Gossamer Tapestry

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

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Nasty Food MEME

Ur-Spo has come up with a fun meme about the dark underbelly of food. Here's my shot at it.

1.Your oddest craving?

Fried Clams

2. The forbidden food?
I’m allergic to crustaceans (shrimp, crab, etc.). Fortunately, I’m not allergic to all shellfish (see #1).

3. A dish that makes you queasy?

4. Your least favorite food vegetable?
Beets. And doubly so for pickled beets (see #3).

5. Your worst cooking disaster?
I tried a flourless chocolate cake from a cookbook called Beat This once. It looked cooked, but wasn’t. When I opened the springform pan, uncooked chocolate batter went everywhere. I said bad words.

6. A Cooking exercise you don’t do well?
I’m at my least confident cooking meat.

7. Food that arouses the most suspicion?
Head Cheese. The name alone gives me the willies, but it also looks gross.

8. A drink you used to drink but no more?
Raspberry flavored Zarex .

9. Least favorite fast food chain?
Pizza Hut. Why bother since you can get much better pizza just about anywhere?

10. When in doubt, eat….
Pizza (but not by Pizza Hut. See#9)

11. A restaurant faux pas that would get you to speak up?
Saturday night I ordered a glass of Zinfandel at an Italian restaurant and they brought white Zinfandel. Although, actually it was someone else at the table who spoke up- I didn’t want to waste food.

12. Is there something spoiled in the fridge right now?
A Tupperware container of mashed winter squash has been in there since before Christmas.

13. Food you can’t buy as your spouse/partner won’t allow it in the house
Althopugh we both eat things that the other doesn’t like, we don’t forbid food from coming into the house. Perhaps Ur-Spo should have a talk with Someone.

14. Food your spouse/partner likes that you don’t like.
Pickled Herring.

15. Your least favorite type of cuisine?
Japanese. I don’t care for either miso or sushi. The rest of the menu just doesn’t do much for me.

16. I food you hated as a child but now love?
Rice Pilaf. I now eat too much of the stuff (there’s a half stick of butter in the recipe, so it’s bad for you).


Gouda Times at Last

On Saturday, we were invited to dinner at some friends’ old farmhouse way out in the boonies in (appropriately enough) Boon County. Their property backs right up to the Wisconsin state line. Since we were going to be practically behind the Cheddar Curtain, and my lopsided Gouda was supposed to be ready, I figured it to be a good time to cut into it to see how it turned out. I brought part of it to the dinner. The results were way better than last time. The cheese retained much more of its moisture, so the texture was much more of what I think of as a Gouda. I knew as soon as the knife started slicing through it that I’d be happier with the texture. The flavor was fine, but I had more or less achieved that last time anyway. I consider this my first really successful attempt with a hard cheese. Now I just need to get the press to work without slipping. Next time, I’ll probably go ahead and try to make two, so that I can age one longer. Aged Gouda is supposedly impressive.

My next cheese experiment: Farmhouse Cheddar.


Friday, January 26, 2007

The Laguna Mountain Skipper

Photo by Dave Powell. It's the non-endangered subspecies.

One of my favorite places in the world is the mountainous area juste east of San Diego. It's am incredible jumble of ecosystem types: mountain chaparral, pine woodlands, and desert. It's one of the few places I know of where, while hiking through a very dry desert, you can look up to the hills just west of you and see pine trees cresting the ridgeline. It's the home to a number of endangered species of butterflies, including the Laguna Mountain Skipper. This subspecies of the two-banded skipper appears to have dwindled to a precariously few populations. Habitat destruction is, as usual, the source of the decline of this species. The problem is a bit more interconnected than just that however. Caterpillars of this butterfly feed only on one species of plant: Horkelia clevelandii.

