For those of you worrying about my family when you saw the news of the floods in Belgium and Germany, they’re in a different part of the country. It’s been wet everywhere, but no flooding for them, thankfully. The images I’ve seen from the affected areas have left me speechless.
It’s been one of those weeks with ups and downs for me (fortunately mainly ups), but none of it is suitable for publication on the blog – maybe you’ll get to hear some of it later. That means I haven’t got much to write about, so here are a few flowers from my wildflower strip:
They are teeming with insect life; when I watered them a few hours later than usual the other day (I prefer early mornings), clouds of small flying creepy crawlies lifted off, annoyed by the unexpected shower. It sure is a nice micro-habitat!
What’s growing in your garden?
Have a great week! I hope to have something more substantial to share next week.
Just killed a 7M run-walk-run, the first in the new training plan towards a half-marathon. Adjust your training to what works – I have zero interest in exercise-induced migraines or over-use injuries, but Jeff Galloway’s training regime works for me for summer time heat. It wasn’t fast, but that’s ok. I feel great 😀
Still a lot of work to get to full Kung Fu Panda, though. My kungfu kicks need some extra attention because it’s been a while, and I’ll have to work on this cool move on one side only rather than alternating between both arms as Panda and Shifu do here.
No regular planks or push-ups for a good while I reckon, as part of post-shoulder-surgery recovery. Those makes me reach for the nearest jar of Aleve within three hours, and for the next three days. But hey, my single-right-handed plank/push-up should be awesome if I really dedicate myself to this! I also have a long-standing relationship with stairs as a form of exercise. Not quite my enemy though.
The secret ingredient
I finally got round to making for the very first time a family classic and family favourite: Aalsterse vlaaien (no links in English to be found, that’s how local it is!). It has been so long since I last ate it, I didn’t even remember what it was supposed to taste like! When I tested the spice mix in the batter before it went in the oven it took a few seconds 😱 before it clicked but phew I remembered.
I was very worried about getting it just right, because I wanted to share it with one of our freshly graduated Mules, who had seen this in Belgium but couldn’t fit a taste of it in her brief visit. And… I did not have the secret ingredient, mastellen.
These are bone-hard, dried little breads seasoned with spices. They’re specific for making vlaaien and even locally in and around Aalst increasingly hard to find, and bakers seem to be sworn to secrecy because we cannot find a recipe anywhere. (The ones we have found online are a different kind, not suitable for our purposes.) Mum suggested rusks, or ships biscuits might do the trick, but I couldn’t find those either, so I replaced all of that with… white bread, dried in the oven.
It worked beautifully. Fresh jars of Mace, and Organic Vietnamese Cinnamon probably helped, as well as the original brown sugar and sugar syrup imported from Belgium. A taste of home, recreated here on the other side of the Pond.
And now I know the secret ingredient (à la Mr. Ping), I also know I have ingredients for 3 more pans of this deliciousness. Perfect:
(Backyard Wildlife College, Allentown PA, est. 2017)
“More than just fluffy bunnies”
A mysterious and fatal bird disease is spreading among song birds in the eastern US, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission has recommended all feathered creatures observe social distancing and extra hygiene measures.
Backyard Wildlife College in response ceased dining operations for our feathered faculty, staff and students at all feeders, with exception of Cafe Colibri. (Only Mrs. Ruby-Throated uses this facility and so far, no reports have shown her species to be affected.)
At this moment, there are no known cases or fatalities on Backyard Wildlife College’s grounds of this mysterious disease, but we are treating this situation with the utmost seriousness. Birds afflicted by this disease often have “eye swelling and crusty discharge”; other symptoms can include breathing trouble, blood from the mouth, and weakness and neurological issues. Most birds sadly die. Please report any cases (dead or alive) on this form from UPenn, as the human scientists are trying to get to the root of this.
The groundskeeper has immediately taken the following actions: the window feeders and the squirrel-proof tube by the backdoor of the human dwelling have been taken down and washed in a 10% bleach solution (as recommended). The bird bath has been removed, and similarly sanitized before storage. The Organic Protein Bar on the west side of the human dwelling, also known as the expanded wildflower strip, remains open for foraging to all creatures. No agreement has been reached with the Creepy Crawly Division now housed there, but they have been made aware of the situation and reminded of their position in the feeding chain. Our groundskeeper follows the situation carefully and will reopen the dining facilities as soon as the situation is deemed safe again.
Grass remains available at will for rabbits and groundhog, and peanuts can be requested by squirrels.
