Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Colorful January

That sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it! “Colorful January.” We usually think of white snow, a scene dominated by blues and cold grays, or else we think of tan, brown, gray, and more tan. At least around here, anyway.

But Sue and I have been hiking as much as we can (post-holiday fitness attempts). And we’ve been seeing things. Maybe we’re just being mighty hopeful, looking for signs of spring wherever we might find them, and imagining we see them when we don’t.

Anyway, on Saturday, we went for a nice little hike at Spring Creek Gap Conservation Area. And we did see some color!

For one thing, there’s the beautiful coppery shine of the many clumps of Virginia broomsedge, or broomsedge bluestem (Andropogon virginicus), one of our native warm-season grasses. I have always admired this plant, recognized it as being quite different from other grasses, long before I knew its name. It’s quite common, but it really shines in winter, after its bluish-green leaves have cured to a glorious copper color.

And as we hiked a little further, we started noticing there were several fallen logs with an eye-popping orange bracket fungus on them: Cinnabar polypores! These tough polypore brackets are bright orange-red above and below.

. . . As you can see.

With fungi this bright and colorful, you almost don’t miss the flowers.

In the creek, there were delicate patches of bright green filamentous algae, flowing after rocks like mermaid hair.

And here are some pretty little mosses and lichens. The tiny goblets are the reproductive structures of the lichen. Lichens, you know, are a life form that comprises both a fungus species and an algae and/or cyanobacteria species, living in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Yeah, yeah, whatever. . . . But mostly, we love them for their cute little pale blue-green fairy goblets, which contrast so nicely with the yellowish greens of the nearby moss!

As the afternoon went on, the sun drifted behind some milky white clouds. Once the golden beams disappeared, it was as if the color had been sucked out of the landscape. The sky was dull white, and it was hard to tell how close we were to sunset.

As we hiked back on the main ridge trail, the sun repaid us for its earlier shyness by dipping down below the clouds that had offended us earlier. As the sun sank below the horizon, its beams poked the bellies of the clouds, tickling them pink and orange, revealing their ripples of relief.

We just stood and took pictures!

What a great day!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Watch This Blog: “The Five Pillars of Health”

It’s a new year, and naturally most everyone is thinking (after the holidays): “I need to focus on my health again.”

Well, here’s some good mind-chow to help you with your goals: Doc Bea’s The Five Pillars of Health. What are these five pillars? Love, Sleep, Water, Play, and Eat.

Notice that “diet and exercise” are not named (per se) in that list. And there’s a reason for it, which you’ll learn about in Doc Bea’s January 14 post, “Secrets of Good Health from DOT Drivers.” (I know, you’re thinking, “What-what-what?? Is she talking about truckers?!”)

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, she is.

My disclaimer, here, is also a big part of my endorsement for this young blog (which started in December): Doc Bea is a personal friend of mine. I went to high school with her, and for this reason I’m biased. But it’s also the reason I know this is a blog to watch. Bea (Beatrice) has led an interesting life. She comes from an interesting “place,” with her strong Greek heritage which in several ways set her apart (above, actually) from the rest of us silly, more Americanized high schoolers.

Bea was writing (very good) poetry, excelling in all her classes (even math!), and debating politics and philosophy while the rest of us were obsessing over our silly boyfriends and girlfriends, worrying about who was sitting next to whom during the football games, and hyperventilating over the new Star Wars movie.

While the rest of us were contracting our tight little circles of friends, Bea was expanding hers. She befriended all the kids—including the immigrants, the nerds, the holy kids, the atheists, the shy kids, and the loudmouths. Bea has an insatiable curiosity; she listens carefully, and cares deeply.

Doc Bea is getting close to age 50, yet she’s only recently gone to med school and earned her medical degree. She had already pretty much raised her children. She was a caregiver for her grandmother who had Alzheimer’s, and her father, who died of colon cancer. She has struggled with her own health problems, surgeries, weight issues, and she understands the difficulties of common people leading busy lives, who are trying to find some way to stay healthy.

As she says, “I have lived medicine long before I even considered going to medical school, . . . and I chose to take this journey because I made my dying father a promise to do so, and he made me promise, because he was comforted by my care and advocacy and wanted this for others. I was a non-traditional (aka OLD) medical student in my 40’s. I had a 14-year previous career in Information Systems as a Help Desk Analyst. I helped people to fix their computer issues. Now I have graduated to life issues.”

