Sunday, December 31, 2006

Seven tundra swans a-swimming

Several years ago I learned through the Minneapolis chapter of the Audubon Society about Rieck's Lake on the Mississippi in Alma, Wisconsin, where the tundra swans stop over on their way from the arctic circle to their winter home on the Chesapeake Bay or in swampy areas of North Carolina and Virginia. For several weeks in October and November, hundreds of swans gather at Rieck's Lake to rest up and eat wild celery and arrowhead tubers; they move on when the water starts to freeze up.

Our family went down to see them that fall. And a couple of years later, in November 2004, I took the kids and went with another homeschooling family for a field trip. It's quite a spectacular site if you manage to get there when the numbers are high, especially if you see the flocks flying overhead on their way from points in North Dakota where they stop before coming to Wisconsin.

Well, I thought with the mild weather and all, maybe there will still be swans on Rieck's Lake this late in the season, and wouldn't it be a lovely Sunday drive with my true love to go down and see them? So I e-mailed the folks in Alma, who keep a Web site called Alma Tundra Swan Watch, to ask if the swans might still be there. A helpful fellow named Gary replied right away and let me know that they had moved on, but that I could see Trumpeter swans in Hudson, Wisc., if I liked -- there's a flock that winters there in a sheltered bay on the Mississippi. He even sent a link to a map showing me just where to find them.

Hudson is about half as long a drive as Alma, so I was quite pleased to learn this, and attempted to persuade my true love that we should go. But, alas, the weather did not cooperate. It has been raining all weekend, and finally the rain turned to slushy snow this afternoon and the driving is quite hazardous. I was glad we did not get caught in it while on our way from Hudson. Nor do I suppose it would have been pleasant to stand outside in it attempting to see swans through the flurries.

So, I found the sketchbook that I had taken with me on the 2004 trip, and got a little visual aid from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and managed to come up with this drawing of seven tundra swans a-swimming on Rieck's Lake. You only see the heads of five of them because one has its head tucked under its wing, apparently napping, and another is nibbling on arrowhead tubers. My original drawing, on which this is based, had six swans pretty much as I have re-created them here, I just added one more.

Gary sent me a second e-mail letting me know of another spot in the Twin Cities metro where swans hang out in winter, in Monticello. He explained that they stay near the power plant there because the water remains open, and because a woman feeds them corn.

So if we get a weekend with pleasant weather, we may yet go see swans this winter. But it won't be on the seventh day of Christmas, alas.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

12 Days of Christmas--book by Leigh Grant

(If you're looking for my six geese a-laying, they're right below this post.)

Here's the book I mentioned in an earlier post, which has been cited by several of the sources I came across on the Internet. It's Twelve Days of Christmas: A celebration and history by Leigh Grant (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995). It's a lushly illustrated picture book with historical and cultural notes, prefaced by a brief introduction that provides historical context for the song itself and for the things referenced in the song, at least according to Grant's interpretation.

Grant sets the song in 18th-century England, at a lavish estate, where preparations are taking place for a 12th-night party. Each verse is accompanied by a full-page or larger color illustration, rich with period detail (the nine drummers drumming are wearing white powdered wigs, tri-corner hats and bright red coats, for example).

To this she adds her own quatrains that further illuminate the text, such as this one for the third day (and I'm glad to say she, too, thought to use a French breed of chicken for her illustration; most sources on the Internet just shrug it off as if any old chicken is the same as another): "Some say this song came from a game, / Some say it springs from France. / The Breton hens uphold the last / And strut a country dance."

But the best part of this book, for history buffs anyway, are the long notes at the back. Not to downplay the illustrations, which really are delightful and detailed and very clever (I had a hard time finding all seven swans because of a little twist in her artistic interpretation that makes one of them almost invisible), but the notes really flesh it out and, I'm pleased to say, give credit to the often overlooked pagan origins of Christmas. She doesn't disparage or discredit the Christian traditions and symbols of Christmas at all, only places them in their proper historic and cultural context, which includes the old Roman holiday and the tradition of electing a "Lord of Misrule," referenced in the notes and also in the quatrain for the 12th day: "Hey! Ho! For the Lord of Misrule! / Play us a tune or give us a fool. / Feasting and dancing wassailing the crown, / The company's merry, the revelry loud."

The book has some differences with other sources I've been consulting. One is that Grant claims that the red partridge can perch in trees; the sources that said partridges don't or can't perch referred to the grey partridge. The one I drew was a red partridge (because it was prettier, not because I knew it was the tree-perching sort). Another difference is that she attributes the five gold rings to ring-necked pheasants. I had encountered this explanation before, so I guess we'll add it to the five-gold-rings variations.

I got the book from the Minneapolis Public Library (which has several in circulation).

