the woods,” referring to this genus’s preference for nesting in woody materials, and for their relative abundance in forests, where other bees are not common. They are found in diverse natural habitats where trees and shrubs grow, in coastal regions and mountainsides. In Hawaii, they are absent from developed areas dominated by non-native plants.
Food sources: They visit a variety of wildflowers — many endangered native plants of Hawaii depend on these bees for pollination — and they do not care for most introduced crops or flowers. They take pollen and nectar into their crop and then regurgitate it in cellophane-like sacs to feed their larvae.  
Notes: Hylaea are found on islands much more than other types of bees; this may be due to their predilection for nesting in wood—possibly migrating unintentionally via driftwood. 

The Xerces Society has successfully petitioned to protect seven of the Hylaeus species in Hawaii under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, because they are threatened by development and other threats to their habitat, non-native animals, including ants and feral pigs, and the decline of native wildflowers. These are the first bees to be so listed.