Actually, Doc Bea has always been involved with life issues, and that’s why I’m watching her blog. Don’t expect the status quo from her. She has strong feelings about the medical and insurance industries, and she has even stronger feelings about the dignity and rights of patients.

So check out her blog. Bookmark it, add it to your blog feed, friend it on Facebook. Because this is one to watch!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Pawpaws and Persimmons: Two More Reasons to Love Autumn in Missouri

October is the best month in Missouri, it really is. I claim all 31 days as my “birth month.” I love the way October takes us from the last bits of summer and through the most brilliant parts of “red” autumn. Low humidity and bright blue skies return, and it’s a pleasure to be outside again.

This seemed to be a bumper year for both pawpaws and persimmons, two luscious tree fruits native to the eastern United States. This year, to preserve and extend the feast, I processed the fruits and froze the pulp in measured quantities.

With both fruits, it’s the pulp you want, and not so much “pieces.” Both are at their best when super ripe and soft. Persimmon flesh turns into jam. Pawpaws turn into custard.

What will I do with my treasures?

Ice cream is my current favorite application. It’s pretty doggone larapin to serve samples of pawpaw ice cream and persimmon ice cream together, two dabs nestled side by side, one greenish yellow, the other pale orange. They compliment each other beautifully.

Some people put persimmons into a quick bread, but I don’t think I’ll be doing that. Quick bread is how you disguise zucchini. No thanks; it was some work to remove the seeds from the pulp, and I don’t want to do anything to hide the exquisite flavor.

Indeed, compared to the domesticated persimmons you can buy at the grocery store (they’re in season, now—you should try them!), the wild persimmons are definitely more highly flavored.

There are plenty of recipes on the Internet for pawpaws and persimmons, but I like to stick to simple concoctions that put the fruit first. Like persimmon jam, or whipped cream with persimmon pulp swirled through it.

I can’t believe I haven’t done a post on persimmons and pawpaws yet, here on the Opulent Opossum, but there you go. Do you have a favorite recipe for these treasures? I hope you’ll share!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Black Walnut Wheat by Piney River Brewing Company

Piney River Brewing Company, based in Bucyrus, Missouri, has invented a beer that I especially admire: their Black Walnut Wheat. It’s delicious!

Since there’s nothing not to like about it, let’s go directly to why we love it!

Because we love black walnuts! It’s Missouri’s official state tree nut. Our state is the top producer of black walnuts in the world, and we like them, and we’re proud of them.

I’ve blogged about black walnuts before—shown their progress as they mature; told you about the delicious pickled black walnuts produced by Barnacle Farms in Mary’s Home, Missouri; even shown you pictures of a variety of critters drinking the late-January sap of the walnut tree in our backyard.

I think everyone should have a big black walnut tree in their backyard!

And we can’t have our lebkuchen or our billy goat Christmas cookies without black walnuts!

Since I’m so proud of Missouri’s black walnuts, when I first saw this beer on tap at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, I had to give it a try: Black walnut beer, really?

And there’s something to that local pride, isn’t there. It’s September, and it’s that time of year when the Hammons company, based in Stockton, Missouri, establishes black walnut hulling stations around the state. This is a distinctly Missouri thing, which the Piney River beer celebrates on its label.

The deal is, black walnuts are harvested by hand, by anyone. Whether you’re collecting them for yourself or selling them to Hammons, the company makes it easy for you. It’s a messy, involved process to hull them (that is, remove the sloppy, black-staining green or black outer part), which is the first step in getting to the nutmeats.

So people bring buckets, bags, and pickup trucks full of black walnuts to these processing stations, where Hammons hulls them using really cool-looking machines. (It’s great fun to watch!) At the time of processing, you can either sell your bounty to Hammons, or if you want to take your walnuts home and try to bust them open and pick out the nutmeats yourself, you just pay them for the processing.

If you’re interested in harvesting and cracking your own nuts, read Hammons’s webpage about how to do it. Once you’ve tried it yourself, you’ll understand why black walnuts cost so much at the store.

Anyway—the limited seasonality, the gathering of people it causes, the promise of all those good Christmas cookies, and the idea of genuine riches growing on the trees without any help from you, besides picking it up after it’s fallen, plus the crispness and blue skies of early fall, all makes black walnut harvest seem like a celebration.

And that’s what I get from the fact that this beer exists: Someone else feels this same way. Right on, Piney River Brewing Company!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Piney River Brewery: An Excursion!

