Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Duck Watching

Today we went duck watching, our usual day after Christmas tradition. We drive around Cape Ann, stopping at various places that are advantageous for duck viewing. The weather did not cooperate with us this year. It’s been very warm here in Massachusetts this winter. The ponds have not yet frozen over, and many of the ducks are on the still-unfrozen inland waters.

Common Eiders


We only saw a few species this year: common eiders, buffleheads, black ducks, and a couple of American mergansers. Still, it was a pleasant day, and the scenery was enjoyable. Our travels took us along the Magnolia shore. The picture here shows the view toward downtown Gloucester. There are reefs all along the rocky shore here, including one called Norman’s Woe, made famous in Longfellow’s poem The Wreck of the Hesperus.

The Magnolia shore looking towards Norman's Woe

We stopped briefly in downtown Gloucester to take some photos of the working fishing port. With the decline of the local fisheries, the city of Gloucester is a bit down on its luck. The fishing port has always looked pretty gritty.

Gloucester Waterfront

Lobster Boats in Gloucester

We ventured out to Eastern Point Light for some more duck viewing, and to walk on the jetty. The waves were occasionally crashing onto the jetty, so we didn’t walk very far out. I did get a nice shot of Leon channeling Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. From Eastern Point, we headed along Bass Rocks to watch the surf and look at more ducks. We headed on into Rockport, hoping to see harlequin ducks along Marmion Way. There is often a raft of them reported there around this time of year, however we have only ever seen them during storms. From Rockport we continued around the north side of Cape Ann. The scenery is beautiful there, though we rarely see much in the way of ducks on that side of the Cape.

Eastern Point Light

Leon on the jetty

Waves crashing on Bass Rocks

Tomorrow: back home to Chicago.

Duck photos by Leon


Saturday, December 23, 2006

My Home Town

Once again, I find myself home for Christmas in the little town where I grew up. Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts was an incredible place to grow up. My childhood and adolescence were dominated by the ocean, the beaches, and the woods around my home. My Dad still lives in the house that we moved into when I was in the 5th grade.

White Beach and Crow Island (actually a peninsula, not an island)

Black Beach

The Atlantic is about a 10-minute walk from Dad’s house. At the end of the 10 minutes are White and Black beaches. White Beach is the better bathing beach of the two. It has nicer sand (the Black Beach sand is a bit muddy). As you look at the ocean, the rocks on the left-hand side of the beach become exposed at low tide, revealing a series of tide pools. I spent many hours as a child searching the tide pools for crabs, starfish, anenomes and other sea creatures. These pastimes contributed, as did so much of where I grew up, to my growing interest in biology. It’s very much a case of geography as destiny.

Salt Marsh.

Just inland from these beaches is a beautiful salt marsh. I did a biological survey of the salt marsh as my independent study project my senior year in high school. The marsh is flooded in this picture because we are having a minor storm. It’s the remnants of the blizzard that hit Denver a couple of days ago. The picture was taken at the peak of high tide.

Eaglehead Rock at the east end of Singing Beach

Looking west along Singing Beach

Skate egg case

About 3 miles south of my house is Singing Beach, the "big" beach in town. It gets its name from the fact that the dry sand squeaks or "sings" when you walk on it. No singing today- the sand was too wet. In the summertime, this beach is jammed wall to wall with sun worshipers. The beach was much more peaceful today, and we even got to share the sand with some skate egg cases.

The Rotunda at Tuck's Point

The Chowder House as seen from the Rotunda

One of the main places to access Manchester Harbor of at Tuck’s Point. There is a picturesque rotunda where you can walk for a better view of the harbor. There is a "chowda house" at the park where summer events are sometimes held. The harbor itself holds many special memories for me. I used to have a small sailing dinghy and would go tooling around the harbor in it. There wasn’t much of a view today- the outer islands were obscured in fog. The sea was one of the things that made Manchester a great place to grow up.

Manchester Harbor

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Grinch Meme

All this talk in the blogosphere about the wonder of the Christmas season has me in full curmudgeon mode. I’ve never created my own meme before, but I suddenly feel inspired:

1. What do you hate most about Christmas?

The travel! Every year I fly back to New England to spend the holiday with my family. This means travelling at the most crowded time of the year, during some of the worst weather of the year, to see Massachusetts at a rather dismal season. Forget those Currier and Ives images of snow-covered New England. We have snow no more than 1 year in 4. Usually it’s brown, damp and raw. The only redeeming feature is getting to spend time with my family, whom I don’t get to see often enough.

2. What is your least favorite piece of Christmas music?

Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney. AIEEEEEE! Words cannot describe how much I loathe that one.

3. What traditional Christmas food OTHER THAN FRUITCAKE (too easy) is best sent down the garbage disposal?

Mincemeat Pie (Yuck).