This species of horkelia is itself declining substantially, becasue of pressures like development, cattle grazing, and trampling. The butterfly that is depending on it is, for better or for worse, along for the ride. The Fish and Wildlife Service has recently begun stepping up efforts to protect the butterfly. A meeting next month will presage the assempbly of a species recovery team. I've been invited to the meeting to discuss pcaptive breeding, molecular genetic management, and monitoring. The upshot is that I will have to leave Chicago and fly to San Diego at the end of February. Such is my lot in life. As pleasant as the travel will be, the real exciting part for me is that I will have the opportunity to participate in the conservation of another species of seriously endangered butterfly.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Hair of the Five-legged Dog

Yesterday, I posted a rememberance of my first meeting with Leon, exactly 25 years ago. In celebration, and as a musing on one result of sharing a quarter century of life with someone, I today reprint an essay that I wrote several years ago. It was written shortly after the publication of the book The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, and is a response to a sermon that I accidentally discoverd as a result of the book.

One of the marvels of the Internet is the opportunity that it opens for serendipitous discovery. The recent suggestions that Abraham Lincoln might have been gay piqued my interest. Wanting to learn more, I ran a Google search using the search terms "Abraham Linclon" +homosexual. Among the numerous "hits" involving my intended subject was one entitled Five-Legged Dogs, Abraham Lincoln & Same-Sex Marriage. The link connected me to the text of a sermon given by Fr. Phil Bloom of Seattle and posted on his web site Simple Catholicism. The reference to Honest Abe had nothing to do with speculations about the Great Emancipator’s sexual orientation, but rather referred to an anecdote that Bloom attributed to him:

Abraham Lincoln posed this question: "How many legs does a dog have?" The reply of course was four.

Lincoln asked, "If we call the tail a leg, then how many legs does a dog have?" The reply: Five.

"No," Lincoln said, "Just because you call a tail a leg doesn’t make it so."

The anecdote was intended to convey an analogous concept regarding same sex marriage: just because you call it marriage doesn’t make it so.

On the surface, Fr. Bloom appears, from a Catholic perspective, neither radical, nor unorthodox in his treatment of the subject (though his- admittedly unrelated- maunderings on evolution suggest tendency to venture beyond the mainstream of church teaching on some issues). Indeed, some of his statements on the subject verge on the conciliatory:

…few people would want to limit legal arrangements [between same-sex couples] (inheritance, hospital visitation, etc.)…

Surface appearances can be deceptive, however. Within the framework of Catholic teaching, marriage is by definition a sacred relationship between one man and one woman. Fair enough- the Catholic Church is free to define its sacraments according to its own revelation. Unfortunately, Fr. Bloom is not content to let it stand at that.

Part of the problem is entirely predictable. As a non-religious person, I object to the fact that people like Fr. Bloom wish to have their religious definitions of marriage codified into the law of the land for Catholic and non-Catholic, Christian and non-Christian, religious and secular alike. This, however, is old stuff. My real objection to Fr. Bloom’s sermon arises when he mischaracterises same-sex couples in a manner that both trivializes their relationships insultingly and causes him to fall victim to the same logical flaw that he accuses proponents of same-sex marriage of committing. He does so be relegating same-sex couples to the status of "friends."

I am referring to the attempt to take the friendship between two men or two women and call it "marriage." Now, to celebrate friendship is obviously a good thing…

…However, there is a problem if we try to put friendship on the same legal level as marriage…

…They not only want to call their friendship "marriage," but to force you and me to do the same.

Pointedly, at no point in the sermon does Bloom use the term "couple" in discussing same sex relationships. His only reference to love is to decry "the ersoion of the chaste love of freindship" by same-sex couples. That’s right, not only are gay couples merely friends, if they are sexually active together they are friends in a manner that erodes love (mechanism unspecified).

The problem is particularly insidious because to argue against it can be construed as arguing against friendship as a component of marriage. Clearly, strong couples, both heterosexual and same-sex, appropriately recognize the important role that friendship plays in their unions. My argument here is not that my husband is not my friend- far from it- but that the word friend is, in and of itself, grossly inadequate to describe who we are to one another.

After reading the sermon, I mentioned it to my husband. We pondered the ways in which friendship is an inadequate descriptor for our love. In some ways, the question is challenging. Many of the differences between our marriage and friendship are differences of degree rather than of kind. For example, when we have had the occasion to make difficult career choices in order to stay together geographically we have expressed something deeper than what is found in a typical friendship. Yet that decision resides on the same continuum as decisions to accept minor inconvieniences and make small sacrifices for the benefit of other people who matter to us.

