Monday, August 30, 2010

Out of the Closet

Yes, I admit it: I'm a huge fan of the Carpenters, and have been since age seven when I went with my folks to the Hearnes building to see the Carpenters live in concert. I can sing along with all the songs, all the lyrics, all the instrumental solos, all the harmonies, on all the albums.

Karen Carpenter--the "girl drummer" with the voice that came straight from the gods--was my hero for many years.


So today it's Monday, and all morning it's looked like it might rain.

"Rainy Days and Mondays," a song written by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams, was on the album "Carpenters," which came out in 1971; the single was one of the Carpenters' numerous gold records, and the album went four-times multi-platinum in the United States.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Eastern Cicada Killer Wasps (Sphecius speciosus)

A blue jay nailed a cicada at lunch today; I saw it from the screen porch. The cicada buzzed suddenly and long, an auditory exclamation point if ever there was one. Then the tone wavered once, and continued more thinly as he got free of the jay.

The jay jetted after the tailspinning cicada, scolding it.

—Caught it. The cicada’s rasp ended abruptly.

Insect life is fraught; they are lucky their nervous systems are so simple. There are a ton of them, and a ton of checks on their numbers. Annie Dillard summed up their situation: “There is a terrible innocence in the benumbed world of the lower animals, reducing life there to a universal chomp.”

For the past month and a half, we’ve had the cicada killers again in our backyard. These solitary wasps attract attention wherever they live, because they are so large—up to about an inch and a half long—and so busy. They’re damned intimidating! But I urge you to learn more about them. They will not hurt you.

Let’s discuss armament first: The males have none; they literally cannot sting you. They can poke at you with their pointy abdomen, but that’s it. The females can sting, but they won’t—well, unless you are harassing them bodily, just as a hamster will bite you if you squeeze it too hard.

They could conceivably bite you, but then so can a katydid. So let’s just stop thinking of cicada killers as scary, right now.

Cicada killers follow the general lifestyle of most wasps, which is for the females to build a nest, collect insects and spiders, paralyze them, and lay their eggs on them. The newly hatched wasps (why not call them babies?) eat the food their mothers hunted for them. Remember that a mother cheetah brings food to her kittens, too.

Because they’re solitary, each wasp is generally on his or her own; there isn’t much of a communal nest, although apparently sometimes females will share a burrow.

The males are downright hostile to one another. They emerge from their natal burrows before the females do and immediately establish territories. Each male patrols his spot, circling in reconnaissance, resting on a leaf or branch, or hovering over the area, and vigorously chases out just about any kind of winged intruder, even wayward butterflies. . . . It’s like they have lots of testosterone, okay?

We’ve seen some heated altercations between male cicada killers; they grapple in the air; sometimes they drop heavily to the sidewalk, with a cracking sound that just can’t mean anything good for their health.

The males treat female cicada killers quite differently, of course.

Once the females are pregnant, they tunnel into the soil, carrying the dirt in their mouths, creating a nest in which to store cicadas and eggs. These tunnels can be 1–4 feet long, with multiple chambers.

The evidence aboveground can be striking—mounds of dirt in your yard, or in golf courses, in gardens, wherever the earth is light and friable. The entry hole is about an inch wide, and there’s usually a small ditch leading to it that looks like someone dragged a thumb across the mound in a curving path.

Some people get bent out of shape over these mounds, but I contend that the wasps are helping to aerate the soil. And if cicada killers have chosen your soil for their nests, then take it as a compliment: your ground is loose and workable!

So, in case you haven’t figured it out yet: the female cicada killer wasps hunt cicadas, to provide food for their babies.

Cicadas are hefty prey for a wasp—so now you understand why cicada killer wasps are rather large, too. They have to transport a cicada’s dead weight all the way back to the burrow.

And this, too, is remarkable. Howard Ensign Evans described the scene in his book Wasp Farm: “Wasps are now out en masse harvesting the bounty of insects. Hear that cicada stop his song mid-way? Like as not he is a victim of the giant cicada-killer, who will inter him beneath the driveway.”

So, up in the tree, the cicada killer stings the unfortunate cicada, paralyzing it; then she has to fly it home. But it’s too heavy for her to truly “fly”—instead, it’s more of a controlled glide. Sometimes the wasps have to climb up another tree trunk with the prey in order to glide again and gain more distance. If they’re lucky, they land pretty near the opening of the tunnel.

And they quickly lug the cicada inside, where it will never again be seen by human eyes.