Six geese a-laying

I considered our local wild geese, the Canada goose, as the subject for this one, but as one of the English birding sites pointed out, wild geese don't lay eggs in midwinter. So snowy white farm geese seemed like just the thing. If you think I spent more time drawing all the little bits of straw in the nests than I did on the geese themselves, you're right. I actually enjoy drawing something small and repetitive like that; it's rather meditative.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Five goldfinches

You may think I made this one up too, like the four "cawing" birds, but I didn't. Several sources insist that the first seven verses of the 12 Days of Christmas are about birds, and that this one, as we currently know it (five golden rings), has been distorted from its original meaning, and maybe even its original phrasing. The Prices (sited earlier, and below) and others say the original was five "gulderers," which they say is a Scottish term for a type of turkey. But the UK-based site I came across yesterday, the Gateshead Council, claims that "gold-rings" was an old term for goldfinches (they also offer the "gulderers" interpretation, suggesting that one could take either as correct). And they refer to a painting of the Nativity by Piero della Francesca, which includes a goldfinch, as the reason they may be associated with Christmas. Except the only bird I could find in that painting, sitting on the roof of the stable, doesn't look like a goldfinch to me, not even a European goldfinch.

The European goldfinch is a bit different from the American goldfinch, but they are the same genus. Some excellent photos of the European goldfinch may be seen here.

I thought goldfinches are prettier than turkeys, so why not? I put them on a branch of a crabapple tree, not knowing whether they would be found perching in such a place, and I made only one of them bright yellow, which is the male plumage (in summer), because I didn't think five adult male goldfinches would share a branch -- I assumed they are more territorial than that. But I don't really know. So the others are juvenile or female. I am not too crazy about this drawing, but it's late and I don't want to start another one at this hour, so it will have to do.

Maybe I would have more opportunities to study goldfinches if I kept my feeder full.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Four "cawing" birds

Well, yes, it is just me that interprets the fourth day of Christmas verse this way (as far as I know), but the sources I mentioned earlier all seem to agree that it's not "calling" birds, anyway. They say it's really four "colly" birds, "colly" being an old English term for coal-black, or, as one English site put it, "Four ‘colly’ birds refers to an old name for the male Blackbird, whose black colour looked like someone who had been down a colliery." I take it that a "colliery" is a place where coal is stored.

The English Blackbird (always with a capital B, it seems, to distinguish it from any old black bird), is turdus merula, which means it's a type of thrush, and its nearest North American relative, say the Prices (cited in my first 12 Days of Christmas post, below), would be the robin (turdus migratorius). Which may "call" in its own way, but hardly fits the more authentic "colly" bird description. The Prices don't suggest an alternative, although Jim Williams, writing in the Strib (and also cited in the first 12 Days post), suggests a redwing blackbird as a substitute.

Well, I say, why not the good old American Crow? Besides, it allows me to play a little off the calling-colly-cawing descriptive. So here are my four cawing birds, which are also colly colored, so I figure they qualify. And they're plentiful here in the city!

Besides, some researchers say crows can even count to four. In The Universal History of Numbers (Harvill Press, 1998), author Georges Ifrah relates this story:

"The story goes that a squire wanted to destroy a crow that had made its nest in his castle's watchtower. Each time he got near the nest, the crow flew off and waited on a nearby branch for the squire to give up and go down. One day the squire thought of a trick. He got two of his men to go into the tower. After a few minutes, one went down, but the other stayed behind. But the crow wasn't fooled, and waited for the second man to go down too before coming back to his nest. Then they tried the trick with three men in the tower, two of them going down: but the third man could wait as long as he liked, the crow knew that he was there. The ploy only worked when five or six men went up, showing that the crow could not discrminate between numbers greater than three or four."

By the way, I came across a great essay by Mark Twain about crows (in India, but the description sure fits our crows here, too), if you care to read it, just go here.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Three French hens

It's a funny thing trying to find images of "French hens" on the Internet when you want to avoid someone else's interpretation of the song. I tried "French chickens" and got a number of politically oriented sites that used the term perjoratively. I didn't go there.

So I tried "French chicken breeds" and that did it. In fact, there's quite a comprehensive Web site on different breeds of chickens, and a number of sites and groups devoted to the preservation of heirloom, or what they call "heritage" breeds of chickens. If you're interested in that sort of thing, pay a visit to Henderson's Chicken Breed Chart. It's quite comprehensive!

These are loosely modeled after Faverolles, which are named for the town in France where the breed was developed.

I was sitting at a coffee shop drawing these French hens (this time at a chain that I won't name) and I rather got a kick out of the fact that there were two men sitting behind me speaking French! It sounded like one was either a native speaker or just very fluent, and possibly a teacher, and the other was practicing with him. A woman who was working there joined in at times, going back and forth between French and English.

Two turtle doves

In the article by the Prices that I mentioned in my previous post, they offer North American birders the mourning dove as our native equivalent to the turtledoves in the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." But I am more interested in finding out and drawing, though not exactly in a precise scientific sort of way, the actual species that the song references. So here are two European turtledoves -- Streptopelia turtur. My version, drawn with Pitt pens, mostly, is a little less colorful than the real thing, which have a bit more of the soft apricot color on them, at least in the images I found on the Internet that I worked from.

