Biodiversity…I Spy…Surprises!

Biodiversity…I Spy…Surprises!

I walk our farm at least twice a week, usually more, but I always find something new, and sometimes, very surprising.

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa.  This is the first time I have seen this bloom here.

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa. This is the first time I have seen this bloom here.

Most of the time I have walking companions – three sheep, a goat, and a dog or two.  Such a crowd of four-legged ones walking around seems to trick the birds into thinking no humans are present.  Sometimes the dogs and the goat call my attention to things I haven’t noticed – the dogs by barking furiously and the goat by freezing in position and refusing to move.

After confronting our dog Harper for ten minutes, this hog (below the fallen trees) made a dash for space.

One of the dog’s finds, a young feral hog below the fallen trees). Hogs are all over Texas, but this is the first time I ever saw one here.

It was too brushy to get a good picture.

It was too brushy to get a good picture.

Leila (the goat) spotted this broad-banded water snake in a little dip on our path.

Leila (the goat) spotted this broad-banded water snake in a little dip on our path.

And then other times, all the animals charge down the path so I think it is clear, and then I step on a snake that not a one of them noticed.  (Just an Eastern Hognose, no worries.) At my age it is good to keep my reflexes working!

Also the sheep are notorious for munching the exact plant I am trying to photograph, or inadvertently scaring the frog I am trying to photograph, so sometimes I go out alone.  I don’t know if I see more animals that way, but I am pretty sure I see different ones.

This coral snake was out in the middle of the pasture in broad daylight.  I did not have the usual thundering herd with me, so I caught it unaware.

This coral snake was out in the middle of the pasture in broad daylight. I did not have the usual thundering herd with me, so I caught it unaware.

And sometimes creatures just pop up in unexpected places.

This feisty crawfish showed up in the backyard this morning.

This feisty crawfish showed up in the backyard this morning.


A Carolina Wren built a nest in the barbeque! This is Day 4 after they hatched.

A Carolina Wren built a nest in the barbeque! This is Day 4 after they hatched. Bad picture but I don’t want to disturb them.

Other surprising things:

  • A Great Horned Owl swooped down and tried to catch one of the ducks as it was swimming in the very middle of the pond.  I had no idea an owl would risk getting soaked, or that they would go after such big animals.
  • There are salamanders called sirens, that have only two legs, and gills AND lungs.  I know because one about 12 inches long turned up in our minnow trap.  I had no idea such a thing existed, much less in our pond.
  • I am amazed that Eastern Kingbirds are still in existence, because every day I see a crow making multiple trips to steal the eggs they have laid in their nest.
  • To make a rare butterfly, snake, or bird appear, all I have to do is get on the phone with someone.  The minute I hang up and am able to aim my camera with both hands, the rare creature disappears.

What wildlife surprises have you had?


Biodiversity…I Spy…the Tiny Ones

Beautiful tiny creatures I found around the farm on my walk yesterday.

Crab spider and bumble flower beetle on monarda flower.

Crab spider and Bumble Flower beetle on monarda flower.

Crab spider on rudbeckia flower.

Crab spider on rudbeckia flower.

Goatweed butterfly, Anaea andria

Goatweed butterfly, Anaea andria

American painted lady butterfly, Vanessa virginiensis

American Painted Lady butterfly, Vanessa virginiensis

Two tiny beetles on a rudbeckia.

Two tiny beetles on a rudbeckia.

Two grasshopper nymphs?

A grasshopper nymph and????

Texas Crescent Longhorn beetle, Typocerus lunulatus texanus, on a powderpuff flower, Mimosa strigillosa

Texas Crescent Longhorn beetle, Typocerus lunulatus texanus, on a powderpuff flower, Mimosa strigillosa

Southern Broken Dash butterfly, Wallengrenia otho

Southern Broken Dash butterfly, Wallengrenia otho

Part of the fun is learning the names of the plants and animals, although chasing down a beetle identification is no picnic!

This post is in response to the Biodiversity…I Spy challenge from Just Another Nature Enthusiast.

Biodiversity …I Spy…No Child Left Inside

Biodiversity …I Spy…No Child Left Inside

Just Another Nature Enthusiast has posted a challenge this month, to focus on the biodiversity around us.  For the last six years, since we moved to the farm, documenting biodiversity has been one of my favorite pastimes, so I am going to do a series of posts.

It has been an unusual spring here in East Texas.  Our average rainfall for May is about 5 inches; so far we have had 12.5 inches! Of course the two days it didn’t rain, when I would have loved to stay home and accomplish something here, were two Saturdays that I had volunteered to help on some Girl Scout nature hikes.  I had a great time with the groups, and ended up seeing some wonderful creatures that I don’t usually see here.

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The hikes are scheduled to be two hours long, but with moving at the girls’ pace, and stopping for animal observations and frequent questions, they end up being more like three hours long.

On one hike, the girls were fourth graders from a suburban area.  They said that they lived where there were lots of stores and businesses, but also a lot of parks.  They were interested in everything, and when we saw a box turtle they stood perfectly still and quiet for ten minutes, waiting patiently for the turtle to stick out its head from its shell.  When we saw snakes, they moved calmly to get a good look, one at a time. They asked observant questions, like “What made that tree grow sideways?”  It was so much fun to be out with them, and my impression was that they were pretty knowledgeable about nature.

