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Posts Tagged ‘Himmelman’

A beam of Venus' light in Cape Cod Bay.

A beam of Venus’ light in Cape Cod Bay.

   Over the course of one month, I’ve witnessed two incredible night-sky phenomenon – each over a different bay in the Northeast. The first was “moondogs” over Winter Harbor in late August. The second occurred in Cape Cod Bay in North Truro, MA on September 28, 2013. Shortly after watching the sun set from our beachfront porch, our party observed Venus come into view directly across the horizon. It was the brightest “star” in the sky and it cast a long, pale beam on the calm bay.  I have seen plenty of moonbeams on the water, but never one created by another planet! Had I been sitting in a boat in that spot, I could have read by the light of Venus.

I tried to take a picture of Venus itself using my Coolpix camera set on “night portrait”, but, as evidenced by the photo below, I couldn’t hold the camera still enough. I think I need to cut back on my coffee intake.

Yeah, that's a handheld night-portrait-setting shot of Venus.

Yeah, that’s a handheld night-portrait-setting shot of Venus.

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Traveled through time with this one...

 

 

I was thinking about a book I reread in the 90’s and thought I’d share how I came to rediscover it.

Many of us have books we remember as a child that left behind the gift of a fond, albeit hazy, memory. There are several in my past, many of which I remember quite clearly. One, however, stood out. While the title eluded me, the story continued to visit, usually in the wee hours while trying to fall asleep. I remembered a young king with a yodler’s hat and a pointed beard. He lost his kingdom and was told that he could be a king again if he could accomplish a number of impossible feats. To do this, he enlisted the help of some men he rescued from various dangers along the way. I remembered that one turned into an elephant (and drank a huge vat of wine, as only a king could do). Another, a swarm of bees (who defeated an army). One, a hatchet, and one a tree. There was also a man who could become a snake (who spanned a gorge, making a bridge for them to cross) and one who could turn into fire (who “consumed” a king-sized meal). The last line of the book was etched indelibly in my memory. When asked why the king should be given a kingdom when these impossible tasks were accomplished by his friends, the elephant guy said, “He did what a good king should do. He led us.”

So, that was the gist of the story. It was also the first time I put the then-newfangled Internet to its proper use. I consider myself a pretty decent “keyword artist” and was able to track it down, despite having forgotten the title. Turns out it was called “The King With Six Friends”, written by Jay Williams.

I will never forget receiving the book in the mail and reading it for the first time in over thirty years. It was truly just as I had remembered! But here’s the surprising part; while the story had changed little in my memory, neither had the feeling I had inside as I read it. As we get older, the way we look at things change. However, while there are different triggers to different feelings and emotions, the effect of those emotions on the who we still are, can be the same. Happiness is still happiness. Sadness is still sadness. In reading this book, the warmth of friendship and the feeling of satisfaction in watching the impossible overcome had not changed. Nor did the ability of Imero Gobbato’s illustrations to draw me into this world.

In a way, this was time travel, or as close to it as I’ll ever come.

 

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My “professional” page on facebook

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Cricket Radio: Tuning In the Night-Singing Insects

Most haunting of all is the one I call the fairy bell-ringer. I have never found him. I’m not sure I want to. His voice — and surely he himself — is so ethereal, so delicate, so otherworldly, that he should remain invisible, as he has through the nights I have searched for him.”

The actress portraying ecology movement pioneer, Rachel Carson, spoke these words in the 2009 film “A Sense of Wonder”. They were taken from an essay she had written in Womans Home Companion in 1956, called “Help Your Child to Wonder”. The passage recounted time spent searching, with her grandnephew Roger, for the sources of the “insect orchestra”, which swelled and throbbed outside of her Maine cottage from midsummer until winter.

Carson writes, “The game is to listen. Not so much to the full orchestra, as to the separate instruments, and to try to locate the players.”

She describes her fairy bell-ringer’s call as clear and silvery, and faint. It is “so-barely-to-be-heard, that you hold your breath as you bend closer to the green glades from which the fairy chiming comes.”

While I’m sure the scientist in Carson really did want to find that little “fairy”, I can understand why another part of her didn’t mind leaving it a mystery. There is something to be said for enjoying something for enjoyment’s sake. For the perpetually curious, it can be a challenge to override that part of you that needs to know more about those sources of wonder. Sometimes, as with the crickets she was unable to find, that choice is made easier for you.