The sites that I found expressed some concern that these birds may be threatened, apparently due to habitat loss. This UK site offers more information: The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

12 Days of Christmas

I rather like the 12 days of Christmas because everything is so much calmer after Dec. 25. I also like the imagery in the song, especially all the birds, and so was pleased to read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week in the birding column by Jim Williams about how some American ornithologists, Jeff & Amy Price, did a little research on the song and suggested several North American species that would be the equivalent to the ones named in the song.

They also said that the first seven verses are all about birds -- that the "5 golden rings" were really a distortion of a Scottish term for a type of turkey -- "gulderer."

This got me to doing a little bit of Web research of my own (nothing comprehensive, mind you, though I may yet) and, indeed, I found other sources that agreed with the Prices, at least in so much as that the five golden rings are a mistake and that it should really be some kind of bird. One site thought the "rings" referred to ring-necked pheasants or some such.

A few of these sites pointed to a book called The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Celebration and History by Leigh Grant, written in 1995 and, fortunately, available in our public library system, so I have requested it.

My sister-in-law also reminded me that there have at times been rumors going around the Internet that the 12 Days were originally composed by oppressed/repressed Catholics under English Protestant rule as a secret way of remembering certain tenets of their faith. This, as one might suppose, is a myth that started circulating in the 1990s. Maybe it's what motivated Grant to write his book? Anyway, I look forward to reading it and I'll try to post a little bit about it here once I do.

Well I got this idea to do a sketch on each of the 12 days of Christmas based on the song subject for that day as a way to make a practice of drawing something in my journal every day. So this partridge in a pear tree (really a maple tree that was outside the Nokomis Beach coffee shop where I drew it) was my first day's excercise. Although I actually drew it on Dec. 24 (would that be day minus-1?) after taking a break from standing in the kitchen a little too much. It's still mild and nearly snowless here, so I rode my bike to the coffee shop and sipped a mocha while I drew the tree just outside the window, and looked at earlier drawings I had done from pictures of partridges to craft this one (this is supposed to be a red-legged partridge, which is a European bird; most English sites referencing the song mention the grey partridge, also European, but I thought the red-legged one was more interesting to draw).

Except, not only is the "pear" tree incorrect here, but also the partridge. I read on an English ornithology Web site, that partridges are ground-dwelling birds -- "never likely to be found in pear trees!"

The North American counterpart to the partridge (never mind that we do have grey partridges here because they've been introduced -- they're not native to this continent) would be a type of grouse, say the Prices.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Muted music

Still no snow here. It should bother me more, but I'm enjoying being able to bike to the library and walk the dog without pulling on boots. A little global warming in northern latitudes may not be so bad, for the human species anyway.

It's cloudy today and very quiet out. We live near the airport but don't often hear the planes, I think we must have lucked out in avoiding the flight path somehow. Sometimes I can hear the traffic on the Crosstown freeway (Hwy 62), about 8 blocks away, but by 10 a.m. or so it's not noticeable.

Which means that I could hear the soft nasal nyeh-nyeh of a nuthatch hopping about in the trees, and even though I didn't spot it, I could picture it working its way head-down to find the little insects hidden in the crannies of the bark. I have a feeder designed to hold peanuts for the nuthatches, but I have neglected it -- it's not near a window, so I forget about it. Must do something about that, find a way to hang it in the large maple tree near the kitchen window. The branches are so big around that my old hanging device didn't fit.

I also heard the distinctive singular chirp! of the little downy woodpecker, which I did spy up high in a tree reaching over the street. It was hopping along a horizontal branch, apparently looking for a good spot to settle in and start pecking. It hadn't found one yet by the time I turned the corner.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

No returns

I was sitting at Sovereign Grounds coffee shop, at 48th and Chicago Ave. in South Minneapolis, waiting for the original Amazon bookstore to open because I had some orders to pick up, when I began to pick up on a conversation at a nearby table where a woman was telling a story about buying several bags of (presumably, Hershey's) kisses for some recipe, along with several other items, "and the total came to $36," she said, "and we didn't question it." Now I'm expecting to hear her say that she was overcharged, but instead she continues by explaining how she figured that they were undercharged.

She explains, "We bought 3 sweatshirts and those were $12 each," and then says how the store cashier "scanned the Kisses 6 times but must not have hit the right button." OK, so now I'm expecting the story to continue with how she went back to pay for the unintentionally purloined Kisses, but instead she concludes, "So we got all those Kisses for free." And the friend she was telling this to seemed to share her sense that this was simply a stroke of good luck.

Am I the only one who finds this appalling?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

We've had hardly any snow so far this season, and although I miss the white stuff, I won't mind too much if it continues holding off and the weather settles in below freezing for a prolonged period. If that happens, I may just have to get out my skates. (The lovely photo above, by the way, is not my own; please read below for credit/source info.)

The lakes are beginning to freeze over around here, of course it will take a long stretch of cold weather for them to freeze enough to be safe for ice-skating, but seeing the frozen surface as I drove past Lake Nokomis this afternoon, one of several lakes right in the city of Minneapolis ("The City of Lakes"), it reminded me of the winter a few years ago when we had a prolonged early cold spell but also no snow. The lakes were well-frozen and ready for skating by Christmastime, and our friend Sandra and her kids, Theo and Alice, are avid winter outdoorspeople, so they persuaded us to meet them at Lake Harriet in South Minneapolis for skating one afternoon. My son, Martin, was friends with Theo, so we agreed.

