Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The stories behind the names

I'm constantly learning about the flora that grows along the paths, in the meadows, woods and gardens of Farm Dover. With nearly every plant that I come to know, a story comes with it. 
I thought I'd share a few with you today...

Legend has it that there once was a Native American medicine man named Joe Pye. The story goes that he traveled New England in the 18th century treating fevers – typhoid fever in particular – with an infusion made from a wild plant found in the nearby woods. His special brew was said to have halted a raging epidemic in Colonial Massachusetts. The plant that he used for his healing became forever known as Joe-Pye weed and can be found thriving in Farm Dover's bee garden.

Taller than the 6-foot purple Ironweed that grows next to it, Joe-Pye blossoms look to me like sunset cumulus clouds floating above the meadow garden.

Here's another story. Just next to the Joe-Pye weed in the garden is a white flowering plant. Its stem appears to grow straight through its paired leaves. Somewhere back in medicinal plant history, this odd form of leaf growth was believed to be a sign that the plant would cure broken bones. Leaves were wrapped around bone fractures in hopes that the bones would heal. The remedy didn't work, but the name for the plant stuck: Boneset. (An alternative story claims that the name comes from the Native American use of the plant to treat "break-bone fever," also known Dengue fever.)

And here's an easy one. Just now blooming in the bee garden are several 10-ft tall flowers that resemble wild sunflowers in size and shape. The plant has an enormous tap root that can extend 15 feet into the earth, allowing the plant to live for 100 years. Here's how it gets its name: Pioneers noted that the plant had an interesting tendency to align its leaves North-South, which allows it to avoid the intense direct sunlight of midday. They called it: Compass Plant.

And last, but not least, there is the story of the Devil's Walking Stick. Each spring, a quick-growing stem shoots up on the edge of our bee garden, punctuated in segments with very sharp spines that are hard to notice until it is too late. At some point in botanical history, someone must have grabbed it and exclaimed, "This must be the devil's walking stick." They probably used a few other unpublishable modifiers to describe the pain of the thorns digging into their hand.

At the top of the thorny stick is a giant puff of cream-colored blooms that attract a multitude of butterflies and bees. Now, the flowers have become green berries that will soon turn to purple-black. Native American healers and old-timey Southern herbalists use the inner bark and berries as anti-inflammatory pain relievers.

I get such a kick out of growing or discovering these plants, learning their stories, and medicinal uses. But that's enough of my garden lore for today. Until later....

Monday, August 21, 2017

Filled with Wonder

What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially different for those of us whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and fifteen years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for daylight saving time. 
– Annie Dillard

Two years ago as we waited in line to enter Florence's magnificent Basilica di Santa Croce, we struck up a conversation with a high school science teacher from Germany. In addition to talking to us, he was simultaneously trying to keep a dozen Teutonic teenage boys in line, while in line. When he found out we were from Kentucky, he excitedly told us he was coming to Kentucky in two years to view an eclipse. He was quite emphatic that we not miss it. That's when we pulled up our calendars and reserved the date: August 21, 2017.

Girls ruling the galaxy!

Twenty-three months later, we got around to placing an Amazon order for official viewing glasses and began to consider where we might travel to see this not-to-be-missed celestial event. We knew we wanted to be within the 70-mile-wide path of totality, but we weren't sure we wanted to be two among the 100,000 expected spectators at Eclipseville (aka Hopkinsville, KY).

With a bit of research combined with a bit of randomness, we chose as our destination Greenville, KY (population 3412), a small town just south of Central City, KY, my grandmother's home town.

We packed a lunch, a quilt, two folding chairs, a jug of water, binoculars, and a change of clothes. We left our driveway a little after 8 this morning for what was supposed to be a three-hour trip. I programmed our GPS, double checked our route on my ipad, triple checked it on my iphone.

We made two small adjustments to our route based on the glaring red traffic lines on Google Maps and drove straight there, without so much as a slowdown. We found the city park and were warmly greeted by the good folks of Greenville with a gift package that included – among other items – a Moon Pie, a Sun Drop soda, a mini-frisbee and some cardboard eclipse glasses. We set up our two chairs under hundred-year-old oak and maple trees and settled in to wait for the big event.

It was as old-fashioned an event as you can imagine. Families with small children and elderly relations spread out on blankets and played card games; snow cones, kettle corn, and t-shirts were sold at tabletop stands; a horse-drawn carriage promised a trip around the downtown square; the radio station from nearby Owensboro was broadcasting live from the hilltop overlooking the Muhlenberg County Courthouse. No protestors. No political signs. No unruly children. Just a couple hundred people gathered on a blue-skied summer's day wanting to experience this phenomena of nature.