I’ve no doubt she knew those crickets were not calling for her pleasure. They were hard at work at the business of holding a place for their kind on this planet. There could be no more urgent and consequential task to be undertaken by those insects, or for any creature. There was no joy in their song. There was no celebration; nor was there sadness or sorrow. Those “players” were throwing everything they had into propagating their species, and not by choice. They are hard-wired to do so. Yes, Carson knew that, but she probably also knew that there is a kind of beauty in those cold, hard facts. It is like the Mathematician waxing poetic at the austere elegance of the Pythagorean theorem. Physicists find beauty in the makeup of mass, matter, and motion. I suppose the common theme is balance and harmony — things working as they should. A cricket rubbing its wings is carrying out its purpose, as it should. There is something added to that, though. Sound has a way of stimulating our brains. It enters through our ears and resonates within the auditory cortex. The hippocampus, responsible for long-term memory, is located just below that auditory cortex. It integrates with this region, adding connections to our past, along with the associated emotions.

That beauty we derive from the songs of crickets, birds, and whales; the enjoyment of listening to waves crashing on the shore, or wind through the leaves, comes from our own perception, interpretation, and triggered memory connections. We are hard-wired, too. It is in design of the human spirit to be stimulated by things not undertaken for our own edification.

. . .

The preceding opens the first chapter for my new book “Cricket Radio: Tuning In the Night-Singing Insects” (Harvard University Press). Having grown up with an appreciation of the sounds of nature, the crickets, in particular, I set out to explore why they sing and what it is about their sound that touches the human psyche. In the process of doing so, I ended up writing a field guide to the Ensifera (crickets and katydids) and now, this book. The guide, “Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast” (Stackpole Books), represents the “how” when it comes to getting to know this group. “Cricket Radio…” is the why. Why should we open our ears to the sounds that drift in through our windows on a late summer night?

I think a clue can be found at the end of the second chapter:

. . .

Whether they are joined with others, or going it alone, there can be no question that Ensifera song has a purpose — several, actually. It is part of their inheritance. They are born with their auditory signals encoded in their systems. A singing insect is compelled to sing. To silence it, you’d have to tie its wings behind its back. This becomes most evident to me on those sunny November late afternoons, when I’m noticing how quiet things have become. The frosts have come and gone several times, a grim reaper harvesting the last of the year’s insects. The chorus has been silenced. And then, I hear a trill. It’s a lone Carolina Ground Cricket (Eunemobius carolinus) calling, feebly, and stuttering, from beneath a leaf in the side yard. The song lacks the vitality of its summer brethren, but those worn wings still move ablur. There are no females left to answer. It doesn’t matter. It is trilling because it has to, and it is giving it everything it’s got. It is the violinist playing as the Titanic is sinking. It’s what they do.

How can that not stir a soul?

. . .

For more information on “Cricket Radio: Tuning In the Night-Singing Insects, go to www.cricketradiobroadcast.com.
And go here for “Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast

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Subtitle: John Himmelman’s further descent into curmudgeonry.

I’ve seen my last movie in a movie theater. Unfortunately, it was Ironman 2, a big letdown after the first Ironman. Oh well. The movie itself had nothing to do with this decision. I still love watching movies, but for now on it will be in the comfort of my home.

So, you know what did it? Having to pay $9 to sit through a long string of TV commercials prior to the movie. These are commercials you cannot mute. You can’t get up and go to the fridge or switch to another channel. You’re held hostage as commercial after commercial blares out of the theater’s Dolby speakers. This practice began years ago with “The Jimmy Fund”. This caused a bit of controversy, but it was difficult to complain about helping sick kids without coming off as a misanthrope. Then they started sneaking in other commercials – usually one or two – irritating, but survivable. Having gotten away with that, they began adding more and more. Betsy and I walked out of Destinta Theater in Middletown, CT as the 5th commercial came on. We got our $18 refunded. At the Marquee Cinemas in Westbrook, we were assaulted by 8 commercials! And this was well after the movie was scheduled to begin. I’m not talking about coming attractions, mind you. I actually enjoy those. We’re talking about TV ads on the big screen.

A couple of people have suggested showing up later in order to bypass said assault. But then you run the risk of getting lousy seats.

And it’s just WRONG!

