Tuesday, August 30, 2016


Most needles gone by late November.

 New needles just poke from buds in late March.

Needles a centimeter long in mid-May.

 Full-grown needles and pollen cones at the end of May.

I used to frequent the local Veterans Administration grounds, where kind authorities welcomed the town's youth soccer league to their lawns.  Since my kids have aged out, and since it's not on any of my neighborhood walking routes, I seldom visit these days.  But when I do, its for only one thing: tamaracks.  

Tamarack, aka larch (Larix laricina), is not technically a native, since its real home is the great boreal forest of the far north.  This gangly, awkward-looking tree is a prince in frog's skin: an important species in the coniferous forest of Canada as far north as trees grow at all--the edge of the arctic tundra.  The genus Larix is circumboreal, its eleven species occurring in northern Europe and Asia as well as North America.  Our well-grown Brockton VA tamaracks were planted, but as forest royalty in their own place, they have my respect.  

Larch is the more unusual in being deciduous--one of a small group of conifers whose soft needles turn yellow and drop in the fall just as most broad-leaves do.  I visit to watch this seasonal play, the yellowing and dropping of needles, the new suit of fresh green in late spring, and the little cones that follow.

Since I hadn't been by in over a month, I took a different highway exit home than usual so I could pay my respects.  

I was shocked to find every single tree gone.  A neat bare circle of earth marked the place each had stood.  New fence posts hinted at one likely reason they were gone, though I don't know what prompted the fence.  I stood still at the nearest circle, as at a freshly-covered grave, before bending down in a forlorn hope of finding something.  Tattered cones met my fingers, and I carefully collected three, thinking there might be a few seeds remaining, and perhaps one or two that would germinate.  

Of course, these had been mature trees that had borne cones many times, and as my eyes wandered aimless in the little wood adjacent I saw several older teenager tamaracks standing there, hands in pockets, graveyard-whistling a little and hoping not to be noticed by the humans that had taking their parents.  

The sight of these gave me hope.  Some bore cones of their own, so that if the seeds I found today don't germinate, fresher ones might.  They, too, would undoubtedly meet the chainsaw someday--all things die--but I hoped not til they had grown to be as old as their parents, and not til they had their own strapping youngsters established in some safely-neglected bit of woods.  

 All that remains of the tree photographed at top.

 Youngsters know they will live forever.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Insect Teenagers: Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillars

Ever since I read of the amazing little ecosystem hosted by milkweeds, I've kept an eye on the plants around my house.  Red milkweed beetles have been pretty common, Monarch butterflies are a rarer visitor, and only once, last summer, was I delighted by finding monarch caterpillars munching away.  (Alas, those few colorful caterpillars were only seen a few times, then disappeared.  I long for the day Monarch caterpillars survive to maturity right here in my city garden, and metamorphose into butterflies to join the great, mysterious monarch migration.)  

 In June, red milkweed beetle will chow down on leaves, but prefers flowers and buds.

 In July they're beginning to develop other ideas--but not all at once. 
"Would you mind?  I'm trying to eat, here!" 

August brings a new member of the community.

Only a week ago I was surprised by a new member of the community: Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars.  First there were just one or two, but in a few days there were a dozen or more chomping entire milkweed leaves and dropping big green frass.  Where did they come from?  Gypsy moth caterpillars came and went, their moths also came and went, yet I saw no sign of these guys.  What kind of caterpillar makes its first appearance in August?!

It turns out these caterpillars begin as very inconspicuous things, only developing their full colors late in life.  It's likely the bright colors are a warning to birds, just as for monarch caterpillars: they accumulate in their own bodies the cardiac glycosides milkweed makes as a defense, so the plant's chemical weapon becomes the caterpillar's (and moth's) defense against predators.  I'm guessing their inconspicuousness when young means either they're too small to be a target for birds, or they haven't accumulated enough toxin to be defended by it, or both!

