How to Build a Cairn

In celebration of the new book, Cairns:  Messengers in Stone, here is a guest post from the author, geologist (and good friend) David Williams.  It’s a beautiful book–well-written, nicely designed, a delight to read and to give.  Here’s David:

Most of us know the story of Hansel and Gretel: Evil stepmother brow beats milquetoast husband into abandoning kids in the forest but enterprising son leaves a trail to follow home. The first time Hansel uses stones, which works, but the second time he drops bread crumbs, which fails, and the duo almost gets eaten by a mean old nasty witch. Ultimately the kids survive but perhaps they wouldn’t have gotten into this situation if they had done what many experienced hikers do and built a cairn.

It wouldn’t have been hard. A cairn is simply a heap of stones. Neither size nor shape really matter. Most often used in this country for indicating a trail, cairns are also erected to mark a grave, serve as an alter or shrine, or reveal property boundaries or hunting grounds. Built across countries and cultures, cairns have been an effective means of communications for thousands of years.

With such an enduring history, you can imagine the pressure for building a good cairn. Just picking out the right stone can involve many considerations. A cairn made of river cobbles, with their well-rounded edges, will look and have to be built differently than one made of sandstone blocks, which often break into nice flat pieces. Basalt and granite offer a third style, with their jagged, rough surfaces that often interlock well and allow one to build a large and very stable cairn.
Once you have your rocks, you need to choose the right spot. Think of a cairn as Madonna or Lady Gaga; it wants to be seen and noticed, so don’t hide your cairns where no one can see them.

Now you have to start to pile up your heap and like many things in life, with a good base the rest will follow. Start with big rocks, preferably tilted slightly toward the center, so that when they settle gravity will help lock the stones in place. You may also want to work with differently-sized rocks, which can also guarantee a stable, pleasing, and downright handsome cairn well worth the hours you spent on building it.

Various wild animals make good use of cairns. Cairns create shelter for insects, reptiles, and rodents. Weasels and some wild canines deposit their scats on the highly visible cairns as a territorial mark. Some creatures, like this chicken, just like to bask on the rocks.

Your work is not done yet. As the cairn rises, you must ensure that every stone has at least three points of contact, which prevents unseemly and destabilizing stone wiggle. All joints must overlap, or bridge each other, too. Finally comes the capstone. “Well, obviously one big stone rather that lots of wee ones,” writes folk musician and cairn-builder Dave Goulder.

One final consideration. Should you even build a cairn? From a ecological point of view cairns can provide habitat for a variety of species but you should be aware when acquiring rocks for your cairn. That rock might provide a protected haven for ground dwellers such as rodents, reptiles, or insects. It might also create ideal habitat for plants and lichens. And, if you have to walk off trail to get a rock for your cairn, you might be doing more damage to fragile ecosystems. There are also cultural and esthetic concerns. The rocks and/or the landscape may be sacred to native people. And in national parks from Acadia to Yosemite, there has been an epidemic of cairns with vast cities of cairns being erected in the backcountry. Some might feel this is a way to connect to nature. Some may find these spots to be offensive rock grafitti and not respectful of the wilderness experience. So no pressure.

Deconstructing Dinner: An Interview at The Tangled Nest for a New TV Series

Last Saturday I was delighted to welcome the good folks from Deconstructing Dinner for an afternoon at The Tangled Nest.  Until a couple of years ago, Deconstructing Dinner was an internationally syndicated radio show covering food and the emerging food culture, with a focus on the relationship between our food choices and ourselves, our households, our communities, and the earth.  Now host and producer Jon Steinman, along with his lovely crew, are parlaying that program into an online-accessible television series, premiering in 2013.  Deconstructing Dinner is headquartered in British Columbia, but the series will visit communities all over North America. Seattle is  featured as a hub for the urban chicken movement, and that was the heart of our discussion.

Jon and crew were here for the entire afternoon, exploring the coop and garden, and “talking chicken.”  Though I’m slightly worried that it made me look like the Crazy Chicken Lady,  I am nevertheless pleased to report that Marigold the Buff Orpington sat placidly in my lap for the full interview.