4. Which animated Christmas TV special leaves you wanting to rip the wallpaper off of the walls?

The Tiny Tree. It's not that it's any more insipid than the many other bad Christmas specials. There is a song in it that's a pathetic ripoff of We Need a Little Christmas that vaults this one to the head of the line.

5. What was you least favorite Christmas gift ever?

When I was in the 5th grade, my great aunt gave me a hand-knit baby yellow hat in a girl’s style. What was she thinking???

6. Who on your Christmas gift list is the hardest to shop for?

My brother. Every year he promises to send a list of gift ideas. If he does, they come at the last minute when what he wants is already sold out. No exception this year. It’s Dec. 21 and I’ve heard…nothing.

7. How would you spend this time of year if you weren’t caught up in all of the holiday madness?

Doing many of the things that everyone says the Christmas season is supposed to be about: spending time with family and friends, taking the opportunity to reflect on how much love there really is in my life and how fortunate I really am in the world. Luckily, the chaos of the season doesn’t blot that out entirely. This year, I have a whole new set of connections that I’ve made through blogging. I’d wish you all a Merry Christmas, but in the spirit of the meme, I say instead BAH, HUMBUG.


Monday, December 18, 2006

Sagittarius Party

Caution: Sagittarians at play

Saturday night was the annual Sagittarius party. This year the party was at my house. We had quite a large crowd, probably about 30 people throughout the evening. The food was delicious and abundant- if anything, too abundant. I especially enjoyed Gary’s curry-pumpkin soup and Naan bread, and Michael’s amazing chocolate/orange/raspberry cake.

Goodies. Clockwise from top left: Chocolate Pecan Cake, Orange Raspberry Cake, Chips, Crudites, Onion-Yogurt Dip, Sundried Tomato Foccacia, Truffled Chevre (great on the Foccacia), Mozzarella, Gouda, Hummus

I got to show off a bit with an all-homemade cheese plate. It included mozzarella, the Gouda that I made a few weeks back, and a chevre, which I made on Friday night and Saturday. The Gouda will need some more work. It tasted fine, but I think that I dried it too much. I have a feeling that this is a case where you shouldn’t follow the recipe too exactly, but come to an intuitive feeling for when the cheese is "done." Unfortunately, I don’t yet have enough experience to have that intuition. The cheese ended up being tasty, but crumbly like a cheddar rather than smooth like a Gouda. The chevre, on the other hand, was magnificent. Of all the cheeses I have tried so far, it’s the one that came out the best on my first try. I made truffled chevre spread with it, something you can also make with store-bought goat cheese.

Truffled Chevre

About 4 oz. goat cheese
1 tsp. truffle-infused oil
milk (omit if you are using home-made chevre)

Mix the cheese and the truffle oil. Gradually add a bit of milk at a time, mixing, until the cheese is at a nice spreadable texture. Transfer to a ramekin and chill for about an hour. Sprinkle with paprika and serve with crackers. Preferably snooty ones- this stuff has truffles in it.

World's purplest ice cream. Unfortunately, this year it came out more pink than purple.

We had no shortage of food this year, but didn’t have a lot of wild or weird food. Even the worlds purplest ice cream (Maine Black Bear- black raspberry with chocolate bits) came out more pink than purple. That happens sometimes-, it generally depends on how the raspberry crop was last year.

Sagittarians resplendent in their purple garb

What wasn’t unusual this year was an evening of good friends, good conversation, and good fun. The house looked great decked in Sagittarian purple. The Sagittarians were resplendent in their purple garb, and we even had a purple lava light as part of the décor. It was a splendid evening.

Non-Sagittarians don't wear purple

Some Sagittarians can be counted on to be over the top with the whole purple thing.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Family Portrait

Taken at last night's museum Christmas party.

Anybody see where that blond chick with the curls went? And what happened to our porridge?

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Chocolate Turkey

No, not that kind of chocolate turkey. It’s time again for the annual Sagittarius party. The party features food on Sagittarian themes. In the past, Sag food themes have included:

  • Food on skewers (the "arrows")
  • Flambéed food (Sag is a fire sign)
  • Spicy hot food (ditto)
  • Purple food (Purple is the color associated with this sign)

Other food traditions have arisen at the party. My circle of friends has come to associate these food themes with the party, though they have no direct connection with the astrological sign:

  • Food that moves (we once had a volcano cake that erupts and frosts itself)
  • Spam
  • Jello (yes, we have had Spam Jello. Also an anatomically correct Jello brain.)
  • Chocolate

This last food category inspired me several years ago to try a recipe that I found in Food and Wine Magazine. The turkey is conveniently served as part of a buffet. It’s amazingly delicious (especially the gravy) and had been a popular entry each year.