To pass the time, we people watched and ate our country ham salad sandwiches and shared our Plehn's Bakery eclipse cookies with the family beside us. We even helped celebrate Miss Ann's 92nd birthday.

That's Miss Ann, sitting in the shade in the white shirt.
Her family brought cupcakes for all.

And then, just before noon (CDT), the sky began to slowly grow dark. With our cardboard glasses on we watched the moon begin its journey across the disk of the sun. The temperature dropped a few degrees, or at least seemed to. The cicadas amped up their song. The street lights came on. The little girls began squealing.

I tried to focus on the sun, but I wanted to watch the people. Focus, I told myself. When the moon was fully in front of the sun, blocking all but the star's corona, everyone whipped off their glasses and rejoiced with claps, hoots, and hollers. A ring of white light eerily shone from behind the dark sphere of the moon.

For the 103 seconds of totality, the air felt different; the sky was not totally dark, but rather a strange mix of colors; the crowd was filled with admiration. I found it all to be divinely disorienting. I was filled with wonder.

As the moon continued its progress through the sky, we put our glasses back on. Before the moon passed the sun on the left, people were packing up their baskets and backpacks, heading toward their cars. We did the same and headed north on the narrow country roads toward Owensboro and Old Hickory BBQ.


Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know.
– Annie Dillard

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Alaska: The Last Frontier, Part 2

We are now 18 days into our Alaskan adventure and headed to Haines, known as the adventure capital of Alaska. So adventure we did, starting with an afternoon kayaking around Chilkoot Lake. 

Haines, AK, population 1,374

Our kayaking guides, three young men who seemed constantly on the lookout for adventure – or at least mischief – insisted that we should come out to the Southeast Alaska State Fair, which was going on the very weekend we were there. So we adventured out and looked at the livestock exhibits, the art entries, checked out the food stands and partook of some Alaskan spruce beer. About 45 minutes later we left and tried to find dinner in town. But every restaurant was closed so all the townies could attend the fair. 

The next morning was spent on an old school bus searching for wildlife along the Chilkak River. We spotted some brown bears -- and lots of eagles. Never would I have imagined that I would quit looking up when someone pointed out another bald eagle. There were just so many of them!

Icy Straits/Hoonah, population 750

I must be a skeptical traveler because when I heard that our next stop was Icy Straits, a new development built specifically for cruise ship tourists, I rolled my eyes and was pretty sure I wouldn't like it. But, like so many encounters, I just needed to keep an open mind. 

The community of Icy Straits was very nicely designed, with new buildings that replicated old native styles, attractive signage, and nice walking paths. We sat through a cultural program, performed by native teenagers, which I found entertaining in spite of myself. 

We walked the 1.5 miles to the actual native settlement of Hoonah, the largest Tlingit-tribe town, ate Dungeness crab from a boardwalk vendor, and bird watched along a forested nature trail. Turned out to be a most enjoyable day.

Hubbard Glacier

The next morning our ship turned a hard right into Yakutat Bay and made its way as far as it could up the bay. Ed and I bundled up and headed to the top deck as the captain maneuvered the boat closer and closer to the massive Hubbard Glacier, North America's largest tidewater glacier. At 76 miles long, 7 miles wide and 600 feet tall at its terminal face, it is stunning to look at. 

Every few minutes, we would hear a loud boom, crash, splash as parts and pieces of it calved into the waters below. For nearly two hours we were exhilarated by its magnificence, waiting with mighty anticipation for the next chunk of ice to come crashing down. Despite loosing large chucks from its terminal, it is still considered to be an advancing (growing) glacier, an unusual classification among Alaska's 100,000 glaciers. 

Seems like from each of our trips, I have one favorite photo. This is it. Sums up the luxury of the ship with the splendor of the glacier. 

Anchorage, AK, population 299,037

Our final stop was Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. Our ship was anchored for two days and we weren't yet ready to leave our beautiful apartment, so we stayed on until the second morning. We did go ashore the first day to have a look around the town. Turns out, the original town was mostly destroyed by the 1964 earthquake and so was rebuilt in nostalgic early-'70s style. 

After being at sea for the past couple of days, we felt the need to walk. We set out on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, walking from Elderberry Park, along Cook Inlet, to Westchester Lagoon and then on further to downtown. For lunch, we headed to a longtime local favorite: Humpy's Great Alaskan Ale House, where we split a basket of fried haddock and fries. 

That evening, we watched dozens of fisher people casting almost shoulder-to-shoulder for thousands of spawning salmon headed upstream on Ship Creek, before heading to Bridges Seafood Restaurant for a king salmon dinner.

