Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Day Before and the Week Before

The day before we did the big hike on the Rail Trail, I was working on a Saturday.  Fortunately, the "job" was helping out with study sessions for the County's Envirothon.  Technically it's work, but it was a lot of fun, too.  I was reviewing how streams and rivers work with enthusiastic 3rd and 4th graders.

These sessions take place in Nixon County Park, which has a large Nature Center.  Here are some shots from this last Saturday.

Frogs were abundant, multiple types.  This was the only one I found who wasn't actively working at making new baby frogs :)  Like these:

Some other early signs of spring were showing.  I believe these are blooms of the small shrub called Witch Hazel.  I forgot to break a stem and check the smell - Witch Hazel smells like the stuff you can buy in drug stores.

Now what I didn't tell you is that two Saturdays ago, Justin and I worked the afternoon study sessions together and walked around nearby Lake Williams beforehand.  This gave us something over 5 miles of hiking through pretty gentle terrain.  Lake Williams and Lake Redman are local water reservoirs and are each the center of a County Park.

Here's the tail end of Lake Williams.  The dam for Lake Redman is just across the road.  It was on this hike that I saw my first true wildflowers of this year, some lovely Coltsfoot.  I was fortunate to catch a bee at just the right moment.

There were a lot of Double-Crested Cormorants in the area.  I assume some were migrating through and some are here to stay.  I think I counted well over 30.  One of the funny things about Double-Crested Cormorants is that a lot of times you have to catch them at just the right angle to see their crests.  But not so with this guy, he (or she) is really rocking the hairdo.

Excuse the awkward view through trees, I thought the hair was worth it :)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Dusting Off the Winter

I find it a little hard to believe myself, but from last Sunday to this past Sunday, I have hiked/walked right around 28-29 miles.  We have been making a point of getting out and about to pull ourselves back into some semblance of shape for an upcoming vacation which is going to involve a TON of walking.

The first big foray we did was about 9.5 miles on the York County Heritage Rail Trail.  We wanted somewhere relatively flat with a lot of mileage we could just churn out.  Last Sunday we started at the Hanover Junction trailhead and walked to the town of Glen Rock and back.  Not a lot of wildflowers were out, but there were several big patches of Bloodroot in bloom.

This is the town of Glen Rock.  Bluegrass music fans might recognize this as the town where Del McCoury grew up.  The Rail Trail actually continues south of Glen Rock into Maryland, but this was far enough for us in one day.

The Rail Trail, at least this part of it, runs along the south branch of the Codorus Creek, and the landscape is a mix of farms and forest.  

Most rail trails follow the right-of-way of an old rail line. That is, the rail line has literally become a trail.  This one in  York is a little different, because the tracks are still in place.  They were disused for quite a while.  But now, Steam Into History, a steam-powered locomotive that pulls excursion trains, uses the tracks.  So those on the trail sometimes come face to face with those on the rail!

Here's a short video I took of Steam Into History's gorgeous locomotive when it first arrived in the area back in the summer of 2013.  One of those things I just happened to luck into.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Spring Blooms

The daffodils have taken over the back yard, for now.  With a few tulips second in command.

I have the names of the varieties of all my daffodils written down, somewhere.  When we bought the house, the yard already had plenty of big, bold yellow ones, so I welcomed the infusion of a bunch of fancier white ones from my mother-in-law.

These tulips are sort of new.  They had been languishing in a pot where they never bloomed.  I finally remembered to relocate them into a flower bed, and voila!  

And another primarily white type of daffodil.  You can't tell from the picture that these are pretty large for daffodils.  When the daffodils, paper whites, and hyacinths are all in bloom at once, it's one of the hands-down prettiest times in the garden :)  

The Gathering

There are two books by Irish authors on my Challenge list this year that I wanted to read before we actually travel to Ireland:  Troubles by J.G. Farrell and The Gathering by Anne Enright.
The Gathering fills me with ambivalence.  Part of the issue is that I don't have much common ground with the characters naturally.  A Protestant American only child is very far from the sufferings felt by a child from a very large Irish Catholic family.  But having an unfamiliar point of view isn't that uncommon, who wants to read only books about situations they know about?  Something else is wrong, too.  

I think it's mostly that Veronica Hegarty, the narrator, does a pretty poor job of explaining things.  She keeps everyone, even us, at a distance.  After a short while, you realize she's miserable and has a hard time distinguishing memory from imagination.  She also has a very unsettling way of referring to her body and everyone's genitalia in the most awkward and uncomfortable ways possible.  The reasons for this emerge, but like most books with unlikable first person narrators, it makes for something of a grueling read.