We realize this is a big blow to the community, as our dining facilities were the hub of the local social wildlife, where House and Gold Finches, Chickadees, Juncos, Sparrows, Cardinals, Mourning Doves, Robins, and the odd Grackle, Catbird, and Cowbird and many more congregated. We hope together (though not physically together) we can stop the spread of this pernicious disease.
However, we have only in the past 16 months seen how a deadly virus ravaged through the human community, and we must try to learn some lessons from that event. We hope that by acting before it’s too late, using a data-driven approach, and erring on the side of caution, we can soon resume our previous convivial chats over sunflower hearts in safety.
Whatever you do as a feathered creature, don’t make our editor create the bird-version of this meme. Remember, we’re better than humans. And usually cuter too.
Be safe, be well, keep your distance. (And if you’re human: get vaccinated when you can & wash your hands!)
Back off the sofa, and onto the road (into the back of the pack), that is.
Surgery on 19 Jan. –> Cleared to try out if you can run 3 months later, on 19 April. I did a 5 min test jog on 18 April, and since my arm didn’t fall off, I decided to pick a “couch to 5K” training plan to sync with my Garmin 245 watch. (It’s pretty phenomenal what the watch will do, short of making coffee and porridge in the morning to get you fuelled up for your runs).
During that test jog and the first “run-walk-run” my shoulder did feel a bit stiff, but nothing to worry about: it was just increasing my range of motion, but not asking it to do anything it couldn’t handle. Both PT and assistant were very excited about me taking it very steady with this approach: there was a benchmark run (“run as fast as you can for 5 mins.”), and then a lot of “walk-run” repeats, with equal amounts of walking and running.
The plan adjusts its length and workouts based on how well you’re doing, but I have to admit that by the end of May I was getting a bit bored with the regular fare and I felt good and the plan too easy. I have quite a few years of running in my bones, and worry less about overdoing it for my joints compared to somebody fresh off the sofa for the first time. I’m very good at spotting niggles before they become injuries, and have no shame in dropping back if I need to. In fact, I suspect I err on the side of caution more than necessary, but let’s talk again about this when I’m still running well into my seventies and many others are sidelined, shall we?
I switched out the plan for a time-oriented goal: a 35 min 5K. I mean… should be possible, right? My best 5K is 30’32” from many, many years ago, a more recent one 33’05” (another post-shoulder-injury return time trial) and someday I hope to get under 30′. I definitely had more fun with the tempo runs, intervals, and even hill repeats in the early morning heat (reducing the number because I’m not looking for trouble) in this plan, and I was getting better at sticking to the requested paces.
So eleven weeks after I was cleared for running, I went to the D&L trail near Laurys station, where the path is nice for running, well drained, there is plenty of shade, and I should be able to keep an even and steady pace. Even the weather cooperated! After a horribly oppressive hot start to the week, the rains had come and it was a most pleasant 17C/62-63F. A half-mile walk/run warm up, and off I went.
I immediately could tell that today was not the day for heroics; and it would be hard to hit the 11’16″pace required to get to my target 35′. Oh well, I’d just set off reasonably fast with a 4 (paces) out-2 (paces) in breathing pattern, with a Podrunner mix at 171BPM. The common race strategy for a 5K is: “start fast and hold on for dear life”, after all. First mile: 12’23”, not too bad, but I need to be faster. Haha, doesn’t feel like that’s in the legs! And indeed, mile 2 clocked in at 12’39, despite upping the breathing pattern to 3out-2in. At the start of mile 3, I turned around (I had to get back to the car after all!) and took a breather walk to get my heart rate down a bit, and I took another walk break about half a mile later, so mile 3 came in at 13’18 (breathing pattern in “hard work modus”: 2in-2out). But there is always something left in the tank, the final 0.11 I squeezed out the equivalent speed of a 10’48″mile but ooooh boy I was glad when my watch beeped to signal the end! 39’29”
The race predictors on my Garmin watch are big liars for me: my watch claims there is a 30’xx” 5K in me. Erm yeah… Though I think the Fetcheveryone predictions are more accurate. (see pic below)
The slightest hint of an uphill and I notice and I will need to work on that to even out things (viz. mile 3. Imperceptible to most, but I notice…)
Not a terrible time, but definitely four and a half minutes slower than I wanted.
On to the next training plan: I’d like to get back to the point where a 10 mile run every week is nothing special, or I can do two 10Ks in a weekend (not racing, just getting round). That is a few years and a few pounds/kilos ago but there is no reason I can’t get back there if I focus.