This trip was, by far, our most luxurious travel experience. Thanks to my aunt's invitation, we were transported from port to port in the finest fashion. It took me a few days to adjust to the ease. Normally when we travel, we spend a large portion of our time problem solving: how to get from point A to point B?, how to communicate in a language we do not speak?, where to eat our next meal?...  In addition, we both work physically hard on the farm, so it was strange to wake up and realize that nothing was required of us but to sit back and enjoy the experience. By the time we disembarked in Anchorage, I was sad to say goodbye to our home away from home. 

Train to Denali

The next morning we were up and off the boat early to catch an 8:15 train to Denali, on the Wilderness Express. For seven hours we rolled along in total comfort, watching beautiful Alaskan landscape roll by. If not in our big, comfy seats on the top domed deck, we could be found in the white-tabled-clothed dining car or hanging on to the outdoor viewing platform. If only airplane travel could be so pleasant...

Denali National Park

We somehow managed to plan our stay at the park for the two most beautiful days of the summer season. Of the half million annual visitors to the park, 75 percent are disappointed to find the namesake mountain shrouded in mist and clouds and not visible from the park's only road. Not us. The sun was shining; the mountain was clear – even if it was 60 miles away. 

We stayed at the Grande Denali Lodge and took a half-day natural history tour, going about halfway into the park. If we had it to do over, we would consider the 12-hour trip that takes visitors closer to Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America. Instead, we spent the afternoon hours hiking around Horseshoe Lake, where we saw lots of evidence of beavers, some ducks, dozens of wildflower varieties, and lots of breathtaking views of the lake and mountains. 

Very early on the morning of August 7, we started our journey home, landing in Louisville that evening. We are amazed at how much the farm changes over the course of just three weeks when we are not watching it day-to-day. I had to hack my way into the garden as the gate was blocked by a profusion of sunflowers and zinnias. 

As always, it was good to be home. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Alaska: The Last Frontier, Part 1

Ed and I are home from our latest travel adventure -- and what an adventure it was: Alaska, the last frontier, and Ed's final state to color in on his U.S. map. (I'm not too far behind him: Oregon, Washington and Hawaii: here I come.)

A bit of background

We have always wanted to visit Alaska, but it is far away and the window for decent weather is narrow. How would we travel there? What was on our must-see list? How long would we stay? We vowed that 2017 was the year to figure it out and make it happen. Imagine our delight when an invitation to travel to Alaska aboard The World came unexpectedly from my Aunt Gina. 

We would fly out to Vancouver, spend the weekend exploring the city, then board the ship on Sunday, July 16. We would disembark 20 days later in Anchorage, then take a train to Denali National Park for a few days, before flying home on August 7. We would be away from Farm Dover for 25 days – a long time for me to be away from my vegetable, herb and bee gardens. But, as Ed pointed out, there would be other years to fuss over tomato plants – and this was shaping up to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip. We said, "yes" and "thank you."

The World is the world's largest privately owned residential cruise ship and our three-bedroom apartment was luxurious, with a deck running along the left back of the ship (or, as they say on board: the port stern). We could chose from a number of restaurants on board or make simple meals in our kitchen. When we were anchored or docked, we went ashore for our meals and to explore. On the days we were cruising, I did a morning yoga class and sometimes we would attend a lecture, but the rest of the time we mostly sat on our deck reading and watching the world flow by. All in all, it was a delightful and stress-free way to travel. 

As in past travel blogs, I offer perhaps more detail than you may care to read. So feel free to skip over parts; it won't hurt my feelings. The details are included to help me remember this special time and for those who might plan a trip to some of these same locales in the future.

Vancouver, BC

We hot-wired a hotel in downtown Vancouver and spent three days getting to know this bustling west coast seaport in British Columbia. We took a city train and then a boat taxi over to Granville Island to check out the incredible Public Market; we hiked the scenic loop at the 1000-acre Stanley Park, and headed to Chinatown for Sunday dim sum. In between, we (twice) found a coffee shop that we loved, sampled some local craft beer in a Gastown cafe and enjoyed a wonderfully creative meal at Forage.

Mid-afternoon on Sunday, we boarded the ship.

Ketchikan, AK, population 8175, salmon capital of the world

The next two days we spent sailing up British Columbia's west coast and acclimating to life on the ship. The first port of call was Ketchikan, the place where Ed could officially declare that he had visited all 50 United States. T-shirt and jewelry shops greeted us – but didn't entice us. Instead we made our way over boardwalks to the colorful old houses and watched as floatplanes, boats and ferries came and went from the shore. 

Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary where we saw a dozen black bears in the wilds of the rainforest and nearby salmon hatchery, got up close with a bald eagle, peregrine falcon and barred owl at the aviary rehab center and watched a master carver at work on a totem pole. 