 At this point, they are no longer a rare novelty!  And, like human teenagers,
they're really beginning to make an impact on the larder.

Apparently their parents didn't stick around to teach the youngsters not to poop on their food.

In the space of a few days, these Very Hungry Caterpillars (And, like human teenagers, they really begin making an impact on the larder.) 

 Here is the result of just a few days of non-stop eating.  They plainly don't care for the pods.
And the leaf mid-vein seems to be a little too toxic even for them.

I really don't mind these guys at all.  The milkweeds already have nearly-mature pods--and if they don't mature it'll save me harvesting them all to keep the milkweed population under control!  Of course, assuming the next generation shows up next year, I'll have to keep some milkweed in good shape on the chance my beloved Monarch caterpillars appear!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Life Outdoors

Where the idea of building a little cabin came from is pretty clear.  Why it's become such an obsession is more of a mystery. The "what"--ignoring all the larger practical questions--is more fun.
                                                                             --Journal, February 15, 2014

I started this blog after having read Walden for the first time, while feeling inspired to the outdoor life.  Over time, I realized that, while I've enjoyed outdoor activities--whether walking the streets and woods or building things on the back deck--I almost never just sit outdoors.  I attend to nature, but I do not marinate in nature.  If I am outside, I am nearly always doing something.  Our next door neighbor, by contrast, is on her back porch much of each day, talking, laughing and listening to music, often with wine glass in hand.  She spends much more time outdoors than I do, even though I wouldn't characterize her as a nature-lover.  I envy her a little.  

Then, of course, there's the old friend who puts me to shame with her outdoor adventures: hiking the mountains with husband and dog, kayaking white waters and flat waters--and that's just her regular fun.  Vacations are saved for week-long excursions into the wilderness.  An inspiring life lived for such (literally) mountain-top experiences.  

I envy her, too; but I'm not her, having neither her energy nor quite her love of adventure.   

I really feel the need to be outdoors, more than do outdoors.  But I don't.

Part of this is my fixed habit of relaxing in the quiet of the indoors.  Part of it is definitely a desire to be out of the hot sun and not food for mosquitoes.  (But drought means there are few mosquitoes, and I still don't relax outdoors.)  Part of it may be about "comfort zones": if I'm sitting down, there are nearly always walls around me. 

Thinking about all of this led me to wonder if perhaps I wouldn't be more "at home" in nature if I literally had a home in nature: a tiny hut or cabin.  A wonderful sister in-law, hearing perhaps of my preoccupations, sent books about tiny cabins and shelters, which I pored over for inspiration.*  Ideas emerged one after another at four different scales.  

First, the cabin--

In my mind, the cabin quickly became a daydream of semi-off-grid, small "footprint" retirement.  For at least a year I dreamed and drew plans for a cabin based on the "tiny house" idea that has become popular internet fodder: a home built on a large trailer**--both to get around zoning restrictions forbidding a second residence on a property, and to make it possible to pick up and move when the neighborhood gets crowded.  The cabin moved in my mind from the middle to the edge of a wood, and it quickly grew to include internet, and bicycle access to groceries and a library.  My cabin plans grew and changed as I  fit more and more necessities into road-limited dimensions.  Some of my drawings were almost detailed enough to build from. 

What finally brought drawing to a close was the growing realization that I (meaning we) couldn't live long-term in any such structure, had no place to put it, and had no prospect of raising the money necessary to build it.  But I wasn't really sad: it was a lot of fun working out solutions to the challenges of comfortable living in small spaces with limited resources.

By the time I left off with drawing, a six-and-a-half foot wide cabin with solar panels,
a wood burning rocket mass heater,*** composting toilet, and rain barrels filled from the roof,
 had grown into a luxurious "Wide Load" of 12 feet by 24, and included a queen-sized loft bed,
cold running water, and perhaps even (gasp!) enough power to run a fridge and freezer.
(Beatrice reminded me she would be living there, too.)