Why “doubles”? Because the real thing that itches, the ultimate goal is to get into shape to take part, somehow, in another SLMM or other Mountain Marathon in the UK. I just bought the lightweight tent and camping stove we’d need. 😬 Anybody interested to be the other half of a team? Drop me a note, we’ll talk!
P.S. If you like the stats and maps you see here, check out Fetcheveryone.com. Free and fair site for all your training needs with awesome analytics, run by one man. Imports data from Garmin (and other places) automatically and then makes the most amazing graphs and useful analyses, without you having to lift a finger. I love it so much I pay a small contribution to keep it going (so it’s ad-free for me 😀 ) Thanks for all the work you put into the site, Ian!
Proof of that arrives every month again when I see a little purple package in my postbox, with my tea club inside. It’s absolutely gorgeous: a feast for the eye, and the teas smell divine and taste great! It’s like a little parcel of zen-moments, because these teas deserve to be sipped with care and attention.
A year-long subscription was my little reward to myself for surviving Quarter 1 of 2021 (including making it halfway through another semester from hell, and single-handedly at that!)
Although I know of purists who don’t like their tea “adulterated” with flavours, I was a bit bored with the selection on offer in the local supermarket and I also suffer from decision fatigue because I already need to decide so many other things in my life/job. Outsourcing what goes in my (nearly) daily cup was a great decision I haven’t regretted yet: every month I get two different flavours (other formats of the club available) and after three shipments I yet have to encounter a flavour to give away because I don’t like it.
I first encountered Plum Deluxe years ago as a sponsor on the Knitmore Girls podcast. Give them a listen! (Another good thing that comes at regular intervals!)
It turns out cats are like buses: you don’t see one up close for 15 months, then suddenly you get to spend time with 4 in one weekend! I have missed the furry friends in NYC, because we don’t visit due to Covid-precautions. And visiting other people’s cats wasn’t really an option until I was vaccinated. Right as I got to that point, my friends asked if I could look after their cat for 2 and a half days. And then their neighbours asked if I could look after their three cats as well, for two meals. Ooooh! I didn’t realize how low I was on Vitamin C in cat-form until I had some quality time with these kitties. I even levelled up in cat-sitting skills, and can now add “feeding three cats at once” and “insulin injections” to my cat-sitting resumé. [I didn’t ask permission to post pics of said cats, just imagine cute furry friends here 🐈 ]
Flute lessons resumed two weeks ago! Close to five months after surgery I finally had enough muscle power to hold up a flute long enough make it through a 45 min. session. (I have a heavy flute, but it does sound great). And you know what’s even better? Because my teacher and I are both vaccinated, we can meet in person.
We managed to do pretty well with Jamkazam, which like its open-source counterpart Jamulus cuts back on latency and allow for much higher sound-quality than your average video-chat app. (Flute on Zoom is a tragedy/travesty). But Jamkazam became a paying app, and we couldn’t get Jamulus to work, and … in person is much better. We’re back to our regular flute-“disputes” about sound quality, such as “No, I didn’t hear that.” – “Well, it’s what I tried to do.” or “Which note was the weaker one in that run?” – “Beats me, I was just trying to get them all in the right order!”, rather than chalking it up to the computer messing with the sound.
Good things to come:
swimming: not until a year after surgery
a visit to Belgium: no idea when because I’m stuck in a cross-over of pandemic travel-ban mess and green-card application waiting room hell that’s too boring to explain here.
So please don’t ask me about either of these two. I’ll just keep waiting. They’ll come, like the other good things, won’t they?
(Backyard Wildlife College, Allentown PA, est. 2017)
* If you think this is a weird way of dealing with volume/year, wait till you see European sinology journals. Just sayin’.
Greetings, friends and sympathizers of the coolest little unofficial nature corner on the interwebs! It’s been a while, but we won’t even apologize for the silence last year in publishing our newsletter. This is what happens when a pandemic knocks sixteen months out of the collective memory of the the human world (including for our editor and groundskeeper).
Feathered and Furry Division infrastructure improvements:
Jumping right in with the state of affairs in summer 2021, we are pleased to announce massive improvements in our infrastructure since we last wrote, and in particular dining facilities, courtesy of some investment accounts coming to fruition, and one donation from admirers of the college. Thank you, Mr. & Dr. A!
The squirrels have enjoyed the extra winter provisions, and went straight into training for the Tokyo Olympics.
They are very disappointed to hear they were not allowed to compete in the gymnastics because it’s for humans only. Nonsense, as you can tell from the following photo: our athletes are extremely talented and dedicated, even combining mealtimes with training sessions!