We pay a hefty price to see this entertainment! Add to this what we overpay at the snack bar. We should not be subjected to ads once the movie is slated to begin!

I know that some of you are rolling your eyes. You really don’t mind commercials. Well I hate them. In fact, my first blog entry was on how TV ads manage to annoy the bejeezus out of me.

When our son Jeff moved out, we turned his room into the entertainment room. It has a big screen TV, DVD player and surround sound. There’s a wide range of affordable refreshments downstairs and adult beverages. And a comfy lazyboy chair. When we want to watch a movie, we dim the lights and settle in. Amazingly, no one screams at us from the screen, trying to sell us stuff we don’t want.

I know I’m not alone in abandoning the theater experience. It’s probably part of the reason the theater owners are sullying what they offer by subjecting their paying customers to ad barrages. If I’m not there to see them, they can’t bother me.

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Great Crested Flycatcher shaking off a knock to the noggin

I was painting at my drawing table when I heard a bird hit the window in front of me. It hit pretty hard, but fluttered up to a branch on the birch just outside the window. It looked okay at first, but then the eyes slowly closed. The bird went into shock, looking as if asleep, but remained on the branch because avian feet must be consciously flexed to open.

There wasn’t much I could do. I watched from my window, which was only about four feet from the bird.

Then, slowly, the eyes opened. I grabbed my camera. How could I pass on that opportunity? I took my fill of shots, the window acting as the perfect blind. The bird took off a few minutes later. I heard it calling – “reeeeet….. reeeeet….” from the yard a few minutes later.

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B.A.L.L.S. Trophy

Last Thursday night I received the coveted B.A.L.L.S. trophy at the annual Awards Banquet at the Pattaconk Bar and Grille. Many have fought and died for this prize only to have it fall into my hands as a result of a total fluke. Gaze upon its awesomeness in, well… awe.

(B.A.L.L.S., by the way, is the acronym for Bocce Amateur League of the Lower Shoreline. Okay, so it’s kind of a forced title to fit the acronym.)

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Betsy holding freshly dug wild leeks.

Betsy holding freshly dug wild leeks.

I went leek picking the other day. Betsy, the dogs, and I hiked into a super top secret place I know of where they are abundant.

Years ago, when I first came upon this trove of plants, I thought they were some kind of lily. A sniff of a leaf quickly dispelled that assumption — smelled like an onion. The leeks (Allium tricoccum), also known as ramps, grow in the hundreds along a shallow brook. Every year, I make a point to bring home a handful. I love their garlic/mild onion flavor. They make for a more flavorful onion in onion dishes. In garlic dishes, they are a slightly milder substitute.

digging leeks

Part of the allure in harvesting these plants is the hike to get to the spot where they grow. It’s a bit of a trek, but there’s always much to see along the way.

A bigger part for me, though, is the whole seasonal phenomenon aspect. The ramps grow at a time when spring has found its feet. It’s something to celebrate. I’m not alone. Spring is time for the Ramp Festivals down south, where the tuber’s culinary accents are celebrated. They’re often accompanied by bluegrass music and the odor of ramp-fueled dishes cooking under the tents.

Our little handful of wild leeks should keep us festive for a while.

Blueberry season next…

Rinsed wild leeks.

Rinsed wild leeks.

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Out Summer 2009!

Out Summer 2009!

What a journey this book has been on. It began at Northword. As I was halfway through the paintings, I got an E-mail from my editor saying Friday was her last day and the company was in the process of being purchased by another – nameless – company. She told me there were no guarantees the new company would pick up my contract. Their declining to do so, of course, would leave me unpaid for the work I did.

She said that it was up to me to take the gamble of finishing the book for some yet-to-be-named publisher who may have no interest in it. Legally, they were under no obligation to do so.

This kind of thing happens way more than you think in the children’s book publishing industry. I’ll tell you about a nearly identical situation with an upcoming (Fall 09) book I illustrated (A Daddy Longlegs Isn’t a Spider) some other time. I should say that as bad as I was feeling about the fate of this seashore project, I felt even worse for my editor, who had just lost much more.

I still had a month’s worth of paintings to create in order to complete the project. That’s a lot of time that could be spent working on other projects with a better outlook toward producing income. I don’t do this as a hobby.

