My son, agile, curious and flexible, examines bark while in a baby carrier.

Yesterday I was asked if my life changed much since the birth of my son.

"What percent of life has changed? Ninety percent? Ten percent? A difficult question, perhaps not phrased in the best manner," the inquirer admitted.

I stumbled. "Well, I'm used to being a mother. Ummm, so perhaps when he was just a month old, everything was completely different. Now, I don't know, fifty percent? I'm better with children now, I understand them more. I'm more curious about them."

As I write, my son brings book after book to my husband to read. His feet pound across the office carpeted floor as my husband requests another book. He bangs on the drawer.

Last year we rolled him up in blankets and walked down the lane. This year he pushes his stroller down the hill, I cringe as I watch him race down hill far faster than his legs can go.

Last year he voice creaked and sputtered. His hands scratched at his face. This year he points and says, "MMMmmm," emphatically. He reaches for a my husband's hand to assist his climbing.

One hundred percent. I see everything with my son in mind. He would like this. He would dislike that. As a recent date with my husband wound down, we stopped in a bookstore. I drifted towards the children's toys. I unsubtly stared into a stroller containing a newborn baby. The child was beautiful and my smile was radiant at such beauty. The child's mother chatted on a cellphone while the grandfather beamed, appreciating my delight for his grandchild. One hundred percent.

About that toxic fruit

When I took the NJDEP Basic Pesticide Applicator Training Class, we were told the story of a pesticide applicator who left an unmarked bottle of pesticide at a client's home. That bottle was a juice bottle, a bottle similar to the bottles the client's child drank from. The pesticide was colorless and odorless. The contents of the bottle appeared to be water and were found and put in the refrigerator. The child drank from the bottle and...

Regardless of the story's truth, I was sufficiently frightened and my memory banks were seared. Having since smelled Garlon 4, Garlon 3A, Pathfinder, Accord, RoundUp, and CideKick, I could not imagine  any herbicide not being absolutely malodorous. Bottom line: New Jersey has a regulation that says food containers cannot be used to store pesticides and all pesticides must be labelled. Don't mess up and kill a client's kid.

My mother babysits my son while I work. One of those days I work from home, so we are able to catch up at lunchtime. She's very used to all manner of gross and odd items scattered through my home. 

"So, what's that?" she asks, pointing to a moldy simmer pot of balsam fir needles in tannic waters. "I was going to wash that out last week, and I thought, 'I better not.'" 

"Yeah," I sigh. It looked pretty bad. "Oh, I'm dying some yarn. I wanted to mention that. It's on the stove."

"I was going to ask you about that toxic fruit." 

Privet fruit simmered with a skein of yarn and left to sit for 3 days.

I unlid the cast iron kettle, and pull a blue skein of yarn out. "It's privet berries. Don't know if it will be blue when I rinse it."

I'm embarrassed about what a wreck my house usually is, but my mother is very gracious and hardly criticizes though her own home is pristine even when it is deemed "filthy."

That particular day she was going to to drive to Philadelphia to pick up my brother. My son was napping. "Don't worry about the dishes, just head out." 

"You always leave me a mountain of dishes," she says looking at the sink. 

"Don't worry about it. I'm going to get back to work." I slip back into my home office - a folding table in the back room - and hear my mother turn on the faucet. Moments later, it seems, I hear the front door open and her footsteps on the porch.

I wave goodbye, and look at the sink. Dishes are done, except the toxic ones.  

Of course we were warned.


Of course we were warned.

"You're not prepared for all the dangers of the world."

After a frightening fever in mid-September, my son emerged walking. Just nine and a half months old, he rose up from crawling, using all those things that had just been things above him. Chairs toppled, vacuum knocked over. Things not worthy of use for escape, were tugged on and released from their perch - blankets draped over the crib made him an infuriating make-shift ghost costume, he hung wailing from sliding seat cushions like Wiley E. Coyote from the Grand Canyon's edge, sliding drawers zinged open and repelled a surprised baby backward.  I came to deeply appreciate the trash-picked dresser whose drawers are so stiff that one must bang them shut, slowly wearing down the dresser's innards and sending a dose of sawdust onto shirts and underwear at each opening.

Bruises, bumps, scratches.

My son glances up at me, smiles. Look at me. Yes, indeed, I'm looking at you - that's my other great occupation. My first occupation is looking after you.

Three and a half months later, he's climbing up the side of the bed and hanging from the covers like a furious koala bear. His foot does not reach the top of the bed, so his goal, to reach the top of the bed is thwarted. He's annoyed. For now. Next growth spurt, he's up.

Aha, I mean several hours later, he's up. He began the bed climbing project a couple weeks ago. As of this afternoon, he couldn't make it. As of this evening, he's up. Sure, it is dangerous, but primarily it is fantastic.