I have seen them swoop in many times with their prey. The immediate impression is that a stupendously large bug has just crash-landed nearby. Once—in fact, it was when I was taking pictures of the micrathena—a cicada-laden wasp zoomed right in between my legs. I hadn’t known it, but I was standing exactly in front of her burrow.

I’m sure it took courage on both our parts!

Now that it’s late August, the cicada killers’ lives are winding down, just as the nights have finally gotten tolerably cool and the tree leaves have become faded and leathery. It’s all part of the seasons, the rotation of the Earth, just as each summer the onset of cicada song lets us know it’s time for the dog days, and how many weeks until the first frost . . . and when to look for the new crop of cicada killer wasps.

Books Adored in This Post

Howard Ensign Evans, Wasp Farm (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper and Row, 1974).

Photographs by Susan Ferber, who has a great time each summer making portraits of our cicada killer wasps. Doesn't she do a great job?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Honey-Glazed Cicadas

Hah! Now I’ve got your attention! I bet you were thinking this was going to be a recipe!

Nope—this one fits into the category of “natural history notes.” (Aren’t you relieved?)

I took this picture about a week ago; I was in Columbia for an appointment, then picked up lunch and met Sue at Stephens. We had our sandwiches sitting on the wall next to the lovely Eero Saarinen–designed Firestone-Baars Chapel, in the shade of some pines.

Oh! Did I mention that we got me a new camera? Well, it’s used. Off of eBay. It’s another Nikon Coolpix 4500, just like the old one. A dinosaur compared to newer models, but let me assure you, being able to swivel the camera body makes up for its age. (Especially when one is attempting to photograph a spider hanging hip-high in her web—from below.)

Luckily I had the camera with me that day, because this was a remarkable sight. There were several cicada molts attached to the trees. (I guess a plenitude of cicada nymphs in an area is one measure of how undisturbed and healthy a plot of land is.)

And these pine trees were weeping sap, as they do, from places where they’d been trimmed.

So this isn’t really honey—it’s pine sap.

But it looks like honey, and it’s just as sticky!

Fortunately, the adult cicadas got clear of the sap before it oozed upon their spent exoskeletons. I mean, there are enough dangers out there for the adult cicadas; they don't need any pine sap to be threatening them, too.

Ah, but that’s for another post . . . stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Carrot-Cardamom Ice Cream

. . . With pistachios!

I’m still on this frozen-dessert kick. You would think I would have plenty, puh-LEN-ty, of opportunities to get frozen treats, being situated here a block away from Zesto and three blocks from Central Dairy, but . . .

Well, maybe I just love my ice cream maker. But it’s more likely that I’m grooving on new flavor combinations they just don’t offer anywhere in this town. The sky’s the limit on ice cream flavors—it’s a shame to focus on the old tried-and-true all the time.

So here’s my most recent concoction; so far, I think it’s my favorite.

It’s based on traditional dessert flavors of India. It seems that Indian desserts revolve around pistachios, almonds, and cashews; raisins, sultanas, or currants; creamy dairy products, halwa, or rice pudding; coconut, mango, strawberry, or other fruits; and rose water, saffron, and/or cardamom. (I have recipes for carrot halwa and carrot pudding, and that’s where I got the idea to add carrots.)

Here’s the formula—notes follow, including an easy technique for grinding your own fresh cardamom.

Carrot-Cardamom Ice Cream

1/2 cup carrots, peeled and grated
7 green cardamom pods
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar (or to taste)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup unsalted pistachios, coarsely chopped
optional: yellow and red food coloring

Place the grated carrots into a steamer and cook until tender. Mash and place them into the refrigerator to chill thoroughly (mash coarsely, if you want to see little flecks of carrot in the ice cream; puree if you want it smooth). While the carrots are cooking, grind the cardamom (see below) and stir together the cream, milk, sugar, and vanilla.

When the carrots are chilled, add them to the mixture. They should turn it a pleasant pale orange color; if you want more color, add a few drops of yellow and maybe one drop of red coloring. Make sure the mixture is completely chilled before proceeding to the next step.

Pour the mixture into your ice cream maker (I use a Cuisinart 1.5 quart model) and freeze per the appliance’s instructions. At about the last five minutes of freezing, pour in the chopped pistachios so they get incorporated into the mixture. When frozen, transfer to an airtight container and place in freezer to harden completely.