I decided to keep going, the main reason being that I was enjoying the way the illustrations were coming out. I’ve done a number of children’s books with a nature theme, but this was my first about life on the seashore. This “assignment” forced me to explore a habitat I generally don’t make enough time for. Why didn’t I come up with this sooner? I mean, my job required me to hang out at sunny New England beaches. Oh, the sacrifices one makes for art…

One of the research highlights occurred while looking for sandhoppers, little crustaceans that live among the seaweed and hop like fleas (they’re also called beach fleas). I noticed that 2 young boys were watching me, trying to figure out why that man was sifting through the beach jetsam. They finally got up the courage to ask, and when I told them what I was doing, they asked if they could help.

This attracted more attention, and I was soon joined by a little girl, her brother, and then, her mother. I remembered being warmed by the sight of this loose band of seaweed flippers spread out along the beach hunting for something they most likely never noticed before. This is the kind of stuff I dream my books will inspire after they read them. That it came before, was just as fulfilling.

hermit crab "who's at the seashore?"

Oh, so anyway… the publisher turned out to be Taylor Trade, a division of Roman and Littlefield. They picked up my contract and it’s now a book. I guess my gamble paid off.

*phew*

If you want a copy, and your local bookstore doesn’t have it, they will order it for you. Amazon and B&N carry it online – or go here.

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The blood-red eye of a vireo.  Oh the horror... OH THE HORROR!

The blood-red eye of a vireo. Oh the horror... OH THE HORROR!

A Rather Chilling Field Trip Report: Chatfield Hollow SP, Killingworth, CT, May 3rd, 2009 – for the New Haven Bird Club

Sixteen birders braved the (level, mostly paved) trails and (bit chilly) climate on a birding expedition into the most savage, untamed (lawns weren’t mowed yet) wilderness on that particular spot on the map. The rather modest total of 38 species was but scant reflection of the august efforts of the stalwart lot choosing to throw caution to the wind on that dark (overcast) Sunday morning.

Walking across a winding platform of mere lumber (the boardwalk), only inches above the roiling waters, we espied, at eye level, warbling Warbling Vireos and yellow Yellow Warblers. A Song Sparrow caroled, perched on an alder — typically a common sight, but this one sang a chilling version of its song none there had heard before. It was shortened; cut in half. Despite this, we moved on.

I know I was not the only one thinking we should have heeded the ominous warning of that croaking Common Raven we heard at the onset. Hubris; birding’s cruel mistress…

Curiously shrunken mockingbirds flitted like butterflies above our heads. These tiny “blue-gray” aberrations were surprisingly adept at “gnat-catching”, despite having to overcome the asthmatic wheezing this activity seemed to bring on. Two American Redstarts were seen and heard. Pine Warblers were not. Could there be a connection? Of course not. A Worm-eating Warbler was discovered along a stream. However, on this morning, and in this place, one could be forgiven for expecting to see worms eating warblers.

Louisiana Waterthrushes called, and yet, none were seen. How could this be?

One ray of sunshine was a Yellow-throated Vireo, who, like its Warbling cousins, chose to sing for us in the open, at eye level. It gave our loins the much needed girding for pushing forward. With necks craned at torturous, inhuman angles, we watched singing Baltimore Orioles and Northern Parulas. A lone vireo, its eyes blood-red, murmured to itself in short, repeated phrases. It was stuck in a vocal loop, oblivious to our presence. The bird was beyond anyone’s help.

Along a stream, a pair of Gray Catbirds tossed leaves angrily into the air. They may have been looking for food, but on this day, who could say? Hunger drove a normally sane Downy Woodpecker to hammer its bill, repeatedly, into an old black birch. White-breasted Nuthatches ran up and down the trunks of trees, scoffing gravity, and who knows what other laws of nature? That compelling force — hunger, undoubtedly pushed a Broad-winged Hawk into the air, where it whistled like a killdeer. An osprey circled over the pines. Was it looking for fish? Was it compelled by past success in finding fish in the upper canopy of the conifers?

On any other day, in any other place, I would not have even entertained such thoughts.

Sixteen people entered. Fourteen returned. Dean and Maryanne Rupp had succumbed to the whispered invitations of a path off the main trail. I could see in Maryanne’s eyes there would be no convincing them to leave the park. That was twenty-three hours ago.

I have not seen them since.

(Prepared for the New Haven Bird Club newsletter)

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