Jon Steinman is an intelligent, thoughtful interviewer, and this series takes the time to explore its subject with depth.  And while the show will be of interest to fans of documentaries like King Corn and Fast Food Nation, what I really love about Deconstructing Dinner is that it goes  beyond statistics and ranting to explore personal, practical actions that can engage individuals in “nourishing” their own, everyday relationship to food.  Find out more at the project website, where you can watch the sizzle real for the upcoming series (and find out how to lend your support!).  I’ll send an update when the series release is approaching, but in the meantime you can enjoy archived episodes of the radio show.

A Cool Coop: Caring for Chickens in the Heat

It’s actually hot in Seattle!  Yes, I know that you folks in other parts of the country have had many 90+ days, but for us Pacific Northwesterners, it’s rare–our bodies aren’t used to it, and neither are our chickens!  I’ve noticed the girls are panting a little, and seeking shade.  Here’s one from the archives on caring for urban chickens in strong heat.

This post originally appeared in August, 2011:

Chickens need a little extra attention in the heat, just as they do in the extreme cold, but they’ll be completely fine as long as a few simple needs are met. Like all birds, chickens can regulate their body temperature with some efficiency. Remember that birds have a higher body temperature than humans, so they don’t have to shed heat as soon as we do when temperatures rise.  They don’t have sweat glands, so when they do need to cool, chickens will pant, and maybe flutter the flap of skin beneath their chin–a spot with lots of tiny blood vessels, so heat is exchanged quickly.  Sometimes chickens will lift their feathers to air their skin.  These behaviors might make your hens look as if they are about to keel over from heat exhaustion, but they are perfectly normal things for hot chickens to be doing.

To keep summer chickens happy and healthy:

–Make double-sure they have constant access to shade.

–Give them fresh cool water every single day (even if you are usually too lazy to do it daily, as I sometimes am…). Not only is cool water refreshing to the chickens and good for their bodies, but any potentially harmful bacteria in the water grows more quickly and easily in the heat.

–If you normally keep water in the coop, consider it leaving it in a shady spot in the run/yard, so they will see it more often, and be reminded to drink.

–Make sure the nesting area is well ventilated.  Open all doors and windows, and if it’s stiflingly hot, consider wetting down the outside walls and roof with a hose to provide evaporative cooling.

–Make sure the girls have plenty of dry, loose dirt for dusting their feathers, which they like to do more often in the heat.  This helps cool their skin, comforts them, and as always, keeps parasites at bay.

–Chickens do not like to have water sprayed on them, but if temperatures are very high, and the chickens seem worrisomely stressed, go ahead and give adult chickens a light misting with the garden hose or spray bottle.  If you leave a low sprinkler in a corner for awhile, they might even explore it and play in it on their own.

May all humans and chickens enjoy the relaxed beauty of the season!

Letting Things Go in the Garden (on purpose)

It’s mid-August, and the garden is taking on its late summer look– a gorgeous, tangled, fruitful mess.  I try to keep some things up:  tomatoes trellised, beans picked, nasturtiums guarded against aphids.  But some things I happily and intentionally let go.

I’ve been enamored of Imogen Cunningham’s photograph of Morris Graves in his leek garden ever since I first encountered the image over twenty years ago.  I always let a patch flower into their magical orbs.

Our sunflowers are all for the birds, so I never pick the passing blossoms–chickadees and goldfinches have been abundant in our sunflower forest the last week or two, as the seeds begin to emerge and dry.
We have one big artichoke plant, and some of the heads are left to open, exposing the stunning purple-blue silks that never fail to stop us in our tracks.  The dried heads will come in the house for seasonal centerpieces–they last forever.
This year we experimented by letting a giant burdock grow where it had seeded itself in the corner behind the chicken coop, just to see how big it would get.  It’s about nine feet so far, and though it’s an invasive European weed, it’s beloved by native pollinators. Even so–next year it’s coming out!
Fennel!  Oh, fennel.  Tom and I argue about fennel.  None of us like the taste of it, and it is such a ready weed–we spend half our spring pulling up its willful sprouts from the rest of the garden.  Tom (sensibly) wants to eradicate it, but when it flowers and then seeds, it is covered by bushtits and chickadees; the birds weigh nothing, and the light stalks barely quiver under their tiny bodies. I think it’s worth it to keep just one fluffy cloud of a fennel plant.  I always take a dried branch or two up on the deck in the fall, and the bushtits visit right by my table as I read and sip coffee.  Between the bushtits in the fennel and the hummingbirds in my hair, it feels like I’ve fallen into the land of Faery.
When greens bolt in the lettuce patch, I let them flower and stay stay for awhile.  The little yellow and white flowers attract more butterflies than anything else in the garden, and our native pollinators need all the help they can get.

