Saturday, November 26, 2011

Well NOW I want to put up the tree!

As I've mentioned in last year's post,  I have a love hate relationship with holiday decorating, or rather, Christmas Tree decorating. Last year's method of taking 2 days to put the tree up and not hanging all one million ornaments on the branches worked rather well. I also took the tree down in a timely fashion, the week after Christmas.

I made the decision to not put up the tree this year. It was a confident and guilt-free decision...until now.

We're having a German-themed Christmas Party at the Historic Society next weekend and I've spent the last 2 months researching the Christmas traditions of this country. I've read quite a bit on their decorations; Christmas Pyramids, Raucherman, Nutcrackers and especially the ornaments.

Glass making was big business in Lauscha, Germany, but it wasn't until the mid nineteenth century that the Christmas ornament was born. Louis Greiner-Schlotfeger began blowing thick-walled glass balls known as kugels, which he silvered with a Bohemian silver mirroring solution. Kugel making was a family endeavor in Lauscha. The man of the household created the ornaments while his wife silvered the insides. The ornaments were hung overnight to dry before being dipped in different colors. Family members painted trimmings and the younger children put the caps on top of the ornaments. It was estimated that a family working 6 days a week, 8-15 hours a day, could create 300 to 600 ornaments a week.

In 1880, F.W. Woolworth, the owner of the popular Woolworth Dime Store, reluctantly agreed to display a few imported German glass ornaments in his Lancaster, Pennsylvania, store. He sold out of his original $25 shipment in two days. By 1890, he was traveling to Germany to select ornaments for his stores.

Molds for ornaments were created around 1890, giving glass makers the opportunity to mass produce their goods. Over 5000 different molds were created from 1890 until 1940 with the pine cone being the most popular design. However, Santas, animals, flowers, nuts and fruits were other favorites.

World War II  brought an end to glass blowing in Lauscha and East Germany turned most of Lauscha’s glassworks into state-owned (VEB) concerns after the War. However, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, most of these firms were reestablished as private companies. Today there are still about 20 small glass-blowing firms active in Lauscha.

The more I read about German made ornaments, the more I thought about all the glass blown ornaments my mom bought me from her days working at the Department Store. Were all those ornaments made in Germany? Up until this point, I didn't particularly care for glass blown ornaments. I always preferred wooden or acrylic ornaments. Ornaments that were hardy and could weather a fall without serious consequence. I always felt like if I sneezed on a glass blown ornament it would shatter in my hand. In fact I had at least 2 that fell and broke after hitting the carpet.
Tonight I went downstairs and rummaged through my boxes of glass ornaments. Most of them did have the "Made in Germany" stamp on top of the metal caps.

  After learning the history of glass ornaments, I felt like I was seeing these Christmas decorations in a new light. It would be a shame to leave these German made creations hidden away in my basement. Maybe this year I'll buy a SMALL live tree and only bring up my absolute favorite ornaments.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Seed Cleaning

Late fall is a busy time at the Ecology Center with the staff trying to schedule the yearly prescribed burn and collecting and cleaning seeds for planting. We usually try to involve students in this process because not only are they learning a part of the life cycle of a plant, but the class takes home a big bag filled with seeds they picked and cleaned with their own hands.

Seed cleaning may bring images to mind of scrubbing seeds with soap and water, but this is not the case, as today's students learned. This was the school's first trip to the Ecology Center and the staff is helping the school plan their very own native plant garden. My group was introduced to the prairie habitat and the ways these plants are adapted to a life of full sun and little rain.  The students got a hands on look at the various sizes and shapes of seeds and we discussed how they were adapted to their particular method of transport (seeds that were carried on the air were light and fluffy, whereas seeds that hitched a ride on the coat of an animal felt like velcro).  There was a great deal of smelling, poking and rubbing of plants as the kids decided what they wanted to put in their bag.
Once we collected enough seeds, we returned to the cabin to begin the process of seed cleaning.

Seed cleaning is essentially separating the seed from the chaff and spreading them out to dry. Ideally, colanders, sieves, window screens or other forms of metal screens are ideal for this step, but space and cost is something of an issue for us. We have the kids separate the seeds from the chaff on top of a white piece of paper or tray before moving the seed to another tray.