But when I had them write down one thing they learned, they wrote things like, “I didn’t know there were different kinds of trees,” and “I didn’t know turtles could close their shells.”  So I was glad I had opened their eyes to some new aspects of nature, It reconfirmed my belief that sharing nature with kids is one of the most important things I can do.

Disappointed in Research

Back in 2012, I was reading the Iliad with an online group, and I was amazed when I got to these lines about the famous Helen:

She [Iris] came on Helen in the chamber: she was weaving a great web,
a double folded cloak of crimson, and working into it the numerous struggles
of Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armoured Achaeans,
struggles that they endured for her sake at the hands of the war god.
Iliad Book 3  (This translation by Caroline Alexander in The War That Killed Achilles)

You can read the posts I wrote back then about my reactions and questions, but let me sum up.

Those few lines describe highly skilled and valuable weaving, and yet they connect Helen to the everyday tasks that most women would have been doing.  I want to know whether these lines reflect historical reality to any degree, or if they are just an exaggerated description to portray character or mood.

Think about how we represent cars in the movies.  If a historian a thousand years from now saw footage of the Batmobile, he or she might think, “I know they had cars back then, but did anyone really have a car with ejector seats and automatic sliding plates that encased the car?  Was that ever a reality, or just wishful thinking?  And why show him driving at all?  Is it to establish a commonality between this character and real people?”  Those are the kinds of questions that this passage raises in my mind.

Some authors portray Helen’s weaving as evidence of her passivity, but to me it shows her processing the reality of war in her own way.

So when I saw a whole book about Helen, Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore by Bettany Hughes, I was sure that in its 458 pages, my questions would be answered.

Hughes talks about the three aspects of Helen — “the Spartan princess with divine paternity fought over by the heroes in Greece,”  “a demi-god, heroine, worshipped and honored… an integral part of the spiritual landscape,” and “the ‘strumpet'; the beautiful, libidinous creature irresistible to men.”  (pp. 10, 11)  She says she believes “that the template for Helen of Troy was provided by one of the rich Spartan queens who lived and died on the Greek mainland in the 13th century BC… a woman so blessed, so honored, so powerful, she appeared to walk with the gods.  A mortal who, down the centuries, has become larger than life.” (p. 11)  She says she wants to understand Helen as a real woman in a Bronze Age context.

I’m not that interested in Helen as an individual, but in what she represents of the women of her time, and especially textile workers, so I really wanted to read only that part of the book.  But when I looked in the index, there was no mention of weaving or looms, so I had to just dig in.

The book basically follows a chronology of Helen’s life.  Each chapter focuses on one life stage or event, but within the chapter, the spotlight swings wide to include a hodge-podge of Helen-related details — 14th-century religious recriminations, 19th-century paintings, recent archaeological finds, and the author’s own travels.

I learned a lot as I read, but overall the tone was just too gushy for me.  A sample sentence:

“So as the Troy-bound lovers listen to the sounds of the night, and stroke each other’s arms, as the waves lap the boat’s side and Helen pushes her ‘loose and lustrous hair’ back out of her eyes, the picture of mortal bliss, there is a dreadful inevitability about what is going to happen next.” (p. 171)

For a lot of it, you could substitute “Beyoncé” or “Kim Kardashian” for “Helen”, and you would have a tabloid-worthy article.  I read it all, though, skimming the flowery prose for nuggets of information.  Some ideas that were briefly mentioned piqued my interest (for example that the story reflects a time that male gods were overtaking matriarchal religions) but were not gone into.

Finally I got to the chapter on the siege of Troy, Chapter 27, Helen — Destroyer of Cities.  Helen’s former husband and her current lover are going to fight one-on-one to determine the outcome of the war.

And this is what I read:

When we meet Helen face to face in the Iliad, in Book 3, she is brought in to survey the men fighting for her on the plains of Troy…So there is Helen, famous, beautiful, and desired.  A prize for Trojans and Greeks alike.  She is watching men slug it out for here, just as they did twenty years before…the need to possess the ultimate beauty will spur Greeks and Trojans alike to a ruthless odium. (p. 205)

What???  When we meet Helen she is weaving.  See above.  Hughes just leaves that part out and skips to the old men of Troy declaring that Helen is indeed worth fighting for.  (She leaves out the lines where they say, “Nevertheless, let the Greeks take her and go to stop further trouble around here.”)

Hughes does not mention the weaving until five chapters later in Home to Sparta.  She says:

While at Troy Homer tells us that Helen embarked on an intricate tapestry – a never-ending creation that told the tales of heroes and of war. .. Helen might have completed her own epic work of fabrication back in Troy, but now there would be a whir and a clatter as others settled themselves at the loom to begin their own version of the life of the Spartan Queen.  (pp. 233, 234)

I was disappointed that there wasn’t more information given, and went back and looked at the Iliad again, and was surprised that the weaving description was only four lines long!  In the time since I first read it, it had grown in my mind to be a couple of pages at least.