Shelled, unsalted pistachios are available in ethnic grocery stores. The same goes for whole green cardamom pods. Sure, you can find whole cardamom at supermarkets, but it’s usually overpriced; at an international grocery, you can get greater quantities for less.

And you could use cardamom that’s been ground previously, but it is much less flavorful than fresh—the difference is like night and day. If you use “pre-ground” cardamom, you’ll have to use a lot more—about a heaping teaspoon, by my reckoning. (Did I mention that cardamom in the pod stays fresh for a long time? Take it from zillions of Indian ladies: It’s a much better value to buy it whole in the pod!)

Grinding Cardamom

It’s easy to grind your own cardamom. First, you need a mortar and pestle—you might think this is something that’s only used in “Ye Olde Apothecary Shoppe,” but once you have this device in your kitchen, you’ll be surprised at how useful it is.

You could alternatively use a spice grinder (a coffee grinder dedicated for spice grinding), but unless you’re grinding a large quantity of spices, I find the spice grinder is annoyingly hard to clean. The mortar and pestle, on the other hand, is simple to use and easy to clean. (And it feels good to use—get out those aggressions!)

This technique was passed on by Aman Aulakh, in one of those wonderful “Punjabi Home Cooking” classes she led with her mother, Gurcharan, at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Aman (who grew up in St. Louis) told us a story about one time she was in India, cooking with her relatives, and they had her grind up some fresh cardamom. She dutifully started slitting the pods open with a knife and picking out the seeds with the knife tip.

This is a tedious process, and I could identify with her totally, having done the same thing myself. (Just thinking about all that work puts cramps in my hands!)

But her aunties looked at her like she was nuts: “What are you doing?” they asked her. Then they showed her the “easy” way: Drop the whole pods into the mortar (bowl), then start banging on them with the pestle, straight down. The pods, being dry, split right open, and after a little more pounding the outer shells can easily be fished out of the bowl before you grind the seeds completely. Duhhhh . . .!

When she demonstrated this technique in our class, I almost slapped my forehead; I know I rolled my eyes. But I was comforted to know she had been doing the same thing, and that I wasn’t alone. . . . Ohhh, this is easy. And fun, too!

(Mmmmm, and delicious!)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Turtles for My Friend

One of my favorite people is having a birthday today, and I thought I’d surprise her with a blog post just for her.

She likes turtles—a lot.

Many people have some type of animal they particularly love, admire, or identify with—one friend really likes elephants, to the point where she collects little figurines of them.

Another friend collects little chickens. And Sue’s sister somehow identifies with rabbits (I’m not sure I’ve heard that entire story yet).

And you would think, from the title of my blog, that opossums are my “totem animal”—but they’re not. Instead, they signify something about this blog, which is just a part of me.

Anyway, to celebrate my friend’s birthday, I’m posting some miscellaneous photographs of turtles, taken by Sue and myself. It’s just a little collection, a small gesture—but with lots of feeling.

Happy birthday, my friend!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Golden Treasures in Columbia

Pay attention, folks: You have until September 26 to see an exhibition of exquisitely crafted golden treasures currently on display at the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology. Yes, this exhibition’s been there since early June, but if you’re just now getting back to town, or if you’re simply looking for neat things to do here in Central Missouri, may I humbly suggest this exhibition: The Voyage of a Contemporary Italian Goldsmith in the Classical World: Golden Treasures by Akelo.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not a “jewelry gal.” But that’s my point: I’m genuinely impressed by this show, and by the artist-goldsmith who has created the works. The artistry and craftsmanship make this exhibition transcend, by far, any routine look in a jewelry store’s windows.

The goldsmith’s name is Andrea Cagnetti, whose “artistic name” (like a nom de plume) is Akelo. He’s Italian and grew up constantly exposed to Greek, Roman, and Etruscan classic artworks. From an early age, he admired the gold jewelry of the ancient Etruscans.

However, the goldsmithing techniques of the Etruscans had been lost to time. But Akelo’s dogged studies of science and art led him to research metallurgy, and he delved into the ancient texts of alchemy to look for hints for how his ancient forebears did what they did. In those medieval books, recipes for gold were combined with recipes for the purification of the soul, and Akelo’s life was, in a strange, anachronistic fashion, transformed into that of a medieval monk.

I guarantee that you will be impressed by his delicate application of filagree, his selection of precious and semiprecious stones, and the powerful symbolism of his designs and ornaments. But perhaps the most remarkable thing you’ll see in the exhibit is a technique called granulation.