We had a serious amount of fun this summer! We did not do a great deal of traveling, but in late August, we did spend a weekend in the Ozarks—as in, more deeply in the Ozarks. (Jefferson City and Columbia are technically “Ozark Border”—we have a taste of it, but it’s not as pure as when you go down, say, to the piney woods of Shannon County!)

We started that weekend on a celebratory note by visiting Piney River Brewing Company in Bucyrus, Missouri, Saturday afternoon, August 23. (It was interesting that not a month before, we had visited Bucyrus, Ohio, which the Bucyrus in Missouri is named for!)

Bucyrus, Missouri, is not at all a big town. It’s not even a “four corners”; it’s more of a “wide spot in the road” just east of Houston, Missouri (the seat of Texas County and the hometown of Emmett Kelly, the famous “Weary Willy” clown). And the Piney River “BARn” taproom isn’t exactly easy to find! If you’re interested in visiting Piney River Brewing like us, make sure you know the hours they’re open (only weekends at this point), and where you’re going before you get to Bucyrus. Why? Because you may have trouble getting an Internet signal in that area. Don’t depend on your “device”!

So I’m warning you: Check your Google map way before you get close, or you’ll be stopping at the tiny Bucyrus, Missouri, post office, asking for directions. (By the way, I’d like to thank the lady there that Saturday, who was kind enough to offer us what directions she knew. You big city people, you don’t know how nice people can be until you ask for, well, any kind of help, in a small town.)

More on the drive in a little bit. Let’s get to the fun part, the brewery! Check out Piney River Brewing’s website, okay? Then, you’ll want to friend them on Facebook, so you poor cusses who don’t live in their distribution area can find out when their products are finally available near you. I’m sure it’ll soon be available in St. Louis and Kansas City, but for now, hmmph. It’s pretty much exclusive to the Ozarks the beers celebrate.

Since you can perfectly well visit their website on your own, you can see for yourself how they won gold in the 2014 World Beer Cup for their Float Trip Ale, and gold in 2013 for their Old Tom Porter at the Great American Beer Festival. Pretty good for a brewery that started in 2010!

I won’t go into their beers too much, except to say “fresh and delicious!” and Hooray! Their beers, the names of their beers, and their lovely designs celebrate the Ozarks, including its natural and human heritage. (I hope they’re paying their designer well, because her designs contribute greatly to the joy of their beers.) I love it that their beers celebrate raccoons and river eddies, Missouri mules, float trips, and hot dates down on the river.

(Someday, maybe they’ll see fit to make a brew after North America's one and only native marsupial! Dear Piney River people: May I humbly submit--the “Opulent Opossum Stout”??)

The “BARn” is a renovated seventy-year-old barn that’s been made into a “nanobrewery” on the ground floor, with a spacious taproom in the second-story loft, along with a deck with a beautiful view of . . . well . . .

This is really out in the boonies, folks!

Here’s a little slideshow of our visit there.

Not knowing when they opened, we were early and waited outside while the band (it was bluegrass, y’all, and they were good!) moved their instruments and equipment into the BARn.

Though we were the first ones there, many other folks showed up, everyone driving on gravel roads to get there. It must be gratifying to have established something that people will go far out of their way to get to!

It was a regular little crowd in there! For those of you who are interested in all the particulars, here’s the details about what was on tap that day:

They really made that barn into something remarkable. You know it’s impressive when even the lavatories stay with the down-home theme.

But seriously, folks, be prepared for the drive. That photo at the top of this post was of Highway ZZ, the last stretch of paved road before you reach gravel Walnut Grove Drive, which the brewery is at the end of:

Fortunately, we arrived just as one of the Piney River guys was setting up their sign. It was encouraging we were on the right path!

We got the sampler tray, which had seven beers and (thankfully) a printed list of the beers we were tasting. I hadn’t tried their Sweet Potato Ale before (I’m usually skeptical of “flavored” beers, as they are usually too overdone and cloying), and I admired its subtlety. The Bronzeback Pale Ale (named for Missouri’s celebrated smallmouth bass) seemed especially delicious, though—maybe because its refreshing brightness complemented the heat of that weekend. And the hot, dusty road we took to get there!

(A digression: Beer and wine tastings forever remind me of the “France” episode of Absolutely Fabulous: “This is the one! . . . This is the one!”) Ahem. Oh, well. It wasn’t like that at all, but I think of it, and it cracks me up.