New York Cafe. Perhaps an odd name for an Alaskan cafe, but a great local bar/restaurant serving salmon benedict for breakfast; so good we came back the next day for dessert. 

Alaska Fish House. Hot crispy fried fish (trio of salmon, halibut, and cod), cold craft beer and live music, complete with a dancing toddler.

From Ketchikan, the ship headed out along the inside passage, traversing the length of Misty Fjords National Monument, a vast protected rainforest, part of the Tongass National Forest. It gets its name from the light fog that perpetually drapes the coast -- sure enough, it was foggy, but beautiful. 

For a closer up look at Misty Fjords' scenic Smeardon Bay, the ship lowered a number of inflatable zodiac boats into the waters and took small groups of passengers out to see eagles, sea otters and jumping salmon. 

Next stop: Wrangell, one of the oldest non-native settlements in Alaska...

Wrangell, AK, population 2,411

The town looked old-fashioned, perhaps a bit forgotten, but ended up being one of our favorite places. We arrived early on a Saturday evening and the town seemed ghostly, with its few shops already closed up for the day. The Elk Lodge was hopping and some good-smelling grilling seemed to be happening, but it turns out it was a private affair. The only other option for dinner on shore was the Stikine Inn Restaurant, so we headed there and were pleasantly surprised by the selection of draft beer and deliciousness of the food. In fact, it was so good, we went back the next night and I ordered (again) the grilled rockfish tacos. 

While walking around on Saturday evening, we found a Presbyterian Church up on Church Street (of course) so Sunday morning found us worshipping with 15 others -- 17 if you count the minister and piano player. After church, we climbed Mt. Dewey, affording us an incredible view of the town and bay. 

While there, we headed out on a jet boat for some sightseeing of the Stikine River and the Shakes Glacier.  I had seen a glacier on a previous trip to British Columbia and I have to admit, I was unimpressed. It was cold, and hard, bare and dirty, and it wasn't going anywhere fast. My opinion of glaciers changed as we worked our way past floating chunks of blue ice and came alongside a magnificent mass of ice that seemed very much alive. 

From Wrangell, we cruised northward with a stop in Frederick Sound and Tracy Arm to check out the icebergs and mountain goats, via Zodic boats. Then it was on to Juneau, capital of Alaska...

Juneau, AK, population 32,766 

When we pulled into the Juneau docks, there were already five huge cruise ships anchored. That meant thousands of tourists, acting touristy. The town was full of souvenir shops, many owned by the cruise ship companies. I knew we would have to work hard to figure out the next couple of days on our own terms. 

First stop: Mendenhall Glacier where we spent the better part of a morning hiking the trails on our own and marveling at the glacier. No tour guide needed. 

Because it had started raining, we looked for something we could do that didn't involve getting drenched. We found the Alaska State Museum and spent a couple of hours wandering through it. It is not mentioned in any of the "top things to do lists" but I believe that is a serious omission. It was a fascinating look at the history of the early native tribes, the state's Russian colonial eras, and its more recent past of becoming the 49th U.S. state. It included some fine art, natural history and exhibits of industry and trades. The museum was recently renovated, reopening about a year ago. It is a real jewel.

Next stop: Glacier Gardens, which is a strange place indeed. Not exactly a botanical garden, it is a private 50-acre rainforest property that is best known for its upside down trees. (Fallen trees that are sunk upside down into the ground and the tops -- formerly roots -- planted with annual flowers). Interesting...

One of my secrets to finding non-touristy places to eat is to google: where do locals eat in _____ town. High on the Juneau list was a small cafe called The Rookery, and like in the last two towns, we ended up eating there twice. Really good, creative food, with an Asian twist.


We had plenty of time to read while on the ship. When we travel, we like to read books that take place in the region or are otherwise related to our journeys. On this trip, I took along Driftwood Valley: A Woman Naturalist in the Northern Wilderness, by Theodora C. Stanwell-Fletcher. It proved to be a good choice. The book journals the three years (1937-1939 and 1941) that the author and her husband spent in the wilds of northern British Columbia, collecting plant and animal specimens for the Smithsonian. It is one of Wendell Berry's favorite books, as he explains in the Introduction, 1989 edition. 

Ed chose to tackle Herman Melville's Moby Dick,  all 578 pages of the epic whale tale. Talk about a tough read, but Ed is always up for a reading challenge and seems to have enjoyed the story of Ahab's obsessive quest. If nothing else, it added a dimension to our own obsessive quest to spot a whale from our deck.  

Our next port of call was Haines, adventure capital of Alaska. But you will have to wait until my next blog post to find out how we managed kayaking around Chilkoot Lake. Stay tuned...