I’d never heard of granulation before—basically, it’s a way of creating a texture on the surface of a gold object by affixing a layer of tiny gold balls (granules) to it. These balls can be as large as a millimeter and as small as .07 mm. (That’s seven hundredths of the width of a dime!)

The goldsmith has to create these spheres and weld them (somehow) onto the surface, usually in some sort of pattern.

This technique—in the perfected form the Etruscans had developed—had been lost to time. Indeed, it was being lost about the time the Romans took over. Akelo, however, has figured out how to do it, and the spectacular results can be seen at this exhibition.

Akelo also has his own proprietary formula for mixing gold, so the color of his gold is different—warmer, I’d say, but also more vibrant—from what you’ve seen before.

Everything in this show is made by this one man—starting with the melting and mixing of the gold, to the shaping and decorating of the pieces, to the creation of his own thin gold wires, and even to the crafting of each tiny, identical link in every single chain. All made by him.

He must have an incredible amount of patience!

Again—I’m not a girl to go nuts over jewelry—but I am impressed by the time and care Akelo has put into his art. His designs, which feature elements such as amphoras, pinecones, acorns, dolphins, and crosses, pay homage to the classical and medieval past but also contain a contemporary flair—as a result, the pieces are timeless.

It’s no surprise that Akelo’s work has been getting lots of attention, and that major art museums have begun purchasing his works for their permanent collections.

So catch a rising star—go see the Golden Treasures by Akelo. I promise that you will be impressed.

Finally, a word about the Museum of Art and Archaeology: If you have never seen it, make sure you build in plenty of time to visit the whole museum. No, it’s not the Nelson, and no, it’s not the Saint Louis Art Museum, but for its size, its collection—of antiquities, classic works, and more contemporary pieces—is remarkable, significant, full of artistic gems.

Time spent in an art museum is never, ever wasted. It elevates you, it broadens your mind. The role of the artist is to remind you that everything around us is a miracle. —Oh, and did I mention this museum is free? Free! So you have no excuse not to go.

There’s all kinds of stuff going on there. Look at their website for more information.

Museum of Art and Archaeology
1 Pickard Hall
University of Missouri–Columbia

Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.
(closed on holidays)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Micrathena gracilis: Heavy Metal Spider!

She’s got venom! She wears black, and she’s spiky like a demon! She’s a maiden of death, leaving behind her vicious fangs a string of hideous, staring corpses. Yeah! She delivers APOCALYPSE!

. . . Well, if you’re a leafhopper, that is.

This little predator is often called the “spined micrathena,” but then all three of our micrathenas are spiny, so you might as well learn its proper name: Micrathena gracilis (my-cruh-THEE-nah grah-SILL-us). Like people do with plant names (impatiens, gladiolus, forsythias . . .), we’ll just lowercase the genus name and turn that into a common name: micrathena.

By the way, I’m not being reverse-sexist by calling her a “her.” In almost all cases, when you see a spider living in a web, it’s a female. As a general rule, spider males are quite small, rarely spin webs, and have a single goal in life. And they, um, don’t tend to live very long.

This particular micrathena has been hanging around our backyard all summer. We first “noticed” her when she strung her early orbs in a busy passageway between a tree and some lawn furniture. I kept walking through her webs. (Yes, it was rather traumatic for both of us.)

Micrathenas, by the way, are notorious in these parts for being one of the spiders that commonly builds webs across hiking trails. If you want to go hiking this time of year and not collect webs and their occupants on your shirt, you must twirl a stick before you as you walk. (Or, let someone else go first on the trail!)

Micrathenas create beautiful and delicate orbs. There’s nothing clumsy about their webs. They’re shimmery and full of parallel lines so closely spaced that a mosquito cannot sneak through, and the spiders (which prefer to rest belly-up) move about their homes with grace, walking forward with their front three pairs of legs and using the back pair as a smooth-sliding hanger for the giant hind end.

Usually, when seriously harassed, micrathenas plummet straight to the ground for safety. But sometimes you’re clomping along too fast, and “eensy-weensy heavy-metal spider” ends up on your shoulder, neck, hair . . . (Yeah, I know: Ugh!)

Okay, relax; remember, they're hardly even a half inch long. Brushing off a micrathena, you’ll notice her body feels like a sharp little piece of gravel. Or a Grape Nut.