Finally, in Appendix Five, Royal Purple – The Colour of Congealed Blood, Hughes goes into more detail about Helen weaving, but she focuses on her use of luxurious purple, a dye from murex snails.  (Hughes even went diving for snails herself.)  And then:

There is no question that aristocratic women in this world would have sat and produced cloth.  The intricate and delicate pieces they made might end up as gifts for visiting diplomats, might be worn in grand public ceremonies or might perhaps be offered to the gods, used to dress cult statues ceremonially.  Hand-woven, pieces like this could take years to produce.  Only the nobility devoted so many hours to so rare an activity. (p. 341)

Well, now I was disappointed for a few more reasons.  One, no source is given for this information, so I can’t see where to go from here.  Two,  Mycenaean weaving was quite the specialized industry, involving a large percent of the population.  It wasn’t a rare activity practiced only by the nobility.

I have had a lot of trouble writing this post, because how do you write about something you didn’t find?

Ordinarily, I could recognize that it might be too much to ask to have some textile history included (Well no, not really.  I never think that’s too much to ask), but in a book that purports to tell us all about Helen, a book that spends a page on ink recipes in antiquity or a 19th century French artist’s painting of Helen with no face, it seems like there would be room for more information on such a basic activity.

In the Introduction, Hughes writes: “Because Helen is such an alluring figure of fantasy, because she dazzles as she goes, she can make it hard to see the women of substance who walked through the Bronze Age palaces of the Eastern Mediterranean.” (p. 11)

She concludes with, “Helen is an archetype. Men fall for her, have sex with her, and then, when terrible things happen, it is she who gets the blame.”  (p. 311)

I think that she missed an opportunity to show another aspect of Helen’s life, to tell more about the real women of the Bronze Age, and how Helen might have related to them.



Textiles in Hiding

At the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, Georgia, among all the aircraft and equipment, is an exhibit that shows the stories of pilots downed behind enemy lines.  One part of the exhibit is a Prisoner of War camp, with items created by some of the captured men, including a crocheted vest that provided extra warmth, and a blanket stitched with insignia patches, and a handkerchief completely covered with a large insignia design.

Another part shows what could have happened for those who eluded capture.  There is a representative safe house, with hidden compartments and codes in the wallpaper, and stories of some of the people all over Europe who hid the servicemen and tried to get them through to friendly territory.

Hanging on the wall is a collection of small embellished fabric scraps.  (Unfortunately, due to the light-filtering glass, the picture didn’t turn out well, but you just have to see it.)

Embroideries done in secret by women prisoners in WWII, seen at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force.

Embroideries done in secret by women prisoners in WWII, seen at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force.

They were crafted in secret by women prisoners from Waldheim and Cottbus, women who had been in the Resistance in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France.  They used scraps of handkerchiefs and threads drawn out of their uniforms, and when they were required to sew as a prison chore, they skimmed off some of the materials to use later.  Some of the embroideries are lilies of the valley and violets made of French knots, and some are loosely stitched words that record the camp names and prison tasks, or popular song lyrics that symbolize the women’s losses and hopes.  There are tiny yarn dolls and doll-sized felted slippers.

If the Nazis found any of these creations, they would take them away.  The ones in the display exist because the Russians liberated the camp on May 6, 1945.

I cannot imagine what I would do if I found myself in that situation.  I think I would be so afraid of being caught that I would not even try to create anything.

Obviously in all the different POW camps, conditions were very different.  The men whose textiles are in the museum didn’t seem to have to hide what they were doing, or even scavenge for materials.

I wish I knew more.  I was hoping for a postcard showing these items or a book that explained how museum staff know about these hidden embroideries, or even something general about the women in the Resistance, but there wasn’t anything like that in the museum store, or on the museum website.

Still, I am so glad that the story of the safe houses is included in the museum.  With all the terrible risks they faced, I am amazed anyone got involved in trying to get the air crewmen to safety.

Happy Earth Day!

We’re going solar!

Solar panels.

Solar panels.

And the construction makes a great run-in shed for the sheep, too!

Solar panel installation, side view.

Solar panel installation, side view.

We are not up and running yet – we have to wait until final inspection from our electricity co-op.  But I am happy we can do a little to help the earth!

Technical details:  we are still tied to the grid.  The solar installation should provide for about 80% of our energy needs.  During the periods that we produce more than we are using, the extra energy goes to the grid, and is banked for us by our utility co-op.  Then when we are not producing our own energy (like in the two months of rain we just had), we can use up our credits.  If those get used up, we pay for electricity as before.

Not Your Granny’s Sheep

The Austin Zoo is not your typical city zoo.  Its animals are mostly rescues and retirees — acquired from people who discovered that their exotic pets were too much to handle, from research labs, and from other zoos.  Right now they are displaying fiber glass animal statues that have been decorated by artists, and this was my favorite!

Too Cool for Wool, by Sara Allen.  Part of the 2015 Zoo Revue at the Austin Zoo.

Too Cool for Wool, by Sara Allen. Part of the 2015 Zoo Revue at the Austin Zoo.

Roy G Biv, all your colors are there and many more!