What we found under those rather unusual conditions (a normal winter brings lots of snow to Minnesota), was that we could easily skate out to the middle of the lake. Normally, of course, there would be a large area cleared of snow, but the size of the official ice rink paled in comparison with the whole lake.

Harriet is a pretty little lake about 3 miles in circumference, with a charming building on its north shore (pictured). So to skate out to the middle of the lake and look back at the refectory was quite pleasant. And once out there, we met people fishing through holes they had drilled in the ice (a fairly popular sport in Minnesota). We asked them how the fish were biting and then headed off in some other direction. There were a couple of people with ice-boats, which glided over the surface guided by colorful sails.

The whole experience was delightful and certainly memorable, so I wouldn't mind if we could skate the whole lake once again; even though I do like the snow.

The photo of the Lake Harriet bandshell, as viewed from the land looking out at the lake, was taken by Hwee Fuan Tey,
I found it at

(If I skate out onto the lake this winter, I'll take and post a photo from that point of view!)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Another pic of the Grain Belt sign reflected in the Mississippi, somewhat obscured by a river birch (Betula nigra).

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Bike riding longevity

We moved our household in stages this fall, and so it wasn't until after we'd been in the new place for a week that I got my bike. I had my daughter drop me off at the old house and I rode my bike home (only about a mile and a half). I missed having my bike so much and was so glad to get it back; that's when I did this drawing in my journal. (The letters on the basket are from a "Local Intelligentsia" bumper sticker, which is a play on the slogan of the Minneapolis Observer: Local Intelligence.)

It's not that I'm this avid bicyclist with the spandex outfit and funny shoes and all that. Rather, I use my bike as transportation whenever distance and weather and other factors permit. Where we live now, it's about a mile or so to the post office, library, bank, and my current favorite coffee shop -- and all within 1/4-mile of each other. So most of the errands I need to run are within easy biking distance. My knees aren't so great and it would be difficult for me to walk that distance, and I would hate to have to drive to such close destinations.

The other day I noticed a white-haired woman peddling along in Downtown Minneapolis, her black sweater open at the front and flapping dramatically behind her, and I got to wondering how long I could expect to be able to ride my bike. OK, I'm only 50, so I don't worry that the end of bike-riding will be anytime soon. But it just made me think about how much I enjoy getting around by bicycle and how much I hate the thought of not being able to do that some day.

So I did a little Internet research to see what might be possible. I came across a story about 78-year-old Bill Anderson, who in October 2004 completed a bicycle trek from San Diego, Calif., to Jacksonville Beach, Florida, to raise money for a mission that helps the homeless. It only took him about a month.

Another site told of 85-year-old Bill Grun who regularly logs 1,000 miles a summer on his bike.

Now I have no such ambitions, but I figure for each of these guys that does something so spectacular they make it into the news for their bike-riding feats, there must be dozens more who ride their bikes to the post office and such, right? I sure like to think so.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

13 worms?

two worms . . .

While strolling along the pedestrian path by the Mississippi in the North Loop of Downtown Minneapolis, I came across the curious inscription above in the sidewalk. The question mark actually looks like a worm, so that's one, I guess. I didn't really look much, since I was there to photograph the bridges (see below), but I did find two more "worms" (made of bronze or something), and one of them appeared to be enjoying a bright red cherry, though more likely it's a crabapple this time of year.

Bridges over the Mississippi-part 3

This is the third photo of bridges over the Mississippi I took today. Read below for more about this, including links to interesting information about the Stone Arch Bridge, seen here under the arches of the Central Avenue bridge, and the Hennepin Ave. suspension bridge (the links are in the two previous posts, which appear below).

Bridges over the Mississippi--another view

Here we see just a little of the Hennepin bridge in the foreground, followed by the Central Avenue bridge, the arches of which, together with their reflection, frame the historic Stone Arch Bridge.

Bridges Over the Mississippi

I had an errand to run over on West River Road, which follows along the Mississippi in Downtown Minneapolis. I had my camera with me and, since it was such a beautiful day -- highs near 70 at a time of year when it would normally be in the 30s here in Minnesota -- with sunshine and nary a breeze, making for great reflections of the bridges in the water, I had to take some photos. I also do some freelance work for a community newspaper called The Bridge, which serves neighborhoods on both sides of the river, and they like to feature a small photo of one or more of the bridges over the Mississippi in the upper left corner of the newspaper each month, so I had a handy excuse to take some photos for that as well.

This one has the the vintage and now iconic Grain Belt sign (one of the city's longtime breweries, though it is no longer made here), with the Hennepin Avenue suspension bridge in the foreground, followed by the Central Avenue bridge seen under the Hennepin bridge.

Monday, November 6, 2006

Another coffee shop moment

Passing time while my son was at his reading tutor's (he has dyslexia; she's marvelous), I, of course, went to the nearest coffee shop and, looking around for something to draw, spied this bicycle with the bright yellow fender out the window. Before I was quite finished, though, the owner came out and rode it away. I couldn't remember the color of the rest of the bike, except that it wasn't yellow.