Perhaps the main difference in kind between our love and friendship is one of exclusivity. Over the past twenty-odd years, our lives together have become intertwined on numerous levels: emotionally, financially, spiritually, sexually and socially. There is simply no room for another friend of this magnitude in my life. We can be confident that our love will always be there, in part because we share it with no one else. Part of the joy of our life together is that in the continual ebb and flow of our existance as individuals we become one who is greater than the sum of both of us. Sound familiar?

One enlightening tool that can be brought to bear on the "are we just friends?" question is the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) devised by psychologists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe in 1967. A sort of emotional Richter scale, the SRRS describes the relative impacts that major- and not so major- life events elicit. Death of a spouse rates highest on the scale at 100. Near the low end, going on vacation gets a 13. The top three items on the list all involve ending marriages: death of a spouse, divorce, and separation from a spouse. Death of a close friend ranks 17th- behind deaths of family members, but also behind things like getting fired, business readjustment, and sexual difficulties. The scale is a helpful tool for analyzing the question at hand.

Loss of Leon, my husband, would be the one single most significant, heartbreaking, and traumatic event of my life- because it would be like losing part of myself. Without a doubt, it ranks ahead of loss and death involving other close family members- as painful as those would be (and have been). Would it rank 100, the equivalent of the loss of a presumably heterosexual spouse? Such a question can never be answered in detail. My guess is that people experience as much variation in the emotional impact of the loss of an opposite-sex spouse as they do to the loss of a same-sex spouse. I seriously doubt that any heterosexual individual could answer the same question in detail. What is clear is that loss of Leon would occupy the exact same position where the SRSS places loss of a spouse - right at the top.

Just as calling the dog’s tail a fifth leg doesn’t make it so, calling committed couples simply friends doesn’t make it so either. The SRRS readily distinguishes the love of a spouse from the love of friends. Unlike Fr. Bloom’s sermon, this comparative approach appropriately reflects the depth of love and commitment shared by couples of all persuasions, a love that people like Fr. Bloom try to deny through the language of diminution. To distinguish friendship from the love of a spouse does no disservice to the love of friends. To conflate them does a severe disservice to marriage- same sex or otherwise. And to base the civil law of the land on this conflation will bring untold suffering to the countless committed and loving families that just happen to include same-sex couples.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Weather Channel

The butterfly interview on The Weather Channel can be found here.


A Night to Remember

January 23, 1982 was exactly 25 years ago today. It was a Saturday, and I went with friends from church to see the Windy City Gay Chorus perform. It was a preview show of the councert that they were about to give at Lincoln Center in New York. I was sitting with David, an endearingly queenly young man from our church group. David was always making sure that everyone felt included in whatever group he was with at the time, so it was entirely in character when he introduced several of us to the new guy who was sitting directly in front of me. New Guy was this very handsome bearded guy who struck my fancy immediately. Wanting to continue the interaction, I asked him what he did. "I'm a chemist," was the reply. "Really? So am I." At the time I was working on my grad degree in biochemistry and was more chemist and less biologist than I am now. David, of course, got a bit fluttery over the exchange. "Oh, my, that's not what I would have said."

It's funny how you often don't know at the time what days and what events are having a profound effect on your life. New Guy was, of course, Leon, and today is the 25th anniversary of the day that we met.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Media Madness

On Monday afternoon I will be interviewed by The Weather Channel. We will be discussing how we create a year-round tropical atmosphere in our butterfly exhibit. It will likely air Monday evening. I will update with a projected broadcast time on Monday when TWC lets us know.

Update: It now looks like the butterfly segment will air between 7:45 and 8:00 PM Central time on Monday evening (1/22).

Updated update: The segment will air at 7:30.


Thursday, January 18, 2007


San Jose, Costa Rica

Ur-Spo has recently fretted about our upcoming trip to Costa Rica, and has presented a wealth of misinformation about the trip. I need to set the record straight (so to speak).

