Gossamer Tapestry

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

Friday, March 30, 2007

Let's Cheddar

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I tried making a cheddar cheese last weekend. Among the things that I learned was that in addition to being a noun (I loves me a nice hunk of cheddar) and an adjective (cheddar cheese can be white or yellow), cheddar can also be a verb. To cheddar is to cook cheese curds over very low heat after most of the whey has been separated, and before they are molded and pressed.

Cheddaring the curds

Another thing that I have learned about the cheesemaking process involves the development of the curd. In the past, I’ve had problems with the cubes of curd being too soft to handle after cutting. The answer turns out to be simple. The longer that you leave the curd cubes sitting in the whey, the more whey they give off and the firmer they get. So if they are too soft, it’s simply a matter of letting them sit a bit longer.

A big misconception that I had about cheese before I started making it was that the various cheeses were different due to the bacterial cultures used. Although there are different cultures available, there are far fewer bacteria varieties than cheese varieties. My earlier Gouda and this cheddar both used the same culture. Among other differences, the Gouda curds are washed by partly draining them and adding back water. The cheddar curds are, well, cheddared. I wish I had started making cheese a long time ago, because it’s becoming apparent that this is a lifetime craft that one never stops learning or developing.

My cheddar in the press

Right now, my main problem with the cheddar is the time required for development. I will wax it tonight, then it needs to age anywhere from two to six months before it’s ready to eat.
Cheesemaking is going to be yet another exercise in patience.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Food Frenzy

Last Saturday was really terrible weather, so I spent the whole day indoors, cooking. I had started making tangerine sorbet earlier in the week, but the tangerines were way too dry, so I had to get more. The sorbet turned out very well- the tangerines were at just the right stage of ripeness to give the sorbet a very bright flavor.

While I was out getting the tangerines, I thought I’d do dinner with friends that night, so I picked up a pork shoulder to roast and ingredients for my most guilt inducing dessert- Italian Rum Cake. Italian Rum Cake is not guilt inducing just because it’s bad for you (though it hardly qualifies as health food), but because it’s made entirely with packaged ingredients, including Jello pudding. It is, on the other hand, very Italian in that it uses cookies as the base for the dessert (think tiramisu with its espresso-soaked ladyfingers). Yous start by lining a lasagna pan with anisette toast, cut side down. Each piece of toast is moistened with milk.

The next step is to make Jello vanilla pudding (the cooked kind, not the instant). As soon as you take the pudding off of the stove, add 1 Tblsp. rum. Mix thoroughly and pour over the toast.

Now make a package of Jello chocolate pudding. When it comes off of the stove, mix in 1 Tblsp. Grand Marnier and pour that over the toast. Put the whole affair in the fridge and let it chill several hours.

Jut before serving, whip a carton of heavy cream. As the cream begins to thicken, add a teaspoon or so of sugar and 1 Tblsp. Crème de Cacao (I was jokingly calling this Italian Three-booze Cake). Spread the whipped cream over the top of the cake, dust with cocoa powder and serve.

While I was making the pudding and cooking the roast I decided to make some more cheese- something I haven’t been able to do for weeks. I tired a cheddar this time, a completely new type for me. It was an interesting process, I’ll try to blog about it in more detail soon. Alas, it will be a minimum of 2 months before I can try it. I love cheddar, so I have high hopes.

In the evening we had our neighbors (and travelling companions) Michael and John over for dinner. The menu:

Tangerine Sorbet
Roast Pork Shoulder with roast red potatoes and parsley root
Green Beans from last summer’s garden
Italian Rum Cake

Sunday the weather was stunning and we went out to the Fen. The hepaticas are in bloom.


Monday, March 26, 2007

March 26, 1982

Twenty-five years ago today, I had my very first date with Leon. We still consider this date to be out main anniversary. We had met several months earlier, and had been talking to each other at the social hour after church every Sunday evening. We went to dinner (Fritz That's It in Evanston) and to the movie theater to see On Golden Pond. My main regret of the date was my choice of restaurant. Not that there was anything wrong with Fritz', but if I had known at the time how much Leon loves Italian food, I would have suggested Dave's Italian Kitchen, instead. Still, we remain together, so the restaurant choice couldn't have been all that bad.

Some time during the date, Leon mentioned that the next day was a Fen workday. I asked what this was, and managed to wheedle an invitation to accompany him. Leon thought that I was just trying to spend some more time with him (well, OK, there was an element of that), but I genuinely was interested. The next day I joined him and we headed out to my first visit to Bluff Spring Fen. It would be at least a year before he would figure out that I had a significant interest in the Fen independent of my interest in him. All these years later, it still amazes me that we had our first date and I "met" the Fen all within a 24 hour period. How could I have known at the time the degree to which that one day would affect my life for decades to come?