Finally, I should mention that the Piney River Brewery is indeed located near the Little Piney River. As you drive on Highway 17 from Houston to Bucyrus, you drive over the Big Piney River at Dog’s Bluff Public Fishing Access. All of it is very near the brewery. Isn’t it pretty?

Dog’s Bluff is a beautiful spot to have a picnic, or go swimming or wading. This scenery is inspiring, to anyone in need of rejuvenation. No wonder they make such inspired beers in this area!

Now, don’t you want to take a little drive, through hills and hollers, to the bustling metropolis of Bucyrus, Missouri? Now that we’ve been to the Piney River “BARn,” we can recommend it!

Note: Thanks to Sue, for letting me use so many of her excellent photos. All the ones in this post that look good are from her!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

My Other Life

For those of you who are my friends and family, you may be interested in the links I'm providing in this post. I keep my work life separate from my blog, and from everything else personal, but for those of you who have missed me (and may miss my posts again, the next time I get all busy with work), if you want to see more of what I've been "up to," then check out the online field guide of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

When I started working on this project, the MDC folks asked me if I wanted to be identified publicly as a "field guide maven," and I said no. I'm an editor, right? I'm not a "writer"!! (Okay, I guess I am, now, aren't I.) And I certainly don't want my sad-looking mugshot next to anything on this online field guide. It's all about the plants and animals! But my friends, and family--if you ever want to know what I'm "up to," look at this site.

(Muskrat photo by Susan Ferber.)

It's basically 10 field guides in one: aquatic invertebrates, insects, butterflies and moths, fishes, amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals, mushrooms, wildflowers and nonwoody plants, and trees/shrubs/woody vines. You can search on it via an alphabetical browse menu, or you can do an "advanced search" that allows you to narrow search results using key identifying characteristics (such as color, habitat, etc.).

This summer, I've been particularly busy fulfilling entries on the wildflowers and other nonwoody plants. (It's still going to be a while before I post a bunch of grasses and ferns--surely you can see why those present special problems for writing a guide for nonscientific readers.) Here's a link to the "browse" page for the wildflowers. It's an alphabetical listing; just scroll down, then click on the next page, etc. There's close to 300 species entries for this group, with more a-comin'.

Also, in the browse menus, when a plant or animal strikes your fancy, click on that image to see the complete entry for that species. Here, for example, is a recent entry I did, for Giant Ragweed. You know this plant; you've seen it a million times. But have you really seen it? Part of the satisfaction of creating this field guide is in thinking, really thinking, about some of the most minute aspects of these organisms. What sets it apart from others of its kind? Why should anyone care about it? Why does it possess its unique characteristics?

I love it when I can include information that is particular to Missouri, the Ozarks, the tallgrass prairie. I guess because of my own local pride. Like how the word "cooter" came from Africa and then became a verb in Ozark dialect. And every time I write about a prairie wildflower, I think of how they must have cheered settlers as they headed west into such strange, treeless terrain.

It's especially been fascinating to include "human connections" and "ecosystem connections" for each species. What has amazed me is how nearly every single species in the state, whether it's a weird mushroom, or a nondescript rodent, a ubiquitous roadside wildflower, or even a minnow, a wicked-looking insect that hides under rocks in a stream, or a type of insect that's so damn common you don't give a second thought to it, has an interest on a human level and on the level of its relationship to nature. That's just incredibly cool, I think.

Honestly--sometimes the hardest thing about this project is to keep from writing too much. There's no end to the fascination in the natural world.

Anyway--enough of "tooting my own horn." But I did want to let y'all know that I haven't exactly been absent from the Internets--just from my blog. If you ever miss me (you know who you are!), check out the MDC field guide, where you'll find out what I've been doing in "my other life."

I'm Back! (And I Never Even Went Anywhere.)

Hi, folks! It's been a while since I posted, but hey: It's been a fun summer, and life is good! It's hard to believe school has started already, Labor Day is passed, and the stores are putting out their Christmas sales stuff.

I have soooo much to write about, to tell you about, and pictures to show you. But as usual: As soon as I sit down at my computer, I feel I should be working instead of farting around, blogging. Maybe I just need to "chunk down," as it were . . . offer you shorter snippets.

That's what the Internet cognoscenti say is the best way to "hook" people, anyway.

So: Keep your eyes open for new posts. Because it's way past time for me to be telling you about my summer!