I’m really looking forward to the trip. We will be a good group: Leon and I, Spo and Someone, and our friends and neighbors John and Michael. This will be my third trip to Costa Rica. The first was for a butterfly farming seminar, which I have blogged about before. The second was mostly a vacation, and I expect it to be more like the upcoming trip.

The second trip was something of an adventure, and one of the few times that Leon and I have gotten grouchy with one another during the course of travel. The trip started out wonderfully. We were staying in Escazú, a suburb of San Jose. On our first full day of the trip, we hiked up into the hills above Escazú. After a wonderful lunch at a hotel/restaurant called the White House (not la Casa Blanca, but the White House), we wandered up a dirt track into the hills. We saw birds, orchids, and butterflies including a species of glasswing butterfly with completely transparent wings. Alas, I was unable to photograph one, but the scenery was stunning.

Our hike in the hills above Escazú

An orchid we saw on our hike

The second day was Disaster Day. It’s not an accident that I have no photos. Way finding in the country is difficult, and we were driving around the country in a rental car. The maps are next to useless. The highways dump you into the center of a town, and you are on your own to find your way through town to the road leading out the other side. We went for a drive to find a botanic garden. After getting hopelessly lost, we managed to get directions in a McDonalds (yes, I know, but they do wonders when you are feeling overwhelmed by being in a different culture than what you are used to). Then the botanical garden was a disappointment. We drove home though a winding mountain road in a diving rain in the dark, then got lost in San Jose. Most importantly, we did not divorce and managed to enjoy the rest of the trip.

Central Valley canyon on the way to Poas. The photp does not do justice to the size and depth of the canyon. What look like dead trees have actually just lost their leaves- it's the dry season.

We lay low the next day until afternoon, when I visited one of the folks who supplies the butterflies for my exhibit. He gave us excellent driving directions, and the following day we went to the Poas Volcano National Park. The route that we took to get to the park traverses an amazing canyon in the Central Valley, then up a long, winding mountain incline to the park. The volcano is still active and the crater lake steams ominously and smells of sulphuric acid. The parking lot adds to the excitement: everyone backs into their spaces in case a quick exit is needed. We hiked through cloud forest to a second lake that fills a dormant crater. The cloud forest is full of bird life, but has very few insects.

The steaming crater of Poas Volcano

Lush beauty: the vegetation of the cloud forest.

Bromeliads, ferns, and orchids. I've never seen such a high density of epiphytic plants as we encountered in the cloud forest at Poas.

The hike from the crater to the lake.

Lake filling a dormant crater at Poas

Having gotten thoroughly lost earlier in the trip, we decided to opt for a more organized canopy tour led by someone else and including transportation. We traveled by bus over to the Atlantic slope of the central cordillera. We passed through Braulio Carrillo National Park, full of gorgeous rainforest. The canopy tour involved skimming though the trees tethered to zip lines. It was lots of fun, though I was a bit disappointed that the tour emphasized the "adventure" aspects of the experience more than the wildlife. Still, we saw some cool stuff, including an injured iguana who was sitting right on one of the small platforms that we landed on. A boat trip to view wildlife on the Saraquipí River completed the tour.

The splendour of Braulo Carrillo National Park

Suspension bridge through the rainforest canopy

Leon on the zipline

Injured iguana- but he's ready for his closeup

The end of the trip was spent on the Pacific coast in the gay friendly town of Manuel Antonio. It’s a short flight from San Jose to Quepos, then a 45-minute minibus ride to our hotel. The hotel backs right up against the rainforest. I was blacklighting from just outside out cabana. The wildlife here is amazing. I have seen 3 species of monkeys gamboling about the property, mostly early in the morning. There is something marvelous about watching a bright blue Morpho butterfly sail past while you are having your morning tea.

White-faced capuchin monkey

Coatimundi. Apologies for the quality of the photo- these guys are adorable.

We took a lovely hiking the nearby national park. Here, too, the wildlife viewing is spectacular. We saw white faced capuchin monkeys, 3-toed sloth, and coatimundi. The hike ends at a beautiful vista of the Pacific Ocean. My only complaint is that it was beastly hot that day.