Mole inspired Turkey


1/4 C Unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tblsp. Ancho Chile Powder
1 Tblsp. Cinnamon
1 Tblsp. Light Brown Sugar
3 Tblsp Olive Oil
1 tsp. Balsamic Vinegar
1 Turkey, 10-12 lb. Rinsed and patted dry
4 Tblsp. Unsalted Butter, melted
2 C Turkey or Chicken Stock
1 1/2 Tblsp. All-purpose Flour mixed with 1/4 cup water


1. Preheat oven to 450°. In a bowl, combine the cocoa, chili powder, cinnamon, sugar, 1 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Stir in oil and vinegar. Rub half of the paste over the turkey, spoon remainder into cavity.
2. Set turkey on rack in a large roasting pan. Cook for 5 minutes. Baste with some of the melted butter and add 3-4 Tblsp of stock to the pan.
3. Lower temperature to 350° and roast the turkey for 1 1/2 hr. Lower the temperature to 250° and add a little more stock to the pan. Baste the turkey with the butter and roast for 1 1/2 hr. longer, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 170°. Transfer the turkey to a cutting board, cover loosely with foil, and let rest at least 30 min.
4. Pour the pan juices into a saucepan and skim off the fat. Set the roasting pan on a burner over moderately high heat. Add the remaining stock and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits.
5. Strain the stock into the saucepan and bring to a boil. Spoon the paste from the cavity into the stock. Boil the stock until reduced to about 1 1/2 cups, about 10 minutes. Whisk in the flour mixture and simmer over moderate heat until thickened. Season the gravy with salt and pepper.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

My Midlife Crisis

A lot of my fellow bloggers- at least those that blog in the same circles I do- have been asking a lot of bigger, more introspective questions this week. It's all gotten me thinking. On top of that, I had a new visitor, Rhea, who recently left me a comment. Her blog has a fair bit to say about the mid-life crisis, and includes a rather nifty definition of the phenomenon:

"Discontent with life and/or lifestyle that may have provided happiness for many years. * Boredom with things/people that have hitherto held great interest * Feeling adventurous and wanting to do something completely different * Questioning the meaning of life, and the validity of decisions clearly and easily made years before * Confusion about who you are or where your life is going."

Ten years ago, I was in the throes of my midlife crisis. It largely revolved around my career, though the upheaval influenced a lot of other areas of my life as well. I’ve blogged before about some of the things that led me to a career in science. For a long time, I traveled a road that I had mapped out fairly early in life. When I was in high school, I already knew that I loved science, especially biology, and planned a career in it. In college, I started wondering if I could make a living as a field biologist, and discovered that I really, really loved chemistry. So I redirected my efforts towards becoming a biochemist, with an eye towards grad school and a career in the biotechnology industry. And proceeded to do just that.

For more than a dozen years after grad school, I worked for a biotech firm developing DNA technology for use in medical diagnostics. The picture at the top of this posting is from that work. It's white blood cells (mine) stained with a piece of DNA whose sequence is frequently deleted in colon cancer tissue. My work involved the DNA labeling technology used on the specimen in the photo.

Throughout my time in the biotech industry, I continued keeping a hand in the field biology world through my volunteer work at Bluff Spring Fen. This was very successful and rewarding work for me. By the mid 1990's, I was growing disillusioned with my biotech job. I was unhappy with them and, frankly, by the end of things they were not happy with me, either. I was considering re-locating to a different part of the country to take a job with another company.

Throughout this time of turmoil, I would often wonder about making serious change of direction in my career, and following my passions for prairie, ecological restoration and butterflies. I was unable to see a way to turn it into a paying job, and the quotation from Rhea's blog nicely reflects my state of mind back then. One day, I got a call from an acquaintance who was then the president of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. They were building a new museum with a butterfly exhibit. Would I comment on the plans?

I agreed to have a look at the plans, and promptly forgot about it all for a couple of weeks. One night, just before bed after a very bad day at work, I remembered the plans. I wondered about the possibility of creating a research effort in local butterfly conservation attached to the new museum. Needless to say, I did not sleep well that night. The next morning, I called my colleague and said that my comment about the new exhibit was, "are you staffing?" Three months later I had agreed to what was then a frighteningly large pay cut and began my first day of what has become my dream job.

When I took the new job, I worried that I would always look back and feel that I had made the wrong decision by not moving to California. The reality has been that I have always felt a strong sense of having made the right decision. I realize that this sort of story does not necessarily lead to a happy ending. I'm just glad that it did for me.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Travelling Fool

Lemuel seems to have a knack for finding interesting things to post. I got this from him. I've been doing a lot of travelling in the last 15 years or so, and there's now an online map where you can keep track of where you have been, both within the US and internationally.