While I was sitting there drawing, three men came in and one of them ordered an iced drink, which was served in a plastic tumbler. He must have expressed some concern about that, for I heard the barista say, "It's corn plastic," in a reassuring tone. This was followed by some conversation about how prevelant this corn plastic seems to be these days, and speculation about how exactly it breaks down. Then she said, "And you can feel good that the coffee is from a small women's cooperative in Guatemala." This seemed to please or impress him, but then he asks, "Is it organic corn?" The barista didn't know, but supposed that "they had to do something with it to make it grow."

Sunday, November 5, 2006

Leafing it be

Just when I think the fallen leaves all over my yard are looking rather picturesque, my neighbors go and rake theirs and then my leafy yard seems to lose some of its charm!

We don't put our leaves in plastic bags and never have. Having always been an organic gardener with an ample compost pile, I just don't get that whole business of bagging up the leaves. Why give them away? We used to pile them into a wheel barrow and haul them over to the compost pile, to be added to next spring's gardens.

Then one fall, after talking to another gardener who advocated leaving the leaves on the ground as a form of "sheet composting" ("Mother Nature doesn't put leaves in neat piles," he said. "She just composts them where they fall"), I got the idea to just rake them under the trees and bushes and onto the gardens and let them do their composting there, hence becoming next spring's mulch (yet still clearing the lawn for the benefit of the grass). This has worked well for us for several years now. The only potential problem I see is if the leaves are carrying a plant disease that will overwinter with them. Then I suppose I would get rid of them.

We just moved in September and are in the process of establishing planting beds for next spring, so that's where most of the leaves are going this fall. The leaves we have are mostly maple, which do not make the best mulch because they tend to stay flat, thus matting down and shedding water and not helping to aerate the soil underneath them (unlike ash or oak leaves, which curl and crumble like a good mulch). But if you are trying to kill the grass by covering it up so it, too, turns to compost by spring, then a thick layer of maple leaves ought to do the trick, as I see it. Otherwise, we would lay down newspaper, about 10-12 pages thick, and cover that with wood chips. I have used newspaper, and other thick biodegradable paper and cardboard, but where the leaves are quite deep, we are just piling the woodchips on top of the leaves. This needs to be packed down a bit, but it will settle significantly over the winter.

Come spring, I'll just dig my planting holes right in the mulch. No removing of sod or turning of the soil or even adding compost, since that's being done for us (and with just the right mix of nitrogen from the green grass, and carbon from the leaves, papers, and wood chips). Now that's my kind of landscaping project.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Coffee shop observer

Sometimes when I'm sitting at a coffee shop (and I do that a lot), I decide to practice my rendering skills by discreetly drawing some of the people around me in my journal, often jotting down snippets of their conversation in the process. Since they aren't always staying still, it pushes me to be quick and concise (though I usually choose someone who isn't too animated). And eavesdropping at the same time just makes it all the more interesting to me.

Just yesterday I was doing this at Nokomis Beach, my local coffee shop, while three people were talking at a table across the room from me. The woman I was drawing was saying something like, "She doesn't like to work. She comes to work and just monkeys around." Since this could easily apply to my work ethic, when I noticed that they all fell silent I thought for a moment they were looking in my direction. I also thought they had noticed that I was drawing one of them and wondered if they would be amused, offended, or what.

But then I realized that they were not looking at me, their collective gaze was directed at the next table, where a small girl is carefully drinking a thick strawberry smoothie from a rather large cup -- and it looks as though she could spill the whole contents down her front in one big "glop!" at any moment. But she doesn't, and soon the conversation resumes.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Hallowe'en thoughts

Isn't this childlike Frankenstein a jolly fellow? And I do love the way the crabapple tree so obligingly decked itself out for the season. I came across this display a few days ago while out riding my bike and just had to go back and take a picture.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Kudos for us!

Wow! My little zine, MOQ (Minneapolis Observer Quarterly) has been nominated for an Utne Independent Press Award for best new publication. There are eight other nominees--I looked at the other contenders, and I'd say MOQ is pretty small potatoes in that company, but that just makes it an even greater honor to be nominated. I also noticed that of the eight, three (including MOQ) are publications of place--Conveyer, in Jersey City, and New England Watershed, which offers "a New England perspective on the American Experience." So maybe we're part of an emerging trend of publications emphasizing a sense of place.

More info about MOQ is on The Observer Web site--just click on the MOQ cover on the left (on the Observer site, that is) to be taken to a page with more information (including how to subscribe, should you be interested).

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Parkway bicyclists

We have bike paths alongside our parkways in Minneapolis, but they have a speed limit of 10 mph, and serious cyclists like these tend to go much faster, so they bike right in the parkway. I was actually following these guys in my car when I took the picture. They were averaging about 20 mph, and at times going about 25 mph. I thought their colorful jackets and the way they biked in this perfect straight line was very photogenic. Then they suddenly bunched up, all out of formation, and I wondered why they did that, but once they alined themselves again I figured it out--they had changed leads, like geese flying south. Must be training for a race or something!