Friday, March 23, 2007

Ecological Restoration

I've blogged before about some of the work that we do at Bluff Spring Fen, but there's one part I've never discussed. We are trying to preserve this remarkable piece of land, but in doing so we remove a lot of brush and some trees. We even use chainsaws. This might seem counterintuituve at first. The answers have to do with what makes an ecosystem healthy, and biodiversity.

Consider the picture below:

To the untrained eye, this might seem to be a beautiful natural setting, but there are actually serious environmental problems here. There is actually very little biological diversity. The ground under the trees was, for a long time, bare soil. In the 1980's and 1990's a terrible non-native weed called garlic mustard began invading. Neither of these situations is natural. For milennia, this piece of land would have been subject to the influence of frequent fires. Large fire-resistant trees like bur oak and hickory, would have been able to grow in areas where the shape of the land caused fires to burn a bit slower and cooler. All of the trees in this picture are very young and are species not tolerant of fire. They have sprung up since about 1940. The shade that they cast kills off the herbaceous plants that grow under them, and prevents the oaks from reproducing. The space that's left is ripe for invasion by non-native weeds.

We know that Bluff Spring Fen was, until very recently, much less wooded than it is today because we have aerial photos that document the invasion of trees. For the last 25 years, our management efforts have begun to reverse this damage, and the aerial photos document this as well. Here is a series. The roads at the top of the picture allow you to orient them.

1939. Trees are only on the downwind sides of hills.

1975. The entire wetland is choked with trees and shrubs.

1995 (most recent aerial photo) The advance of the trees continues on the periphery of the preserve. Management efforts have again opened the central wetland. Endangered orchids, butterflies and dragonflies now thrive there.

Over the years, we have refined our management techniques. Today, we no longer stack our brush into piles for later burning, but rather begin small bonfires which we then expand with the brush as we cut it. This both saves time and reduces the number of ash piles that we create.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Coming up for air

Happy first day of spring, everyone. Today is a day of getting things back in order for me. I’ve just been through a particularly busy time, hence thinner than normal postings here. No recent cheese making experiments, either. Between February 17 and this past Monday, I’ve made nine presentations. They have ranged from talks to local community groups, to lectures at one conference and one symposium (multiple talks both times) to talks to the professional conservation community (US Fish and Wildlife, and Department of Natural Resources). I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining here. This is my job, it’s what I’m supposed to be doing, and I do love it. But at the moment, I’m pooped! Fortunatly, things are easing up a bit, at least for a while.

Migrating sandhill cranes

Meanwhile, spring is finally making a few inroads here in the (until recently) frozen Midwest. Rodger recently posted a beautiful picture of a sandhill crane on his blog. This got me thinking that we should begin seeing sandhills migrating through. And we have. In the last couple of weeks, tens of throusands of them have been flying overhead. This picture here is what we see of most of them. The vast majority head north to Wisconsin where they will take up residence at places like Horicon Marsh. We mostly hear them as they fly over. A friend once described them as sounding like a Canada Goose trying to warble. It’s beautiful, wild, and haunting.

So my crocus bloom, the days slowly lengthen and warm up. I’m waiting eagerly to see more species of flowers come into bloom, and looking forwaward to getting on with butterflies and other fieldwork. I’m looking forward to doing a bit more blogging, and cheesemaking, too.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Media Madness

The summer of 2007 will bring an emergence of the 17-year periodic cicadas to the Chicago area. Media coverage is already beginning. You can see articles from today's Chicago Sun Times here and from the Chicago Tribune here.


Friday, March 09, 2007

Mourning Cloak

I just got back from a delightful dinner with Spo and Someone who are in town from Phoenix. They are off to the opera, and I stopped in at my office (just around the corner from both the restaurant and where they are staying) briefly before heading home. It's raining out and the temperature has gone way up- it's 50° out right now. It's supposed to stay warm through mid-week next week at least.

Warming weather in March in Chicago means a good chance of spotting the first butterfly of the year, which is likely to be a Mourning Cloak. These are cool critters because they overwinter as adults. They keep from freezing by secreting large quantities of a chemical called sorbitol into their body fluids. Sorbitol has some chemical similarities to ethylene glycol, the main component of many kinds of automobile antifreeze. It prevents formation of ice crystals, which would rupture the butterfly's cells, killing it. Instead, the butterfly goes into a suspended animation as the temperature falls. When the temperatures warm up, so do the butterflies, and out they come. Occasionally, you can even see them flying while there's still snow on the ground. A few years back, I wrote an article about them for Chicago Wilderness Magazine. You can read it here.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Heros Meme

This past weekend I attended a prairie conference in Chicago, One of the talks presented by Steve Packard, a luminary in the Illinois prairie movement and a long time friend of mine, concerned the heroes of the movement. Here in Illinois, we have a lot of people from a wide array of walks in life who are doing important ecological restoration work on a volunteer basis. I started out as one of them before making it my profession. Many of them have stories that include elements of the heroic, and Steve was telling some of these stories. It got me thinking about my own heroes and what it means to be heroic. I realized that I have a lot of heroes, and decided to develop a meme on the subject as a way of picking a manageable segment of them to write about.