End of the trail in Mauel Antonio National Park

Out trip this year is about 2 1/2 weeks away. I’m hopeful that we have learned enough of the pitfalls that we can have a wonderful time in a country that I am growing to love.

Central Valley as seen from the air on the return flight from Quepos to San Jose

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Cookie Day

What do you do with your leftover Christmas cookies?

On Saturday, I participated in a Bluff Spring Fen tradition that goes back a good 10 years. It’s called Cookie Day. Nominally, it’s a way to get rid of all of your leftover Christmas cookies, but it’s really an excuse for an extra-big workday with a party atmosphere. The idea is that you bring any excess cookies that you have from the holidays and share them with everybody at the workday.

Unassociated woodland vegetation. The grass under the trees is Hungarian brome, a non-native species

Cookie Day generally initiates the season of major brush clearing at the Fen. The Fen, like most of the native ecosystems in northern Illinois, requires fire. Without fire, shrubs and trees, including many non-native species, invade the area and shade out the prairie vegetation. Throughout much of the 20th century, the effects of fire suppression became increasingly evident regionally. What was once vibrant prairie was replaced with a species-poor shaded assemblage of plants. Botanists sometimes refer to this as "unassociated woodland vegetation."

Cut brush waiting to be thrown on the fire

We are now reversing this process of degradation by removing the invasive vegetation and replanting native species. Sometimes the vegetation removal includes things like chainsaws. For Cookie Day, a professional ecosystems manager comes out to the Fen a few days before the event, cuts down a bunch of invasive trees and cuts them into small chunks. On Cookie Day itself, we start fires, and volunteers drag the cut-up wood onto the fires. We toast hotdogs over the bonfires. In the past few years, our friend Dave (who is the chainsaw operator that does most of the tree felling) has brought his cast-iron cookware and made beans and chili over coals from the fires.

Camp Kitchen

Needless to say, we eat well. It’s low-guilt eating, however, because you really get a workout hauling all of the wood. Plus, you get to get rid of extra Christmas cookies. Well, for the most part. One year, I actually had leftover Jan Hagels that I brought with me. It’s unusual for me to have any left, so the next year I didn’t bring any. Big mistake. Now I’m not allowed to come without them, so I have to make a special batch. I’m sure Lemuel has had similar experiences, as he makes the same cookies.

Some of the cookies

Jan Hagels

It’s a fun day with good companions. It’s also very well attended. We had over 30 people helping this year. Consequently, we get a lot done. The before and after pictures only give a small hint of how changed the view is after a typical cookie day. The transformation is only partly complete, however. This March, we will set out prairie seeds in the cleared areas. It typically takes only two to three years for the native prairie plants to dominate the site to the point that they will provide fuel for a prescribed burn. It’s some of the most satisfying work that I do.

Before and After

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Ah, Grasshopper

Like beetles, grasshoppers are a relatively recent entomological interest of mine. I’ve had at least a passing interest in grasshoppers for a bit longer than beetles, however, as grasshoppers are an important part of grassland ecosystems, including prairies. I made an unsuccessful attempt to learn how to identify them in the late 1980s. In 1998, I went to the Arizona insect conference for the first time. There I met a bunch of people who knew way more about insects than I do. None were grasshopper experts, however a couple of folks knew enough to get me started, and I was able to take it from there.

Tray of grasshoppers from my collection

Grasshoppers all belong to the same family, the Acrididae. There are around a half dozen major subfamilies in the US. One of these, the spine-breasted grasshoppers, was the main reason that I ran into trouble early. If you go out into a suburban landscape east of the Mississippi, the grasshoppers that you are most likely to encounter are really uninspiring species in the genus Melanoplus. Many of the species can only be identified by looking at the male genitalia- so if you catch a female, you’re out of luck. There are a great many species in the US. Confusing, dull, hard to identify, they’re a really bad group to try to learn first, yet they are the first group most people encounter. Of course, if you travel westward, even this group contains some really striking species like the pictured grasshopper.

Pictured grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor)

Much more fun are some of the other subfamilies. The lubbers (Romeleinae) are big (sometimes very big) grasshopper species. As their name implies, they are kind of sluggish. Some are brightly colored, an indication that they are toxic to predators. My personal favorite is a rather chubby species called the toad lubber. They do, in fact, look rather toad-like, and they inhabit rocky areas in the desert southwest.