The newly separated seeds can be dried in paper or plastic bags (open for air circulation), dixie cups or spread out on small plates. The seeds need to be turned or stirred every few days to make sure they are dried evenly. Once dried, the seeds can be stored in a cool place out of direct sunlight until they are ready to be planted.

The kids had a great time cleaning the seeds and it didn't take long before stems and other pieces of chaff were strewn across the table and on the floor. The next step is for the school to sow those seeds in their garden. And that is an entry for another day.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lost in the Urban Jungle: A Place Where Hoarding Makes A Profit

 I didn't completely hate my time in New Orleans, nor was it entirely a series of misadventures. The bayous were beautiful and the winter birding was pretty good. City Park was my favorite place not only for the birdwatching, but the graceful Live Oak trees as well. The food was delicious with many entrees unique to New Orleans. My favorite breakfast spot was Cafe Beignet, the very same place featured on Alton Brown's "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" (I don't watch food shows on TV so this one is lost on me. But there was a huge sign proclaiming this feat and proof on this website) where each morning I had a soy latte and beignets. The buildings and homes in New Orleans were unique and colorful with many housing local art stores, antique shops and used book stores.

There was one used book store in particular that immediately caught my fancy and I made at least 3 trips to this treasure trove of titles. In terms of book stores, this place was a disaster waiting to happen and I must confess that was part of the charm. There were books everywhere. Books spilling out of boxes on the floor, piles of books on the floor stacked nearly waist high. Books on top of shelves, some touching the ceiling. Books on counters and behind the counters. Books books books.

The store was something of an adventure to navigate around with stacks and boxes of books cluttering the narrow aisles. Bending down to look at a bottom shelf was more-or-less impossible, so I would bend from the waist and read titles hanging upside down. The shop owner claimed he was remodeling and said he would be happy to get a book from a stack or from the top shelf. I had no doubt he was willing to help, but I didn't want him to go through the trouble for a book I probably wasn't going to purchase.

The shop owner was reserved, almost unfriendly, when we walked in but seemed to relax the longer we were in the store and the more I gushed about all the different books.  I'm sure the 3 books I had cradled in my arms helped too. By my second visit he was more friendly, yet guarded, which was probably his personality. He mentioned book titles based on my interests and told me I could dig around in a giant box of books behind the counter that he had not yet put out in the store.

As I browsed the countless titles, I tried to analyze his personality based on his demeanor and appearance of the store. I couldn't help but wonder if his home looked like his shop. I guessed he was a hoarder (well, duh) who lived a solitary life and his passion were books. There were a few customers that came in during my visits and he was able to point them to an area housing a particular genre of books or even the location of a certain book based on their questions. I don't know how he knew where anything was in that place. Other than figuring out how he had the store organized in terms of genres, the place looked like a giant disorganized jumble of books. How he could quickly find one particular book in all those piles amazed me.

I've been to a lot of bookstores in a lot of places over the years and I have never seen a store like this. Maybe that's why I found it so charming. The store was the intimate expression of its owner and not the usual sterile and predictable set up of a library. The bookstore, albeit messy, was human.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lost in the Urban Jungle part 2: Always have a backup plan, or at least a backup map.

I got lost multiple times on this trip, but the incident that takes the cake happened on Saturday.  I read the birding in the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in Slidell was pretty good and had a small population of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.

So on Friday evening, I typed in the location on the Navigation GPS in my phone and was pleasantly surprised to see it appear on the menu. I clicked on the location and the directions immediately popped up. Up to this point, Navigation had not let me down (I didn't count the difficulties I had with it while walking, because the unit was meant for cars, not human legs). Unlike Danno's Tomtom, Navigation did not attempt to steer me into a pasture or take me through the worst part of town. I made it to City Park and to the highway with no problems earlier in the week. I was so confident in this Navigation GPS application that I did not look up the Refuge on my laptop to double check the address or directions.

I got up early Saturday morning and hit the road in a good mood. I was about to hit the bayou and potentially see a new bird to add to my list, and an endangered species no less. But even if I didn't see the bird, I wouldn't be disappointed. It was always fun to explore a new place.