A Bridge Over the Mississippi

Last weekend's cold brisk wind took away most of the leaves just as they were reaching peak color, but the upside of that is the clear views you can get of the Mississippi River from various vantage points along the river road. This is the Lake Street bridge, if you live in Minneapolis, or the Marshall Street bridge, if you live in St. Paul.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Me Doll

My very arty friend Kathy Coulter made this paper doll using a photo of me for the head. I actually hate that photo and have threatened to burn any more copies she may have of it, but she insists that this is the last one.

I love the doll, though, so I guess I'll have to forgive her for putting my picture on it. Maybe I need to have a new picture taken!

I also thought it was time to add a photo to my profile, and apparently the only way to do that is to upload it here first.

11/13/2007 I'm adding another image that I created from a rock that looked like it was smiling. I named this character "Art Crone." She's going to be my new profile image.

Wild rose hips

Most photos of roses are taken when they're in bloom, but some of them are just as lovely long after the blossoms have faded. Take this wild rose growing by the river road in St. Paul, for example. The bright red fruit is called a hip, and it's said to be quite edible (usually made into a tea) and loaded with vitamn C, but who would want to throw this beauty into a pot of boiling water?

A good rose catalog will let you know whether a given rose has showy hips (sounds like a burlesque dancer, doesn't it?), and if you live in the north, it's no small matter to get another season of display from them.

Another moss-covered monument.

More cemetery photos

This is also from St. Mary's on Chicago Ave. in Minneapolis. I was especially drawn to the moss on the stone.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mind in the macabre

Perhaps it's the approach of Halloween, or perhaps it's because I was taking photos in a cemetery recently, but my mind misinterpreted a couple of things today in curiously macabre ways.

I was sitting at my neighborhood coffee shop overhearing snippets of a conversation between three middle-aged women when I thought I heard one of them say, "They invited us to suffer." Now we do get religious types at this coffee shop, so I think for a fleeting moment I must have connected her words with some Christian ritual, but then I realized she said, "They invited us to supper." (!)

The second instance was in glancing at a young woman in a grey sweatshirt. She looked young enough at first to be a high school student, but I think she was more likely in her twenties. Maybe that recent tragic incident in the Amish community was in the back of my mind (in which a man entered the school and shot some children and then himself), or any number of incidents like it, but I thought her shirt had on its chest, in bold black letters, the word "SHOOT." It was really "SHOOK." I have no idea what that means, must be a young person thing.

You may perhaps wonder why I was taking photos in a cemetery. I am one of those people who finds cemeteries, especially old ones, very attractive. The monuments, the history, the sense of repose, the beauty of the landscaping, the patterns in the placement of the markers, and perhaps even the sense of being among the ancestors, even when they're not my own, all attract me. So when I learned of an ATC swap (artist trading cards) with a cemetery theme, I jumped at the chance to participate. The photo above is one that I took for that swap.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Catch and Release Leaves

While sitting at my neighborhood coffee shop one recent fine fall day, I felt my usual impulse to look through the leaves that had collected on the sidewalk to see if there were any I wanted to take home. Then I remembered the leaves still waiting between the pages of the phone book I had pressed them in last fall and a few falls before that. So instead of picking up more leaves to add to that neglected collection, I selected a few of the larger ones, wrote a short poem on them, and put them back down. The thought that somebody might find them and read them was a pleasant one, and the chance that they might simply get lost amid the myriad unscribed leaves didn't bother me. I used a felt-tip marker so as not to tear the fragile leaves and copied a couple of the haiku from Cranes Arise, by Gerald Vizenor--from the "autumn" section, of course. Each haiku has a heading of a place name, which I assume indicates where he wrote it, or at least where the inspiration occured. This one is from St. Paul, Minnesota:

city squirrels
tease the calico house cat
at the window

I think a person could also draw a picture on a leaf, or write a short quote, a prayer or a wish, or simply some words to provoke thought. To me, it's a satisfying way to respond to the urge to pick up pretty leaves without actually taking them home. And if I am reluctant to completely let them go, I can always take a picture.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Twin Cities Book Festival

I went to the Twin Cities Book Festival on Saturday to promote my quarterly zine, MOQ (Minneapolis Observer Quarterly), and take in the literary ambience. It's a showcase of dozens of local publishers and authors and book-related artists, as well, including the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. I shared table space with another small-time publisher, La Mano, and a nice young fellow named Ed who is an intern with them. La Mano publishes graphic books, that is, stories told mostly with illustrations, comic-book style. They're newest book, Wait, You're Not a Centaur! by Nathaniel Drake Denver is a collection of 50 50-word stories and illustrations. I enjoyed looking through it and reading some of the stories (sometimes, more like story fragments, leaving you with something to ponder). You can read a couple of sample pages and order it from their Web site, which is linked above.

Besides my own publication, I also had some brochures and bumper stickers about the Twin Cities Daily Planet, which is a great new nonprofit Web-based news outlet to which nearly all of our local community newspapers contribute content. It's a wonderful form of cooperative community journalism online and I was glad to help get the word out about them (and not only because my husband works for them!)