I’d love to hear your own excuses for garden laziness!

 

 

Become a Human Hummingbird Feeder

Yesterday I was writing at the sunny little table on my deck, surrounded by grape vines mixed with crocosmia (working from home is one of the joys and terrors of the writing life–it’s pleasant, but distraction abounds…).  An Anna’s hummingbird kept buzzing close to my head, then flying a few feet away to feed from the crocosmia.  I plucked a sprig of the flower and put it behind my ear, and for the rest of the morning the hummingbird visited repeatedly–the breeze from her loud thrumming wings rippled through my hair and once her tiny wing feathers actually brushed my cheek.  So uplifting and magical!

Occasionally she would hover a few inches away, and look me in the eye.  I have seen this behavior in so many wild animals, both birds and mammals.  It is our movement that first alerts a wild animal to our presence and inspires caution, then if we are still for some time and the animal decides to stay around, it will check us out by looking into our eyes–I imagine them to be sizing us up, just as we are doing when we look another human in the eye.

Try it yourself if you have hummingbirds in your yard or park.  Tuck a stem of red crocosmia, or fuschia, or hotlips salvia, or scarlet runner blossom (…) behind your ear, sit quietly with a book, and see what happens.  Heighten the attraction by wearing a red shirt. There are so many small ways to cultivate intimacy with “everyday nature.”

For more, see my earlier post on hummingbirds and homegrown hummingbird feeders.

How to Herd Your Chickens (or ducks)

Y’all may have seen these photos when they were in the news last month, but they have taken on practical significance for us lately. Our chickens get to roam free  all winter, but now that the garden in our little urban backyard farm is tender and tasty, they are supposed to stay in the the nice run we built for them.  Still, whenever I open their gate for food or water or a friendly visit, if I turn my back for a second those bad little girls manage to sneak out, and head straight for the snap pea vines.  To retrieve them, I usually pick them up one by one and carry them back.  Tom?  He picks up a broom handle or a bamboo garden stake, and “herds” them.  Even though I make fun of him (he looks, you know, sort of dorky herding four little chickens), I have to admit his method is efficient.  The hens don’t seem afraid of the pole, they just take it as a signal to walk together back to their house.  Tom felt vindicated when he saw the images of these two farmers in China’s Zhejiang province, herding their 5,000 ducks through Taizhou city traffic.

The farmers move the ducks 3/4 mile between two ponds every year.  I love how the farmers (and the ducks) look so totally relaxed.  And the  tool of choice for two men herding an ocean of 5,000 ducks?  Nothing but a bamboo pole.

Evidently the method works on water, as well.  This lovely circa 1920 photo from the USC digital archives shows a man and child in a small wooden boat, herding their ducks along a quiet river.  The photo is labeled “Duck Culture,” but the location in China is not known.

I am not ready to give up the messy fun of chasing chickens about the yard, but if you have disorderly poultry, give the Tom/Taizhou method a try!

How to Make a Giant Magical Paper Flower Poppy Garden

A Giant Magical Paper Poppy Garden?  I know–what a strange Tangled Nest post.  But somehow I volunteered to make the poppies for the set of Claire’s school production of The Magical Land of Oz.  Remember the poppies in service to the Wicked Witch (played by my daughter!) that lulled Dorothy and friends into a preternatural sleep?

Claire as the Wicked Witch of the West, with magical poppies.

What I didn’t expect was that so many people would be enchanted by the poppies.  I can’t count how many people who saw the play begged to take them home, offered shocking sums for their purchase, or wanted to commission me to make some!  Alas, I greedily took the poppies home to brighten my own dining room (we are just coming out of a rather dark and rainy “June-uary” as we call it in Seattle–a garden full of poppies in the house feels warming and whimsical), and I am not going into the poppy making business (though someone should consider it!). So instead, I thought I’d share the technique here.

Post-production poppies brighten up the dining room.