The drive to Slidell was uneventful, most of it being highway. I drove a few miles on a two lane road that paralleled the bayou so I was graced with occasional glimpses of tall trees or grasses within a stand of water. I drove past flavors of the town's culture; churches, small houses, a marine and independent food stands. I had no inkling of the trouble I was in until the last 1/2 mile. Navigation had me turn down a gravelly road and initially I thought nothing of it because I had been to several wildlife refuges or other parks that were at the end of a gravel road. However, what I did find unusual was the lack of signs indicating the presence of the refuge. But Navigation told me I was traveling in the right direction so I continued to drive....until the road ended at a pair of gates in front of a large house. Navigation told me I had arrived at my destination. No, I was not at my destination, I was in front of someone's house. I hit reroute and Navigation stubbornly insisted that I was at my destination.

With a sigh, I turned around and went back the way I came, past all the houses, churches, the marina and food stands. I pulled into a small gas station and hoped whomever was inside could help me find this elusive national wildlife refuge. This was a small town, how difficult could it be?

Regretfully, the woman running the gas station could not help me in my quest. In fact, she had never heard of this wildlife refuge. We poured over a map and indeed, saw the refuge, but no street leading to it. She suggested a few streets to try that were supposedly near this hidden refuge and told me that I could stop and ask someone in the neighborhood for directions. Surely someone knew where this refuge was located.

I was thrown 2 more curve balls when I left the gas station. At some point I hit the mute button during all the poking and swiping on my phone and couldn't figure out how to unmute the Navigation application (like most GPS units, the machine talks to you, giving you enough notice when to turn) and despite the fact my phone was plugged in the charger, it was nearly out of power (I later discovered I didn't have the phone plugged in all the way). Panic had been hovering over me like a cloud since arriving at this stranger's house, but I had managed to keep it at bay by deciding to get directions from the gas station. But now the cloud had burst and panic rained down over me. I texted Dan and relayed the story, finishing up in telling him that I was low on battery power and didn't know what to do. I continued to fiddle with the settings on Navigation to see if I could unmute the GPS when Dan texted me a link to the park. I was in the wrong town. Granted, the refuge was about 20 minutes away, but the refuge was no where near Slidell.

Despite the fact that the GPS was muted, I decided to give the refuge a try. I whipped a u-turn and the GPS went sailing from its place near the dashboard to a spot under my feet. When I went to hit the brakes to pull over, I stepped on something plastic and heard a crack. Great. I pulled into a parking lot and found the cradle in pieces. That's when my brain shut down. I was tired, lost and discouraged. I couldn't deal with another obstacle, even one as small as a broken cradle that held my phone (and the GPS in my phone). The thought of trying to keep my phone near the dashboard so the GPS satellites could bounce their mysterious rays down to my phone, while trying to find this refuge with a muted Navigation, while my phone was low on power was more than I could handle. It wasn't safe to drive and balance and stare at a map and worry about my phone dying all at the same time.

I was on the brink. I felt stupid and didn't know whether I wanted to cry or scream in frustration. I didn't like this city, it made me feel uncomfortable and I just wanted to go home. I was tired of all the noise and commotion that was New Orleans. I was tired of getting lost, having people bump into me, worrying whether or not I was going to get hit by a car when I crossed the street, tired of the loud music, and of the trash and graffiti that was everywhere I looked.

Tired and dejected, I headed back towards the city. When I returned to the hotel, I looked at the refuge's website and saw they had another location on the western edge of the city. I went to this bayou on Sunday. And didn't get lost.

The moral of the story. Have more than one set of directions when you decide to travel to a new place.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lost in the Urban Jungle: City Sense

We went to New Orleans last week for my brother-in-law's (Danno's brother) wedding. The couple have lived in The Big Easy for a few years now and absolutely love the city. I went to New Orleans several years ago and hated it. I was uncomfortable with sellers hawking their wares to everyone and anyone who passed by on the street, the inebriated people walking around and, I'm sorry if I sound like a snob, but the number of homeless people wandering around and sitting in groups on doorways put me on edge. Plus, knowing the crime rate was high didn't help my comfort level.  Needless to say I wasn't exactly looking forward to being in the city again, but promised myself I would be open minded. I was a little older, wiser, and fond of my brother-in-law and his fiancee.