Last year, my husband and I both went to the book festival and so I was able to get out from behind our table a lot and mill about and persuade several folks to give me free review copies of books, but this year he was busy and couldn't come and so I only scored one review copy, and that's really one for him to review (it's political). I did buy a copy of Dislocate, an annual literary journal published by graduate students from the University of Minnesota's English department; and a slim volume of haiku by Gerald Vizenor, published by Nodin Press (I didn't even know that Vizenor wrote haiku, they're quite lovely); and the latest issue of Conduit, a semiannual journal of poetry and interviews. Actually, I renewed my subscription and picked up the current issue in the process. So I guess I have plenty of reading material!

Late in the day, some little kids came through grabbing everything in site and stuffing it into their bags. To be fair, they did ask, "Is this free?" before snatching things. Several tables had bowls of candy and it was apparent that the kids had plenty of that! One little girl asked if my business cards were free, and when I said I didn't want her to take one because I was almost out, she took one anyway. I and the others around me were getting a little chagrined at these unruly, grabby kids, when the dad finally came along. He said nothing to discourage the kids' greediness, but when he saw the Daily Planet brochures, he said, "The Daily Planet, where all the paid bloggers hang out." It's true that a couple of the regular contributors to the Daily Planet recently got grants to maintain a blog, but his comment seemed quite unfair and condescending to me. I know that dozens of people contribute to the page for nothing, and those who got the blogging grants are having to work a lot to fulfill their commitments.

Right after he made that comment, the little girl reached for a Daily Planet bumper sticker, briefly asking, "Is this free?" Of course I said yes.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Shameless mushrooms

A few springs ago I had noticed what appeared to be a morel mushroom in my city yard, next to the decaying stump of an old elm tree. After checking with some folks at the Minnesota Mycological Society, I was certain that it was, indeed, a morel. They even like to grow near dead elm trees, I learned.

So when I saw what sure looked like several morel mushrooms this fall, popping up in the boulevard of my new neighborhood (we just moved to a different part of Minneapolis), in an area that could certainly have held the remains of the ground-up stump of an old elm tree, I was astounded to see so many of these popular delicacies right out there in the open, and in the fall, no less. The caps were mostly covered in a thin coat of mud, but since we had had a fair amount of rain recently, this didn't strike me as anything unusual. I did wonder, though, do morels grow in the fall?

I sure didn't think so, but I had studied pictures of the poisonous false morel, and I knew these weren't that, so what else could they be? I tried a Google search on "fall morels" and "September morels" but didn't get anything helpful. So, one Sunday morning, thinking some morels with our scrambled eggs would surely be a treat, I went ahead and picked a few.

That's when I noticed that they had a rather unpleasant odor. And when I got them home and was washing the slimy mud off in the kitchen sink, I began to think, even if these stinky mushrooms are morels, I don't think I want to eat them. So I threw them in the compost instead.

Later, I tried another search, this time using the term "autumn morels" instead of "fall," and don't you know the first sites that popped up were about how novice mushroom hunters often inquire about "autumn morels" but what they're really seeing are stinkhorns. Morels only appear in the spring.

I forgot to mention that the other thing that kind of bothered me about these mushrooms was their decided resemblance to, well, er, a certain part of the male anatomy. I didn't recall ever making that association with mushrooms before, and certainly not with morels.

So it didn't come as any surprise that this particular class of mushrooms are described in a mushroom guide (I got one from the library after all this) as "phallus-shaped"; and, indeed, the Latin name of this genus of fungi is Phallus. Even better, the particular stinky mushroom that I had picked was Phallus impudicus or "shameless stinkhorn." Indeed!

An even more obviously phallic relative of this fungus would be the dog stinkhorn, or Mutinus caninus, which you can see here.

The photo of a Phallus impudicus, and more information about these, shall we say, curiousities of the mushroom family, comes from

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A rose for grandma

I'm sitting at a sidewalk table at Fireroast Mountain Coffee shop when a man comes out with his coffee in one hand and a wilted rose in the other. He decides to go back in for a top for his coffee cup and begins to set his rose on my table. I invite him to put it in my water glass, which he does. It's a very pale pink, almost white rose, with a hint of color around the edges. It's still in bud form, as though it never opened. When he comes out, I say that it needs a fresh cut on the stem. "Yes," he says, "When I get it home I'll cut the stem under warm water."

"Where did you get it?" I ask.

"From a Dumpster," he says, gesturing with his head toward the west as he's lighting his cigarette. "Dumpster diving," he says, without embarassment. "I'm going to give it to my friend and tell him that Jesus loves him."

"There were more," he continues, "but this one is enough. There's a flower shop at 38th and Minnehaha. You can look there for flowers."

"Dumpster diving," he says again, as if he were telling me about a special sale I might not want to miss out on.

"There was a young man looking for flowers for his great-grandma," he says. "I told him how my great-grandma blessed me on her deathbed. He didn't want to hear that. She told me I could ask Jesus for anything. 'In that case,' I said, 'I'll ask him to let you live.' 'Oh, don't do that,' she said."