The heated birdbath was a hit with small furry and feathered creatures alike during the snowy month of February. Said one faculty member of the feathered division: “Yes, there was snow, but really: my stomach isn’t a micro-wave! This water at drinking temperature is much, much better.” The groundskeeper decided to keep the birdbath in summer at ground level, to provide access for the smaller furry creatures, who make great use of the extra hydration station. Two nearby birdbaths at height continue to provide comfortable bathing facilities for the feathered faculty during the summer months.
We have expanded our wildflower strip at the back of the human dwelling from 2020, and this season it includes a few feet along the side of the dwelling. As some of you may know, we have a public-private partnership (PPP) with a mowing crew for the lawn, and we do not have the power to change this. After an unfortunate weed-wacker incident, which set back the start of the growing season by a few weeks, our groundskeeper has successfully clarified the boundaries with the crew, and the wildflowers are bursting into bloom! We are very excited to welcome our usual array of bumblebees, honeybees, various solo bees, hover-flies and many, many small but fine Creepy Crawly faculty and students to explore the area with abandon.
Special Summer Guest!
No summer newsletter would be complete without an update of our special summer guest: Mrs. Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Hummie for the friends), our annual visitor who teaches the Colibri Course.
And why would she go elsewhere? We have everything a hummingbird could desire: world-class nectar, made from the purest sugar and distilled water in perfect proportions, served in glass feeders, replaced at regular intervals and now also kept ant-free; and clothes line to perch on for preening sessions, or when taking a break from hunting flies over the compost bin. As Hummie put in her review: “Four stars, would recommend to a friend if I weren’t so territorial.”
The only thing we’d like to add but don’t know how, is teeny-tiny humming-bird-sized towels for when the rain pours down. But she knows where to take shelter:
We hope you enjoyed this update, and aim to bring you more news soon of our summer residents here at Backyard Wildlife College!
Don’t forget to subscribe to get email alerts for new posts (incl. of all the things are human groundskeeper gets up to), and share in the comments how your Backyard Wildlife College is doing!
This Cascade Heritage Sock (75%merino, 25% nylon) is incredibly soft and sproingy (that’s a technical term for spinners and knitters, I believe), and it’s very, very fine in diameter – but that’s before washing, maybe it will bloom a bit? I’d love to see how this knits up for socks.
But these won’t be socks…
More coming soon! At least if I can knit fast… What’s on your needles these days?
Back in March, I confessed for the second time on twitter that I’d never had a pop tart. I don’t even quite know how to describe them to those of us who didn’t grow up with them. They’re “toaster pastries”? So you stick them in the toaster and they come out all nice and toasted and ready to eat? Really? This being America, I have to admit to being very (very) cautious about anything that is produced en masse and available all over the country in uniform flavours, shapes and sizes. And so I steered clear of them successfully for most of the 8 years I’ve lived here now.
That is, until my friend Jacki and her husband were kind enough to do my groceries when my shoulder had healed enough to do my own cooking, but I could not yet drive. So one fine morning, she showed up and plonked down, in addition to my healthful veggies and raw hazelnuts and whatnots from my shopping list, this package of Poptarts. “Little present for you from me, to try!” Oh. Ok, thanks! Great!
I asked advice from various quarters: How do you eat them? “Put them in the toaster. But really low, and keep an eye on them, because your toaster may catch fire and burn otherwise.” Wait what? Why would you willingly risk setting your house on fire for a pre-fab sugar junk food snack?!? Debates ensued: “You can also stick them in the microwave.” “Nah, they’ll go soft.” “Just not that long!” “No no, eat them straight from the package!” Gasp! You mean I’m to eat them RAW???
Since each foil package contains two “tarts”, I decided to risk it in the toaster with one, put most of another in the microwave in 15″ increments, and nibble on a raw corner.
But because I value the services of my $5 second-hand brave little toaster, I decided to protect it from sugar-melt-fire:
The verdict of the experiment? If I were really, really hungry and there wasn’t anything in the house, I’d risk my toaster. The pastry casing is “flat” in taste even if a bit more crunchy after toasting, the sugar/cinnamon is not very exciting. The microwave didn’t do anything for me, and straight out of the package would be only useful in case of prolongued zombie-attacks or other acts of deities making it impossible to forage outside for wild berries.
Sorry friends, I know I just failed my citizenship test. I think it’s one of these things you need to grow up with, and clearly I didn’t! But if any of you want some Brown Sugar Cinnamon poptarts, I have a box with another 10 of them (5 packs of 2 each) to hand out, just drop me a line! You’re also welcome to have them here with a lovely cup of tea or coffee!