Here are my US exploits:

create your own visited states map

And worldwide:

create your own visited countries map


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

All My Children

Plants in the Chicago area have been setting seed since at least late spring. Beginning with the earliest spring wildflowers, the succession of bloom through summer and into autumn has been followed by a succession of seeds. And throughout the season, the volunteers at Bluff Spring Fen have been collecting them. Early in the season, we collect the seeds and toss them into appropriate areas around the Fen. Beginning around mid August, the approach changes, and we begin collecting and saving the seeds. The go into paper bags (never plastic: they don’t breathe and the seeds mold), and get stored in our breezeway and garage. Other volunteers store seeds, as well. By Thanksgiving, our harvest is complete, and we will have tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of seeds from dozens of different plant species.

A truckload of prairie seeds ready to go to the party

A tiny fraction of what we had to process and mix

On Sunday, we had our annual seed processing party. About a dozen of the Fen’s volunteers gathered on a frigid afternoon to process and mix the seeds. Processing is simple, we strip seeds from stalks, pull them out of pods, and break up mats of fluff. Some of the seeds are forced through metal screens. Others are run through a leaf mulcher. The end result is an even mass of seeds and chaff, free from sticks, clods and lumps.

My friend Mary tries to stay warm while she processes wingstem seeds

Once the seeds are processed, we mix them. The mixes that we create are varied. Some are done on the basis of habitat to be restored. Will these seeds go into a sunny or shady area? How wet or dry is it? What species of plants are to be expected in an intact example of the habitat being restored? Other seeds go into areas that are already in the process of being restored. Here we ask the same questions, but also consider what species are already abundant in these areas, and what are absent of under-represented.

Smooth blue aster seeds being forced through a screen to break up the clumps of fluff and separate stems

We have a master sheet of the mixes, lots of bags of processed seeds, and a big blue tarp in the middle of the garage. Portions of the appropriate seed types get poured onto the tarp, vermiculite is added, and the mass is thoroughly mixed. The mixes are bagged, and stored in an unheated garage. The seeds will be distributed in late winter and spring.

After the work, we went inside for a potluck meal, and to thaw our feet out. The seed mixing party has a lot to recommend it. We are doing valuable work, and sharing food and fellowship at the same time. For me, the seed processing party has an additional meaning.

As a gay man, I came through the coming out process in a time when options were more limited than they are today. Nobody spoke of gay marriage. Lesbian couples were beginning to create families through artificial insemination (leading to lots of references to turkey basters), but it never would have occurred to me that gay couples would be allowed to do things like adopt children. I sought out the comfort and stability of an enduring relationship, but did not anticipate any direct contribution to future generations of children. My mark on the world that will endure beyond my own lifetime is my work at Bluff Spring Fen. The seeds that we plant there are a very tangible manifestation of that mark. The plants that will grow from them may live hundreds of years, and will (if we are successful) be parts of thriving populations. They aren’t just seeds- they’re my legacy.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Old Man Winter

Winter arrived with a vengeance yesterday. We have already had some cold weather, some hard killing frosts, and even a bit of snow. But the last couple of weeks have been very mild, with temperatures above 65° as recently as Tuesday. Last Sunday for dinner, I barbecued chicken. All of that has come to a screeching halt. The change was presaged by a series of loud thunderstorms on Wednesday. By Thursday, they were predicting a major snowstorm. The Weather Service initially said that it would have started at about 3 in the afternoon on Thursday. That would have been a problem because I had a dinner that I was supposed to attend way out in the western suburbs on Thursday evening. The keynote speaker was a friend who has recently been elected to a county level office. It’s her first foray into politics as a candidate, and she ran an outstanding campaign. I wanted to be there to show my support. If the snowstorm had arrived on schedule, there’s no way that I could have made it there. As it was, I was worried about getting from the dinner back home late in the evening on back roads. Fortunately, between the dinner and home, there was nothing more to contend with than a bit of intermittent sleet.

Sometime after midnight, the storm kicked in. By morning, there was about 6" of snow on the ground. We did not go into work Friday morning- they hadn’t even plowed my street yet, and it was still snowing hard. We did get out and shovel the driveway. The ground has not yet frozen, so the bottom inch was wet, heavy slop. But we did shovel, and it’s a good thing. This morning we have seen a number of people really struggling because the slop layer is now frozen. Late morning, we went back and got up what the plow had kicked up, as well as the additional three inches or so that had fallen. I finally got into work at about 2:00 yesterday afternoon.

Now it’s really cold out. It got down into the single digits last night, and is predicted to again this evening. It is not predicted to get above freezing through next weekend, so a lot of the snow may be with us for a while here. The up side is that it’s really pretty out right now. Plus it really feels like the holiday season. In the main, I’m glad we had the storm. It’s very early for a snowstorm of this size in Chicago, but I now feel ready for winter.