When I was trying to figure out how to construct the poppies, I remembered making little tissue paper flowers in Girl Scouts that we bundled into bouquets and delivered to retirement homes.  Would the technique scale up?  Yes indeed, and what a wonderful project to inaugurate my beloved new craft room!

The materials are inexpensive:

  • Tissue in red, black, and green (I think layers of color–orange, purple, pink would be pretty, but I needed to do red for Oz)
  • A roll of crepe paper streamers in green
  • Thin dowels, 1 for each stem (I used 5/16″), or sticks from the garden
  • Wire
  • Scotch tape and packing tape

Take 8 sheets of red tissue, and stack them neatly.  Accordion fold them the long way about six times.  Cut a little notch on each side of the center, and wrap with thin wire, leaving about 8″of wire tail.  Cut nice arches on each end:

Now gently separate the layers, and curl them upward.  Alternate sides and overlap the edges to keep from making a flower with two halves:

To make the centers, put some crumpled scrap tissue in the middle of a black piece of tissue, and gather the edges to form a ball:

Secure with scotch tape, and cut off the excess:

Attach with a couple doubled-over pieces of packing tape to the flower center:

The stems are made with dowels at the bottom (though sticks from a garden tree or bamboo poles would work fine), and wire at the top so they will be sturdy, but the flower heads will still move and bend naturally.  Take a foot or so of sturdy wire (double or triple it for width), and wind the flower head onto it.  Secure with a wrap of  packing tape.  Wrap the stem onto the dowel and secure with more packing tape.

Add leaves of green tissue if you like, then wrap the entire thing, starting from the bottom, in crepe paper.  It doesn’t have to be perfect–a few lumps look more natural.  Wind several times around the back of the flower, and secure with scotch tape.

Voila!

Tom made stands out of scraps of wood, but you could also just lean them in a corner…

Enjoy!  But be careful.  You might start feeling droooowsy…

 

 

Backyard Bird Nest Drama: An Update on “The Roofer’s Birdhouse”

Remember the Roofer’s Birdhouse? The avian soap opera continues:  We meant to borrow a long ladder and take the box down before more House Sparrows could use it this season, but alas, we didn’t quite get to it. So I decided to make the most of the urban wildlife “research opportunity,” and observe the progress of the nest carefully.

The "Roofer's Birdhouse," when it was new.

Right away in early spring, House Sparrows moved in.  They didn’t mind that the entrance hole was now giant (chewed by a squirrel who had contemplated using the house for himself ), and got busy collecting feathers from the chicken coop, and other refuse from around our house to make their messy nest.  We’ve been hearing the cheeping of the young for a couple of weeks now, and they should be ready to fledge anytime.

Our beloved predator, Delilah, among the backyard buttercups.

In a dramatic turn of events, our domestic predator, Delilah, killed the mother House Sparrow yesterday.  Delilah is officially an indoor cat, but when the weather gets warm, she sometimes slips out the open back door, and we let her wander around the garden with us–since she doesn’t go out much, she’s too scared of the world to stray.  But she reminds me what swift and effective predators domestic cats are.  I’d barely turned my back on her before she brought her recently-live prey proudly into the house.

I suppose if we could teach cats, which are NOT “natural predators” in the landscape–they are naturally predacious, which is different–to kill only nonnative birds such as House Sparrows, maybe there would be some kind of balance, but that is not how it works.  Once, after another of her secret forays into the backyard wilds, Delilah brought me a MacGillivray’s Warbler, one of the few ever sighted in West Seattle.  I was able to release that bird, but can’t know how it fared, as even tiny cat bites are deadly to birds.

In any case,  I gently separated Delilah from her dead sparrow (disappointment!–Delilah did not forgive me for hours); even if this was “just” a House Sparrow, she was lovely in her own right, and I was sorry for her.  I buried her in a shady garden corner.

But things are not all bad for the sparrow family.  While many songbird species leave care of the young to the female, male House Sparrows are active in the feeding of the nestlings.  Mr. House Sparrow did seem agitated and confused after witnessing the loss of his mate, but he “manned-up” right away, and got busy feeding his brood.  This morning I imitated the call of the male house sparrow, and for the first time one of the nestlings peeked out.

The male House Sparrow, tending his motherless brood.