Then the tiny cabin--
My next idea was a tiny cabin built on the little utility trailer that we already owned.  this would be a sort of all-season shepherd's hut or Gypsy caravan.  The planning and drawings for this got pretty elaborate too, and I felt that working and sleeping in such a cramped structure (outside footprint 6 feet by about 10 or 12 feet) would force me to spend more time outside!  But calculations showed my little utility trailer wouldn't handle the weight, and anyway it would just sit in the backyard after consuming a lot of time and resources.

6X12 all-weather tiny cabin
 Floor plan shows overlapping bunk (folds to a bench seat) and desk (hinges down), shelf & counter unit, and heat/cook stove.  At bottom is a tiny "mudroom" to keep heat in when going in or out.

 End views of interior, bunks folded.

 Side views from inside.  Lower bunk/bench seat has storage boxes under; bunks have individual windows.  Below includes opposite side, showing heater, storage, counter, windows, desk.

Then the micro hut--
A cheap alternative to the tiny cabin was an even tinier hut, light enough for the trailer, and suitable for a weekend stay in warmer weather.  This was the most restricted and simple design of the three: it would have a "footprint" of 6X8 feet--the dimensions of a single sheet of plywood--but gain additional living volume because the side walls would slant outward, becoming about 6 feet wide at the top.  To save more expense and weight, there would be only the shell--no inner walls or insulation.  Big windows would be okay if the trailer could be turned to keep them out of the hot sun; windows swing out and roof hinges up slightly for ventilation in warm weather.  With bunks and desk stowed away, it would feel almost as big as a walk-in closet!  It's cartoon-house shape looked fairly ridiculous and it would have been a bear to move on the road--about the least aerodynamic shape imaginable.  And I am quite proud of it.  But I finally couldn't justify building it, either.

Micro hut: a light-weight, cheap alternative to the tiny cabin
 Floor plan shows heat stove & flue later abandoned.  Part of lower bunk folds to narrow bench (upper folds flat to wall), desk folds down.  Though floor space is only 4X8, slanting walls give almost enough room to swing a dead gerbil.  "House that Jack built"-look evident in end view below.

Sketch of inside side view of desk & storage, incorporating two "found" windows.

Things were at a standstill.  Then a few weeks ago I had a deep think.  All I really needed was a sheltered place to sit and read or think in comfort with a drink at my elbow.  I could do without shelter from really bad weather if it could at least stand a little rain.  Having no walls would mean I would be less separated from nature.  To be really useful, it would need to be portable.  And best if it didn't take a trailer to move it.  To be sure, we already have a 12X12 screen tent, but it's flimsy and difficult to set up, often goes years between uses.  So I finally drew a light, open frame of wood with mosquito net walls that could be raised, a light plywood sun & rain roof, and a moveable plywood sun shade.  Some lumber, fasteners, glue, paint, an an unconscionable number of work days later, I have my shelter.

Sketch of parts of little shelter--which actually got built
Legs fold down length of frame, to be transported as a 4X8 package.  
Roof rests on top and is removable.  Walls & ceiling are screened.

It was unofficially baptized a few days ago: I had just installed a table and sat down in comfort, elbows on table, to enjoy the fruit of my labors, when a blue jay eyed me from a nearby tree (vision dimmed by mosquito net), decided there was no danger, and landed a dozen feet away to pick at something in the lawn; a moment after that a squirrel scampered right up to the screen to forage, seemingly unaware of my presence--a moment worthy of Walt Disney.

 The screens need to be better worked out, but they definitely need to be moveable.
And any place I relax needs a table for a book, a drink, and a snack.
Okay, molecular cell biology isn't light reading, but at least I'm out here!

*The most inspiring was Derek "Deek" Diedricksen's Micro Shelters: 59 creative cabins, tiny houses, tree houses, and other small structures.

**Among the cutest I've seen are here: http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/collections/gallery

***A favorite do-it-yourself technology of off-the-grid types; they're very cool and worth checking out!