Eastern lubber (Romalea microptera) from Florida. These suckers are huge.

Toad lubber (Phrynotettix tshivavensis)

The slant-faced grasshoppers (Gomphocerinae) have a wider diversity of forms. Some resemble much more typical grasshoppers from other families. Others have a very long and attenuated body form, giving them the name "toothpick grasshoppers." One of these is a rare prairie species here in Illinois. A favorite from this group is Montezuma’s grasshopper (Syrbula montezumae). I like it both because it just barely gets into my favorite collecting grounds in southeast Arizona from its main range in Mexico. It’s also very pretty. Fresh specimens have beautiful turquoise markings on their legs. Unfortunately, the color fades with time, so the specimes in my collection are all now just brown.

Mermiria texana, a slant-faced grasshopper. Note the beautiful coral-red tibiae on the hind legs. I actually caught this species at night at a black light.

My favorite group is the band-winged grasshoppers (Oedipodinae). Call me shallow, but I am completely captivated by the gorgeous colors of their wings. Who knew that grasshoppers could be so beautiful? Many species have wings that are just dull yellowish, but the spectrum ranges through the reds and oranges on to a few species whose wings are a vivid blue. Even better, the colors do not fade when the specimens dry out. Some are the brightest reds and yellows are found in the genus Arphia. I don’t even have to go to Arizona to see Arphias. We have three species, with both yellow and orange wings, right here in Illinois. They are some of our striking prairie grasshoppers.

Tray of (mostly) band-winged grasshoppers. The section in the upper right corner contains lubbers.

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Brief Cheesy Note

Several people have asked about my supplier for cheesemaking stuff. I use New England Cheesemaking Supply in western Mass. Ricki Carroll (the "cheese queen," a title I aspire to) has good stuff, and great information for beginners.

Tonight, I wax the lopsided Gouda.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Tale of Two Cheeses

Christmas presents this year included a bunch of cheese making stuff, and I have been eager to give it a try. My Dad gave me a cheese press, and my sister and Leon both gave me books on cheese making. Plus, I bought a couple of things for myself just before the holidays, including an enzyme additive called lipase, which was advertised as giving your mozzarella it’s distinctive Italian flavor. I wasn’t sure what distinctive Italian flavor was, but wanted to find out. So I made a mozzarella on Saturday and a Gouda on Sunday.

The cheese press in action

The lipase was a bit of a disaster. I may have added too much. The curds appeared to give a clean break from the whey, but they were very soft and slippery. The only way I was able to recover them from the cheese pot was to filter them through cheesecloth. The resultant mozzarella was very tasty, however the yield was terrible. I only got about half of what my other batches have made. The mozzarella was soft and did not hold its shape very well. I got more of a cheese pancake. Despite the problems, it was welcome and consumed with gusto when I brought it to dinner at a friend’s house. Still, there’s a lot of room for improvement here. I’ll try using a lot less of the enzyme next time.

I also tried a Gouda, and the results here hold a lot more promise. The author of the cheese book is the same person who provides the kits (and presumably writes the directions) that I have been using previously. So it’s not surprising that the recipe in the book was nearly identical to the recipe in the kit directions. There were, however, two important differences. In the kit, you let the curds settle for about 5 minutes after you cut them before pouring away part of the whey. In the book, you stir gently for 10 minutes before the 5-minute settling. A huge difference: the curds really did settle here, and the entire rest of the recipe was much easier to follow. The other difference is that the kit says to dry the cheese 3 weeks before waxing. The book says dry the cheese 3-4 days before waxing. As the first Gouda came out too dry and crumbly, I intend to wax my cheese later this week.

The only mishap with the Gouda came during the pressing of the curds. The plunger of the cheese press slipped during the final phase of the pressing and I have a lopsided cheese. Not the prettiest, but that problem should be very easy to fix.

Lopsided Gouda- but it tries real hard. I learned from my first Gouda that the cheese will become much yellower during the aging process.