We arrived late Wednesday night and Thursday morning I got up and decided to hit one of the coffee shops for some local coffee and beignets. We were staying in the French Quarter and there were several cafes around. How hard could it be to find a place close to the hotel?

I made a big mistake thinking I could easily walk in a strange city when I had not even walked in the downtown districts of my own town. Apparently there is a "city sense", a kind of familiarity people acquire navigating through the maze of streets and tall buildings while walking among a crowd of strangers and impatient drivers. The location may be different, but the overall details are the same. I have the "nature sense". I feel at home on a dirt trail with trees towering above me or cutting through a swath of tall grasses. It doesn't matter the location, the sense is the same. I may get lost in the woods, but I have a generalized idea of where I'm going and know that I will eventually find my way back. Not so in the city.

The walk from the hotel wasn't too bad, it was actually pleasant. It was early in the morning so the vehicle and foot traffic was light. There were delivery trucks on the streets, shop owners pulling trashcans into alleys, people hosing down their portion of the sidewalk and construction workers setting up their equipment for the day. There were no drunk people ambling about, no peddlers out and very few menacing looking strangers lurking in doorways. Maybe this town wasn't so bad after all.

I had Navigation, a GPS application on my phone that I used as my guide and decided to go to Cafe Du Monde, which was near the French Market. I did have a little trouble using the map on the phone because Navigator was meant more for a vehicle and I think my slow progress was confusing the satellites. The GPS was showing my location a street over from where I actually was, so I was constantly shrinking the map to look at the streets in relation to where I was walking. But I found the cafe in a reasonable amount of time.

I was largely unimpressed with Cafe Du Monde. The cafe had a tiny building with tables and chairs more-or-less in the kitchen and a huge tented seating area. The flaps on the tent were down because it was a chilly morning and the bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling provided dingy lighting. It was a seat-yourself establishment and the waitresses, who sat in chairs near the entrance of the tent, only got up to serve their assigned tables. My waitress was obviously used to the large masses of people coming in and out of the restaurant and I was just another body at her table. She stood off to the side and not once did she look at me while we interacted. In fact, she rolled her eyes when I tried to pronounce Cafe au Late. But I shrugged off her rude demeanor and enjoyed my breakfast.

After hitting a few shops in the French Quarter, I decided to return to the hotel, and that's when the trouble began. I had a difficult time interpreting where I was in relation to where the GPS placed me on the map. And because it was later in the morning, not only did I have the challenge of finding my way back to the hotel, but now I was trying not to run into people as I stared at my phone, and dodge speeding cars as I crossed the streets. The street signs were confusing as well and I'm not sure if the street department or the rowdy public were to blame. Many times I would come to a street corner and while the sign of the street I was on would be present, the cross street sign would be bent or covered in graffiti. But more times than not, the cross street sign would be absent.

At one corner there was a couple with suitcases looking around in bewilderment. It was the look of the lost.

"Excuse me" the man with the suitcase said to another man, "Do you know what this cross street is?"

"Sir I've only been here 12 hours. I have no idea." the other man replied.

I walked the streets with a growing sense of panic as I tried to remember whether or not I passed that building or recognized that sign. The battery on my phone went from yellow to red. I texted Danno and told him I was lost and trying not to freak out and I was going to have to turn my phone off because it was almost out of power.

There were more strange people out and about now. People with dirty clothes, greasy hair and tattoos and piercings on nearly every inch of skin. They were standing in the middle of sidewalks, hunched in doorways and walking on the curbs. I was going to get mugged. I just knew it. Danno appeared on Bourbon Street and I almost cried in relief. Apparently he had been tracking me tech style ala Google Latitude on his phone to find and rescue me. Thank God.

I do not have city sense and do not foresee myself acquiring this ability any time soon. I don't have the comfort level to be around crowds of strange people, nor do I have the tolerance to have my personal space constantly invaded or the patience to interact with people who talk to me when I did not initiate the conversation. If this makes me a crabby, mean or snobby person, then so be it. I do not like the big city habitat. I love the space and quiet of a small town.  There isn't an endless maze of streets in a small town, and there is no bumper to bumper traffic. I'll take the slow pace of a small town any day.