So, with a little “encouragement” from us, the one in our backyard moved and is now living by the mock orange, in a flower bed, so she’s no longer in a trafficway or in the path of the lawn mower. The only harassment she gets now is from our cameras.

She’s pretty neat, huh? I love her pointy little tubercles. You could almost put tiny strings on her, plug her in, and turn her into an eensy-weensy headbanger’s wicked little electric guitar.

Rock and roll!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Patricia Barber Is Helping Us Stay Cool Today

Wow, oh wow, has it been hot and humid. Even the weeds in the lawn are starting to complain, and that's saying something.

When it's so darn hot, we crave something cool.

So give this a listen.

(Okay, like all the best jazz, this music is actually really hot, but it's cool, too.)


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reassembling the Sunporch

Yesterday, I told you about our success in restoring the old ceiling light fixture out on the back sunporch. And one thing leads to another: Having that light fixture back in place meant that we could finally put the clattery shell windchimes back.

I suspect these windchimes were a gift from my Uncle Tom, who lived for several years in Florida.

These windchimes have been on the sunporch for about as long as I can remember, and without them, the sunporch seemed eerily quiet. Indeed, the rustling clatter of those windchimes is the official soundtrack for the sunporch.

They give voice to the breezes that make the sunporch such a nice place to be.

For the grand occasion of their reinstallation, I gave the windchimes a thorough cleaning. (Yeah, they were filthy.)

And to top everything off—metaphorically only, of course—we found a new carpet for the room. We lucked into a nice big (perfect-sized!) remnant over at Scruggs—with a color and pattern we actually liked! Scruggs got the edges bound for us, and ta-dahhh!

Pretty nice, huh? And best of all, very affordable. Affordable = good!

Then, having the new carpet in place, we could move the old china cabinet and all its contents back into its customary position.

This necessitated a lot of very careful dishwashing!

We still have a bit more work to do out there, but we’re on track to have the porch completely “resurrected” by the time we get nice weather this fall.

And then, we’ll simply be living out there.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

More Sunporch Progress

You might not think this is big news, but it is a small triumph for us!

When we got the new ceiling for our damaged sunporch, we had to have the old light fixture disconnected temporarily—but when we had an electrician out to reconnect it, he examined the fixture’s wiring and shook his head: “I could put this up for you, but I really don’t think you should use it—see how broken the insulation is on these wires? . . . And these black marks on the ceramic, here—?”

He was right. The wiring on the sockets wasn’t safe anymore—especially not after the remodeling guys had removed the ceiling around it, and it was dangling from its wires.

Then they snipped it down completely when they hung the drywall.

I asked the electrician if he could replace the sockets within the fixture; he poked at it and couldn’t tell how the sockets were connected to the fixture, so he couldn’t see how to remove them, much less replace them. —Heck.

So we “sat on it” for a while; we looked at various antique lighting places online, checked at stores to see if there were any “new” fixtures we could tolerate. Again: Heck.

Think, think, think . . .

We finally bought some miscellaneous, cheap, basic fixtures and sockets at Lowe’s, brought them home, and started fiddling around.

We discovered how to remove the old sockets from the fixture—they had been painted in place by the original manufacturer, but once the paint seal was broken, and using a pliers, we found we could unscrew the thin metal wrapping around the original cardboard insulating cylinder.

And glory-be! One of the new plastic socket types we found fit almost perfectly—but these lacked the threading and were too loose to stay in place. . . . Hmm.

How to get the new plastic sockets to be firmly attached to the antique fixture?

Uncle Richard to the rescue! He was visiting us one night, and we showed him our project. He turned the fixture over in his hands, then abruptly said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. I know exactly how to take care of it. Let me take it home.”

A few days later, he had it all done—he’d used liquid weld on it, and the sockets are indeed firmly in place. Perfect!

Then, a quick visit from the electrician the next afternoon, and voilĂ : The old light fixture lives again!

Which is good, because we have identical light fixtures for several other rooms of our house! In addition to the ones in the bedrooms and hallways, we even have about half dozen of them in a box, left over from the eighties when Grandma had a couple ceiling fans and other fixtures installed.

As with most old electrical wiring, such as all the knob-and-tube within the walls and ceilings of our house, the wiring is pretty okay as long as you don’t mess with it and break the brittle old insulation—which is what we did in this case.

Anyway, now that they’re outfitted with these new sockets, I think the old light fixtures are good for at least another seventy-five years, which is far more than we’ll need them. Hooray!

* (Thank you, Uncle Richard!) *