When I was in Korea, I learned that there was a good reason I loved hot food in the summer: it was curing like with like. Pyongyang nengmyeon (cold noodles) in the middle of winter? Makes sense! 1 Flaming hot … well, so much of Korean food is red, hot, and spicy, that you can pick your favourite dish and it will fit the bill for beating the summer heat by sweating it out.
Today for lunch, I improvised a bibimbap with some below-par jalapeños in a failed attempt to up the spice-level. (What’s wrong with peppers in Pennsylvania?). A good dollop of Gochujang came to the rescue, mixed with a hint of sesame oil and soy sauce. Veggies were chopped up cucumber, sweet pepper, lettuce, and sprinkling of spring onion, over a few scoops of cold rice (too lazy to microwave) and I put a little fried egg on top. I forgot all about the toasted sea weed I have in the cupboard 😭
But it was dinner when I surprised myself. I still had a nice little savoy cabbage hiding in the fridge, and it sure wasn’t going to get better by just staying there. Yet I associated this particular vegetable with winter stews and hearty, warming dishes. Would I dare…?
Apparently, yi yeol chi yeol also works for Flemish winter dishes: I boiled the cabbage leaves for ±10 mins, then rinsed what I would eat in cold water, and chopped them in smaller pieces. (Oh, take the big midrib (is that what you call it?) out before boiling). Then I fried up some uncured bacon pancetta cubes, added the savoy cabbage and seasoned with “pezo” (family abbreviation for pepper and salt, or peper en zout) and copious amounts of nutmeg. Finishing touch was to throw a nice chunk of real butter in there for the final minute or so. None of that plastic margarine stuff for me, thankyouverymuch.
Served with cute little baby potatoes, that little winter dish hit the spot on a day the temperature officially hit for the first time this year 91F/33C. I scoffed down this little mountain of cabbage and taters without any trouble. For somebody who spontaneously combusts as soon as the temperatures hit 80F/26C, that’s pretty good evidence that “heat cures heat”. Now if only I could find some jalapeños with some real fire in them in this Commonwealth I might survive this summer… Suggestions in the comments, please!
Incidentally, the only times I’ve had digestive issues with cold noodles was in summer!↩
Last year I got an extra feeder for Hummie the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. I hoped to attract more of these flying miracles, but it turns out I am blessed with just the one, who became a fast friend during the summer of 2020, when I tried to keep my distance from humans. (She’s back this summer. More in future posts.)
But not only Hummie likes my high quality nectar: the local ants and the odd wasp are also big fans of it. What can I say? Only the finest ingredients for my special summer guest! 4 parts distilled water to 1 part superfine crystalized white sugar, and making sure the feeder nor the sauce pan I use have any trace of soap on them make for highly desirable nectar.
The ants have no sense of self-preservation, and intoxicated by the sugar they’d climb inside the feeder, and died a sugary death. I can only hope that they were high and happy as they transpired. Not only is it sad for the ants, but it’s also a problem for the hummingbird: the dead ants carry fungi on them, which then breed in the nectar because it hangs in the sun, and it’s not sugary enough to be a preservative. If you don’t clean the feeder quickly enough, the hummingbirds can catch diseases and die.1 <– New! “Footnotes”, click to reveal!
I tried very briefly with a strip of tape, sticky side out, around the posts that the ants use to climb to the feeders. That would work: they were smart enough not to tread on it. But Hummie is about as tall as the strip of tape (2 inches) and I was worried she might accidentally get stuck. I quickly removed the tape.
Fortunately there is an “ant moat” built into the feeder, that with a little bit of attention from me will stop them from getting to the port holes. The basic idea is that the ants march along the hook down to center at the top of the feeder, but then encounter the water that surrounds the hook. They can’t make it to the rim, and because they don’t swim they have to turn back.
Last year, the location of my feeders meant the ants could by-pass the moat, and once one found the way in, they all followed suit.
This year, I’ve been a bit more organized and have activated the ant-moats. All it took was a piece of string, and tying a knot or two. I’m no sailor so my knots leave a bit to be desired, but as long as I keep the water levels topped up at the crown of the feeder, ants will be saved from drowning, the feeder will be cleaner for longer, and Hummie will enjoy ant-free nectar. I imagine the ants stomping their little feet in frustration as they march back to the ant colony, possibly throwing in a choice swear word here or there now they’re deprived of an easy source of food.
Now I just have to add “monitor the moats” to my daily morning routine.
More news from the adventures at Backyard Wildlife College coming soon!
You need to clean feeders regularly anyway: hummingbirds also introduce micro-organisms in the feeders, but dead ants make it go off faster. And it’s not appetizing to look at.↩