I believe we have two ethical options regarding the nonnative starlings and House Sparrows nesting in our yards:

1.  Try to prevent them–remove their nests or eggs, cover inviting potential nest-spots (both are cavity-nesters, and like things like gutter cornices or heater vents). I never advocate harming individual birds, or their young after hatching.  (See my post on the Roofer’s Birdhouse for more on this.)

2.  If they do nest in our yards, then we should make the most of it.  These are approachable, watchable birds, and we can learn a lot about all birds by observing them closely.  (See my earlier post on House Sparrows for more on this.)

Is there drama in your little plot of urban wilderness?  I’d love to hear about it.

 

Baby Crows In Our Midst

This archive post first ran on June 21, 2011

One of the Crow Questions I hear most often is, “Why do I never see baby crows?”  In truth, it is likely that we have all seen plenty of baby crows–but we are misled by the human tendency to conflate “baby-ness” with small-ness.  A few crows will jump from the nest before they are grown, and cannot yet fly.  Such precocious chicks are quickly hidden beneath a shrubbery by their parents, and we seldom see them, though occasionally we might run across one of these fat, round, wide-eyed little fluffballs.  Normally though, when a baby crow leaves the nest, it is about the same size as its adult parent, and now that it’s mid-June, we are in the peak of Baby Crow Season–they are everywhere.  Physcially, you can recognize baby crows by:  their bills, which have fleshy grayish-pink “gape” left at the base; their feathers, which are a dull matte brown-black, rather than the iridescent purple-black of the adult crow; their eyes, which are typically gray-blue, rather than dark amber as in adults; and perhaps their tails, which may be a bit stubby.

But the best way to tell a baby crow is by its behavior.  Baby crows are not “dumb,” they possess all the native intelligence of their species.  But they are naive.  They sit quietly, looking slowly all around.  They are approachable, and believe that just about anything–a bicycle, a giant cat with a bell, a raccoon, an SUV, you or me–is a strange, wondrous, and probably even a friendly thing.  They have hesitant take-offs and rather bad landings.  They look “sweet.”  They are loud, begging for food from their parents with an annoying “waaaaaaaahhh” call.  If you see a crow, and you instinctively think of it as a “baby,” you’re probably right. Watch for them–they are all around us, and they are super-fun to observe.

An aside:  Ornithologists and even hard-core birders do not call young crows “babies.”  “Humans have babies, birds have young,” we are told.  True, true, but I believe it is a harmless colloquialism, and comes so naturally to our tongues implying, I think, an easy empathy that is one of our own species’ loveliest qualities.  Still, if you want to be orno-hip, you can call these babies “hatch-year” birds through the fall, after which it becomes harder to identify them.

The other day I was riding my bike through the neighborhood, and saw a crow in the middle of the street.  I rode up within two feet of her, and she looked up at me, wide-eyed, turning her head from side to side.  The adult bird was on the wire above me, and gave me just a brief vocal scolding.  I looked up and said, “What a lovely chick you have,” (then looked quickly around to see if there was anyone who might see that I am a Crazy Talking to Birds Lady).  I stayed with the chick for several minutes, until she slowly walked to the sidewalk.  Her parent was quite open-minded about my presence; if we are calm and unassuming, crow adults will often let us watch their young in peace.  (But not always–see my earlier post about crow scolding and dive-bombing during this season of fledglings.)

By fall, most young-of-the-year will have grown their first adult flight feathers–their wings and tails will be shiny and new, but their backs and heads will still be a dull matte brown.

Enjoy the season of young wild creatures in our midst!

Thanks to Flickr users Joshua and Lepak pix for the lovely photos.

 

 

He Saw It, He Loved It, He Ate It: Maurice Sendak on Real Food

This may be the highest wisdom I’ve heard in support of the Food Revolution–it’s not just about Kale, is it?  It’s about life, art, celebration, wildness.

“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

–Maurice Sendak

Rest in Wild Peace, Mr. Sendak.

For more wonderful Sendak quotes and memories, see Freshair Remembers Maurice Sendak.

Meanwhile, today is Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day.  I don’t often go in for the celebrity-chef-days-of-whatever, but Jamie Oliver is cute as pie, tells the truth, and cooks like a madman.  Let’s celebrate.