Who is your hero from the world of literature?

This one is easy. My all-time most inspiring literary hero is Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. He understands moral clarity in a way that today’s self-proclaimed moralists can’t even begin to approach. He embraces concerns that revolve around big issues like justice and dignity, and does so fearlessly. More importantly, he projects strength and courage and doesn’t run when his principles are challenged.

Who is you hero from the history of your own culture?

Here in the United States, we have always had politicians (and worse yet, "deciders"), but only rarely have we had statesmen in our history. This one was tough, because although we a bunch of good choices from the earlier history of our country, I can think of none them from recent history. Thomas Jefferson’s clarity of thought and brilliant reasoning are, in my mind, a crucial part of why the US holds some hope of weathering even the current dark times in which we find ourselves. Jefferson distilled the best thought of the Enlightenment into a political system that may be seeing one of its darkest hours in today’s denial of reality by the politically ascendant. May his ideas triumph in the end.

Who is your hero from world history?

Nelson Mandela taught the world how to be right gracefully in the face of opposition by those who were being wrong savagely. He paid an incredibly high price for his principles, and was neither destroyed nor irreparably embittered by it. Sometimes when I am feeling impatient in the face of the bigotry that gay people still face, I consider Mandela who suffered much harsher bigotry and paid a much higher price in fighting it than I have ever been called to. It helps keep things in perspective.

Who is your professional hero?

I probably have an unfair advantage in that there are many people from the scientific world who embody the heroic: Lavoisssier, Marie Curie, Darwin, and many others. My choice is Dr. Rosalind Franklin, a crystallographer who studied DNA structure at about the same time as Watson and Crick. She did amazing work at a time when science was still very much a man’s field, enduring an unflattering (inappropriately, in my opinion) depiction in James Watson’s memoir The Double Helix. She did some of her finest work as she was dying of cancer, and likely would have won the Nobel had she lived (Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously). She has remained a role model for my entire career.

Who is your hero from your own personal life? Someone whose name will not be familiar to many people but who exemplifies the heroic in an everyday way.

My maternal grandfather died when I was 14. Before I was born he was a teacher, and by the time I came along, a newspaper reporter. When I was in grade school- from the early to mid 1960s- he would occasionally take me along to the police station when he was picking up police blotter notes for his work. I was in awe of how easily he interacted with these (and other) powerful and important people. He was the only person before me in my family to have an advanced educational degree (a Master's in education). It’s been over 35 years since his death, and his memory still inspires me today.


Monday, March 05, 2007

Signs of Spring

Yesterday, I went out to the Fen for the first time in nearly a month. It was a beautiful (though chilly) day. Leon and I went partly just to visit, partly to scatter some seeds. Seeding over snow is fun. You can see exactly where you have scattered seed, and you don’t have to rake the seed into the ground. The raking is truly a tedious and unpleasant chore.

Despite all of my wanderings in warmer places of late, I’m impatient for the end of winter. So I felt rewarded today by seeing some signs of spring in an otherwise wintry landscape. While we were out walking, we saw that the first killdeer of the year have arrived back from their southern migrations. Their raucous calls are a welcome respite from the silence of winter.

The Fen’s first flowering plant of the year has started blooming. Skunk cabbage can come into bloom as early as February. We say several examples today. They are related to Jack-in-the-pulpit. The red structure, called a spathe, surrounds the flowers, which are pretty inconspicuous. They actually produce their own heat, and are capable of melting their way through snow. Like many maroon flowers, they smell like decaying meat, and attract flies that are their main pollinators. There are a few species of flies that are about on warm days in late winter. Perhaps they are also attracted to the warmth that the interior of the blooming spathe provides. Later the plants will produce large, succulent green leaves that resemble (sort of) cabbage, and have a decidedly skunky odor when you crush them. Hence the name. In Illinois, they are mostly restricted to fens.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Fluminense Swallowtail

Earlier this week, I posted some recollections about a butterfly book that I had received as a birthday present when I was a child. Butterfly Girl left a comment wondering if any of the species in the book had become extinct following its publication in 1965. Unfortunately, this is an excellent question. The good news, is the answer is no. Many of the species in the book are very common within their home ranges. Several are species that we now display in the Butterfly Haven exhibit. Unfortunately, at least one species in the book is in serious trouble, and hangs on by a very slender thread. It’s also one of the most beautiful in the book, and remains a favorite that I would love to see someday.

The Fluminense Swallowtail (Parides ascanius) is very rare because it inhabits a rare type of wetland called a restigia that is found in the Atlantic coastal rainforests of Brazil. Rainforests in general fared poorly in the 20th century, however the Brazilian Atlantic coast rainforests did especially poorly. The main problem is that they occupy a very populated part of South America. These are the ecosystems that have been displaced by cities such as Rio de Janeiro. Efforts continue to protect the butterfly, however it’s future is very uncertain.