Another thing I have noticed is that if the back cover of a book makes reference to a mysterious family secret with long-term repercussions - nine times out of ten it's going to be sexual abuse of a child or teen.  Spoiler alert:  The Gathering is one of the majority.  That may actually be why Behind the Scenes at the Museum was so refreshing - now there's a family that was very thoroughly messed up but next to none of it had to do with sexual abuse.

Not saying by any means that it's not a topic worth writing about.  But it's almost cliche, the way it comes out in The Gathering.  

All that being said, Enright is a fine writer.  She has a great style.  Sharp little sentences that can nick you like a knife.  The best part is that the end does seem to point to optimism in the face of all of Veronica's problems.

Final call:
Skip this if you don't like reading stories narrated in the first person by characters who have a lot of issues, to put it mildly.  Veronica's a tough pill to swallow.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dead Heat

Patricia Briggs is one of my go-to authors, particularly her Mercy Thompson series.  The Alpha and Omega series is closely connected to Mercy's books - quite a few of the characters are in common and a few plot points cross over.  They also make for a nice fill-in for the long waits in between Mercy books :)

So, when I saw that the new Alpha and Omega novel, Dead Heat, was available at the library, I "wolfed" it down.  These books seem like they never take more than a few hours to digest.

This one left me a little cold, though.  Just a smidge below the usual par.  The characters were themselves, the villain was interesting, the subplots were well-handled.  There were just some strange exchanges here and there.  Especially the day when Anna and Charles went out separately to investigate the child abductions - there were times where I had trouble following the flow of the conversation and action.  An awful lot was introduced in a short time period, and it made for an awkward series of very short wrap ups near the end of the book.

There also seemed to be a weird amount of attention paid to peoples' driving skills, considering there wasn't much in the way of actual chase scenes or the need for hell-for-leather driving.

The horse-centric story lines were interesting, and it was nice to find out some big chunk's of Charles' history.  He's been a bit of a blank slate up till now.

Final call:

I wouldn't miss this installment in the series, but it's not the strongest one, either.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Remember when I said that sometimes I could just tell ahead of time that I am going to like an author?  Kate Atkinson fit that bill for me, and I am happy to say I was right, again.

I am even more impressed that Behind the Scenes at the Museum is her debut novel.  This novel traces Ruby, in her own words, from conception (literally) through her childhood and teenage years.  A coming of age story and one with a double twist - maybe triple twist - I didn't see coming.

Ruby's family is a mess.  We get Ruby's story, but it's interspersed with a troubled family history going back to Ruby's great grandmother.  Ruby's extended family has something of a curse on it, in that many of them die young.  Many of them are also unhappy, and find themselves depressed, considering or vigorously participating in adultery, yelling at their children, ignoring their responsibilities, or otherwise being on the crazy end of human existence.  A few are probably actually psychotic.

The focus is very female here, and the book is full of women who are unsatisfied and unfulfilled by their lives.  Most of the men remain distant figures, although we do get shining glimpses of them in both World Wars.

That Ruby and her surviving sister find their ways through this terrible weight of history is amazing,

Final call:

I am giving this the full complement of stars because I have rarely found an author who can so brilliantly dance the fine line between depicting real life and farce.

I think we have probably all had moments in the lives of our families where we find ourselves thinking, "This cannot possibly actually be happening, this is like something out of a bad movie or a cartoon."  Times where things have gone so far off the rails as to come around the other side and you just have to laugh or else you'll cry.  Atkinson is absolutely brilliant at this.

Lords and Ladies

So, I read another Terry Pratchett book.  I just couldn't not.  I delved into another witch book, and I must say, this one is better than the last.  That is to be expected, most of all because all of the characters are more developed and more, well, themselves.  And then there's Casanunda, who is unparalleled and a creature unto himself.  I am not sure, but I am thinking I may find myself reading the next book in the witch series, Carpe Jugulum, soon, lol.

I have to say, I don't remember being so fond of the Nanny Ogg character the first time around.  She was always a hoot, but she is just such a perfect counterpoint to Granny Weatherwax in this story.  The hedonistic, obstinate sugar to sweeten up Esme's piss and vinegar.

Like always, there were at least 25 places where I literally laughed at loud.  Even when you kind of know what to expect with Pratchett - to the point of having already read the darned book, for crying out loud - he still manages to catch you off guard.

Not going to rate this one, because I think in my mind, I have always divided all of the books I've read into two categories - those written by Pratchett, and those written by everybody else.  It's just not fair to compare these uncomparable books with the rest of the world of letters :)

Sunday, April 12, 2015


I can't remember where I first heard about this book, but I do remember where I first heard about the title character here, Katherine Swyndon.

I have bit of a penchant for books that follow the War of the Roses and the Tudor period of English history.  I think it was Alison Weir's book The War of the Roses that mentioned her briefly as the woman John of Gaunt, the 1st Duke of Lancaster, married for love and who thereby became the ancestress of the Tudors and many other Very Important People.

