Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nature’s Kool-Aid

If this were Vermont, we’d be saying, “It’s sugarin’ time!” We’ve been having those fluctuating temperatures—freezing nights, warm and sunny days—that make the trees start pumping sap.

Sap is like natural Kool-Aid for critters. Maples, of course, but other trees, too. Including our black walnut. The first thing we saw was a wet spot on the bark, about chest-high.

Closer inspection revealed a horizontal row of about fifteen small round holes, each about two inches from the next. Most were dripping sap.

If you taste it, it’s pretty much like water. This is sweet?

But you’re not the one drilling the holes, and neither are you the one to be attracted to it.

It was not a mystery to us what bird had drilled the holes. But it had been years since I’d actually seen a yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).

This year, we saw him! (Look carefully!)

I’d forgotten how well sapsuckers blend in with their background, which is almost inevitably the patch of bark that they have darkened by the moisture caused by the dripping. It’s pretty neat how they blend in. And they’re fast workers!

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers do this: They tap holes into trees from which sap drips. They drink the sweet fluid, using their brushlike tongues. Which is pretty much like drinking Kool-Aid, nutritionally speaking.

But wait! They get some protein out of the deal, too! The sap is also a lure for ants. Even at this time of year, ants, on warm days, send out scouts to make sure that potential food sources aren’t going unexploited.

And because ants are everywhere, they certainly find the patch of sugary water seeping down the bark, and immediately send out workers to drink it and carry it back to the nest.

Thus, with the ants milling around the sap wells, the sapsucker has the opportunity to grab ants that are bloated with sap. Or, I’ll bet Mr. Sapsucker can simply grab ants and smear them around in the tree-juice, like sopping biscuits and gravy. (Don’t you think?) Anyway, that’s protein and sugar! Dee-liss-yuss!

While the party is swinging, others come to enjoy the punchbowl, too. Other woodpeckers, I understand, are attracted to the sugar water and (no doubt) to the baited ants as well. I’ve read that sapsuckers vigorously guard their sap wells, but ours leaves for hours at a time. Look at this!

It was pretty cute to see this little fella clinging to the side of the tree, upside-down, right-side-up, and sideways.

Are we afraid of damage to the tree? Nah. Sapsuckers have zapped our walnut before, and they’ve riddled our big yew tree, too (and gave it worse).

It’s not like in those pictures where the holes are so close you can’t see the bark anymore. I think this bird has several trees that it’s tapping. And the walnut, for instance, has thick ridges of bark that prevent the sapsucker from drilling holes one after the other, so that protects the tree from being completely girdled.

And anyway, sapsuckers are highly migratory, and this fellow is probably just passing through, on his way north to claim his breeding territory. Somewhere up in Canada, in a few months, he’ll be banging on a hollow tree or on somebody’s gutter, and working to make Kool-Aid-loving progeny.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Non-Bavarian, Non-Westphalian, Non-Tyrolean . . .

Personality test: It’s two o’clock in the morning, downtown, and you’re wanting to cross the street, but there’s a “Don’t Walk” sign warning you not to. There is absolutely no traffic in sight. What do you do?

Well, if you’re Germanic, you wait for the sign to say “Walk.” But if, let’s say, you’re French, you simply cross.

I told you that I don’t really get tired of our pretty Christmas things—the glass ornaments, the fruit baskets, the birds and such—but I do admit that the traditional Germanic stuff gets to feeling kinda old. Backward-looking. Hymns and carols, and all their chordal logic set down hundreds of years ago by Johann Sebastian Bach, sound just right all through Advent, but once we pass into the new year, I’m ready to shake it up.

And I’m not talking about raucous music here, like rock. That’s loud, but it is not really new. It doesn’t generally shake up the foundations set forth by the basic hymn and its I-IV-V-I progressions. I mean, those are the “power chords” on a guitar. And Twisted Sister readily admits to lifting the music of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” for its heavy metal hit, “We’re Not Gonna to Take It.”

So for the past month I’ve been enjoying twentieth-century French music. The last century was a tremendously experimental and creative time, and from what I’ve observed, I doubt that the twenty-first century has the total intellectual power to approach it. And French music has a deftness and delicacy that is missing from those heavy hymns.

I’ve been enjoying my Pandora these last few weeks: My “Francis Poulenc station.” Try it; go to and type in “Francis Poulenc,” and just let it spin interesting and amazing music to you. In addition to Poulenc, it will add similar composers. Early Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Virgil Thomson, Gabriel Fauré, and so on.

This music is not unmelodic, though it takes you down unfamiliar paths, and it’s strongly rhythmic, but the chords can blow you away. If you know anything about music, polychords are one of Poulenc’s trademarks—two different chords being played simultaneously. Listening, you might lose track of the key, whether it’s major or minor or what, if it weren’t for the melody line.

Even though this music is rather “old” by today’s standards, the compositions still sound fresh and challenging to my ear. And they sound very French, as opposed to Germanic. They suggest new perspectives and possibilities, and that, my friends, is just right for a new year.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A New Year—2012

Apologies for my absence! My guess, however, is that you, too, have been busy playing “catch-up” with all the activities that got sidelined during the holidays. I’ll bet you haven’t had any more time for reading blogs than I’ve had for writing them.

Anyway, I don’t have much to report. I guess I could tell you about our holiday travels and the icy roads in Indiana, or I could describe the weather we’ve been having (up till yesterday, unseasonably warm; now it’s frigid with snow on the ground) . . . but that stuff’s old news, or boring, or both.

Still, I ought to report to you about something—if only to post a first entry for 2012!

Okay, here’s one thing: I realized this year, as we were taking down our Christmas decorations, that even though I often feel tired of seeing all that holiday stuff, I can’t help but enjoy seeing, and handling, all those pretty things again.

In other words, I never really get tired of them.

However, my body has about had it with the food. Honestly, I didn’t overdo it this year at all, but I did get off my oat bran muffins! At this point, we’re eating really lightly, and it feels great!

The “fun” oranges are back in season—blood oranges, Cara Caras, good grapefruits, and so on—and I’m having a blast with them. Schnucks had a bunch of temple oranges on sale. These, apparently, are a tangerine-orange hybrid. They’re excellent for making juice!

And my frugivory is continuing in other ways: We’ve been eating prunes! Prunes, I tell you! I need to do a post about them—they are an Opulent Opossum food, if ever there was one. Undersung, maligned, and forgotten, yet exquisitely delicious and good for you. What’s not to like? They need a cheerleader.

So, my 2012 is off to a slow start, blogging-wise, but stay tuned. I’ve got a lot of posts rumbling around in my head, and we’re going to do a lot of interesting things this year. I hope you’ll come along for the ride!