He was fighting tears as he finished, then he turned and walked away without saying anything more.

When I left the coffee shop, I thought I would check the Dumpster to get some flower petals to press and use in some art project. So I biked over there and was peering in the Dumpster, pulling out three gerbera daisies that still looked pretty good to me, when a woman pulled into the alley in her car, paused briefly and said, smiling, "Some good bargains in there!"

I also found some rose petals, which I placed in my journal to press them.

Friday, July 28, 2006

No Lavender for You, Young Man

Last year when I was visiting with a soap maker at the Midtown farmers market, she told me that the lavender-infused soaps tended to be soporific, and that she had, in fact, been known to fall asleep while making it. At the time I thought a lavender sachet under my pillow might be a good sleep aid, although I haven't tried it. Now I have an added reason to give it a try, although I come to this theory in a somewhat convoluted way.

An article in the July 1 issue of Science News suggests that products containing lavender essential oil may not be a good idea for children, especially boys, because both lavender oil and tea tree oil contain compounds that they say "mimic female sex hormones and interfere with male hormones."

There's a condition known as gynecomastia, wherein males develop enlarged breasts, that happens when guys experience an imbalance between the activity of estrogens and androgens. It's extremely rare before puberty, researches say, but pediatrician Clifford Bloch of Denver, Colorado, says he has seen a number of cases of this in boys age 10 or younger since the mid-1990s. Most of these kids had normal hormone levels in their blood, which meant it wasn't their glands that were at fault.

So this doctor did a little detective work and found out that at least five of the boys had been using a shampoo, hair gel, soap or other product that contained lavender oil. "A couple of patients were putting pure lavender oil on their skin," he told Science News.

He told the kids to stop using lavender products and their chests returned to normal boy chests within a few months. Later laboratory tests confirmed his hunch that the lavender oil does indeed stimulate estrogen-regulated genes and inhibit androgen-regulated genes. They also found this to be true of tea tree oil.

The article suggests that the early onset of puberty in some young girls may also be related to use of products containing these plant oils, but more research would need to be done to say for sure.

They don't seem to think there's an issue here for adults and maybe not even for older teens. But since kids prior to puberty have low amounts of sex hormones to begin with, it wouldn't take a lot to skew the balance. Still, I can't help but wonder if there's something here that could be helpful to women of a certain age in alleviating menopausal annoyances.

It made me think--hmmm, since summer, I haven't really noticed much in the way of hot flashes, and I've been using a sunscreen that contains lavender. Coincidence? Maybe, but now I'm intrigued and will have to see if anyone's done any research on the effects of these botanical oils on menopause symptoms. I'll let you know if I find anything out worth sharing.

(The lovely photo of lavender that appears above is from

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Meet my rose

This is my rose, Jude the Obscure. I got it last year from Heirloom Roses , which is a mail-order rose grower that only sells own-root roses (no grafts, so no bud-unions or suckering to worry about), and doesn't spray their roses, but favors what we generally call organic methods, so you know the roses aren't used to being sprayed and coddled and thus should be more resistant than most to pests and diseases. They also certify their roses virus-free, and although I don't know anything about rose viruses, that sounds like a good thing to me. I not only prefer to garden with such plants, but I prefer to support businesses that operate that way.

Last year in The Minneapolis Observer I wrote an article about organic rose growing and talked to a couple in St. Paul who are organic rose growers. If you want to read it, go here.

Jude the Obscure was named for the 19th century novel by Thomas Hardy. I haven't read it, so I can't tell you anything about it. It was developed in 1995 by David Austin, the noted English rose breeder. As you can see, it offered up a luscious blossom earlier this summer, less than one year after I planted it. It's supposed to bloom throughout the summer, but it only had two blossoms in June. I assume that's because it's so new. I chose it not only for it's ball of abundant petals, but also because it is rated "very disease resistant" and has a lovely fragrance described as "lemon/myrrh/peach." Describing rose fragrance seems to be a little bit like describing what wine tastes like. I don't recall this blossom being very strongly fragrant, but I do believe it had a pleasant scent nonetheless.

It's only rated hardy to zone 5 and we are in zone 4, though some people feel that the city itself may have a zone 5 microclimate. I covered it with pine boughs last winter, which was probably not enough to protect it in a normal winter, but it was a mild one, so, obviously, it came through just fine.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Hello and welcome

In spite of the clear fact that the cyber world really doesn't need yet another blog, here I am, blogging. I suppose I am driven by the human urge to reach out to others and share what we believe to be useful, inspiring, amusing, or just plain interesting. Of course, it raises the question: should I really be taking time away from everything else to post messages here? Especially when I am such a finicky writer than even a short missive such as this can take me an inordinate amount of time (so far so good, though -- I've only invested about 10 minutes at this point into setting this up and penning this introductory message).

I do hope that those who either stumble upon this site or pay a courtesy call because I told them about it will find something they consider worth reading.

All the best,
Sharon Parker
(make that 15 minutes -- not that I'm keeping track or anything)