Somewhere along the line, I heard that Anya Seton's book Katherine is an excellent portrayal of Katherine Swyndon's life.  I will say this for it - it's O.K.  I think its also important to remember that this book was written in 1954.  Not as much was known of Katherine's life then as it is now, and attitudes were different.

There are a lot of things that bug me - Katherine taking care of her estate at Kettlethorpe being one of them.  A few times we expect it to be a transformation and a calling for her, and each time she more or less abandons it when Lancaster calls.

Second, Katherine in this book has a fictional serving woman called Hawise.  Hawise and her family are convenient fictional devices, but they are stretched to the point of incredulity.  For example, there is a point where Hawise says, essentially, "Oh don't worry about me missing my husband and child, I like you much better than either of them!"  Really???

Third, John of Gaunt is underwhelming in this book.  He's a great and influential historical figure, but the book more or less makes it seem like all of his good qualities arise out of not being obviously insane, like most of his contemporaries.  And there is one point where he does go a little bit insane, so there's that.

And lastly, the idea that one of John of Gaunt's retainers took the initiative to murder Katherine's husband just takes the cake.  From what I can tell, it was a real rumor at the actual time of Hugh Swyndon's death, but the novel uses it to have Katherine avoid making the negative moral choice she very probably did in real life: becoming John's mistress while still married.  Come on, that's the easy way out!

There were also plenty of things I liked, and of them, probably the best is the attention Seton paid to the religious feelings of the time.  And to the role that religion played in the life of most people, including Katherine.  The moments she spends at the end of her pilgrimage are lovely.  Most likely complete fiction, but lovely :)

Final call:

This is a long book for a somewhat slender payoff.  Unless you're an aficionado of the time period, I'd skip it.


Today was a fine sunny day, and the perfect one to get digging in the garden.  That being said, spring bulbs are some of my favorite things because they're up and blooming already, and I haven't had to do a thing!

My grandmother had a green thumb, and always had Crocuses and Snow Glories in the yard.  Last year, on a spring farm visit, I saw a few Snow Glories had made it outside of the yard fence.  I took the opportunity to dig them up and transplant them to my garden.  Lo and behold, here they are, doing well in a bed of Angelina Sedum with some Wild Strawberries mixed in.  

I did get a lot of actual work done in the backyard, though.  Over the winter, Justin built me cedar frames for my two vegetable and herb beds.  I use these to follow the square foot method of gardening.  There are sixteen squares in each frame, and you plan and plant each square separately.  I got about one third of the squares planted this afternoon, mostly with lettuce and radishes, but also some basil and cilantro.  

You can see that one square is already occupied by a small chives plant that overwintered successfully.  What you can't see is that one square where I had planted Red Orach last year (a funky pinky red salad green) managed to reseed itself, so I'm already ahead of the game there.  My cold frame is to the rear - I planted that today with a lettuce mix.

In other plant news, I'm fortunate to have a MIL that shares her fabulous plant collections with me.  We visited over Easter, and I came home with several different succulents.  The photo above shows a type of Gasterhaworthia - a cross between Gasteria and Haworthia that has a pinkish hue.  

And this is one of her large beds of Scillia, another type of spring bulb.  They are very similar to Snow Glories, except that the flowers are nodding, or downward-facing.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Skippack Creek

A long time ago, I bought this book.  I have the one for Central Pennsylvania, too. For a while, we made a point of doing as many as we could, but had kind of gotten off track lately.

So this last weekend, desperate for some outdoor activity, we revisited the book and came up with a nice hike through Evansburg State Park in Montgomery County.  No, we didn't pick it based on its name, and yes, this wonderful hike is basically in suburban Philly!

We did a 4.7 mile loop hike which took us up one side of Skippack Creek, across it, and then down the other side.  There are a lot of old farmsteads in and near the park.  It was interesting to imagine the days when travel by creek probably would have been far simpler than travel any other way.

I didn't get a good photo of this part, but at one point, we were walking through the brushy flood plain close to the creek, with a farm field on one side, and then a hemlock-covered cliff rising across the stream.  It reminded me very much of the family farm.  Down to the details of how the stream flows!  

Elsewhere, there weren't a lot of signs of spring, except for a very muddy trail.  But I did find a few cheerier signs of warm weather. 

These daffodils were a day or two from popping open, and also were another sign of human habitation at some point (daffodils naturalize but aren't really wildflowers).  I also found a twig from a tree that had fallen to the forest floor.  The blooms were very small, but surprisingly colorful.

I felt like a poor woodsman this trip, because I don't know what kind of tree the blooming twig belongs to, and I don't know the name of the small trees that these long-lasting whitish leaves from last fall were hanging on to, either!