Of course we were warned.

"Babies put all kinds of things in their mouths."

Beren has not put too many awful things in his mouth. He always goes for metal or long objects for teething. Teething toys were ignored. Metal brackets on the baby gate - fine. Great Grandma's aluminum garlic press. Not good. Aluminum garlic press gets taken away and is piled on top of the scads of items precariously perched on the limited number of surfaces beyond my son's reach.

"How about this?" I ask and hand him a red, rubbery, water filled teething ring from the refrigerator. He looks at me, takes the ring, and drops it. We look at each other. "I wish he'd take the ring," I think. I try again. He looks at me, takes the ring, and drops it. I look at the ring. Honestly, I'd do the same if someone handed me a red, rubbery, water filled teething ring from the refrigerator. In fact, I might not even accept the ring. At least my son is polite.

Realizing, his mother has not met his needs, he opens a kitchen drawer, which holds his stash of parent-approved utensils. He reaches for the Oxo spatula, a shower gift from my in-laws, and jams the handle into his mouth. Unlike the red, rubbery, water filled teething ring from the refrigerator, which may have endured extensive testing (doubt it - what is that water anyway?) and adheres to US Consumer Safety Product Safety Commission (check the link for a very nerve-wracking slideshow, a la Yahoo! News) regulations the Oxo spatula did not undergo child safety testing and has no safety features other than a very high melting point. Thus, the spatula works well - it reaches his molars.

I found an interesting pdf document - the US Consumer Product Safety Commission Engineering Test Manual for Rattles. On August 21, 1978 a safety regulation for rattles was developed - I made it through my babyhood which occurred before this regulation. My son has a rattle that probably did undergo this testing. The rattle is plush and the handle floppy. The bell is uninteresting sounding. Occasionally Beren bites into the handle. To me, it appears he is annoyed at the rattle. In his infancy, he latched onto the rattle's nose feature, which is the color and shape of a small nipple.

Bored with Oxo spatulas and floppy rattles, he ambles to oak desk, opens the drawer, and begins to gnaw on it.


On the trail at Lord Stirling Park, before my son could walk, he liked to be carried belly down.

Of course we were warned.

"Kids pick up all kinds of things." 

The flu at the doctor's office, your bad cursing habit, discarded gum on the sidewalk...

We frequent the woods more than the doctor's office and city sidewalks, and well, that cursing habit is another story... So, we haven't gotten the flu or chewed anyone else's gum.

Observing how much my son enjoyed walking on trail boardwalks at the Cook Natural Area, I decided to take him to the pond where our landlord placed several boardwalks over wet areas. We walked across the planks several times - great fun.

After not observing my son very closely for a couple moments, I noticed him showing me something. "I've found something to show you," he says gesturally, stretching a hand towards me.

"Oh, what do you have? What are you showing to Momma?" Typically, he is fond of sticks, rocks, leaves.

My son had, however, picked up something else.

"Let go of the poop." I say loudly, my eyes wide. I step towards him, and grab his wrist. "Let go of the poop." He hangs on to the dry scat, presumably fox.

I begin to shake his wrist, "Let go of the poop. Let go of the poop. Let go of the poop!"

The poop flies out of his hand. I wonder what dried fox poop might have in it besides persimmon seeds and mouse pelvises. We begin the walk back to the house. I try to hustle him along, but he's happy to meander. I settle for making sure his hand doesn't go into his mouth before we wash hands.

Pandora radio

Playing the ukeule.

"Why is the music so bad?" wails the singer of Culturcide.

Tired of the music in iTunes, we try to find something new.

NPR broadcasts bad news and hardly much music, but American Routes. Since having a child, I've given up listening to the show regularly. The din of 3 live humans (my family) added to 2 piped in ones (interviewee and Nick Spitzer), plus clips of music (the interviewee's) and slice of life recording bits (interviewee clopping down the steps to his basement recording studio in New Orleans, interviewee laughing at his favorite diner, interviewee greeting his neighbor) becomes nerve-bending.

Pandora radio - just like Pandora's box who knows what evil will emerge. We tried "The Gossip" Radio, which devolved after just a half an hour into music the sounded like farts in pleather pants. The Pandora write up for one band reminds me of the term "electroclash". Never in my life would I think of the term "electroclash" unbidden. The thought of electroclash was tossed into the same fiery pit as my lease for an overpriced Long Island City, Queens apartment.

On previous evenings we tried other artists, which also devolved into electroclash pleather fart sessions. Mind you, I'm using electroclash to include all bad music of this era - drippy male vocals over drippy strumming, male falsettos over drippy strumming and keyboards, breathy female vocals over pleather fart keyboards, drum machine music, and other musics made by individuals between 18 and 45 years of age.

Keyboards blinking away, drum machine doinking on, female vocalist in rapture.

"What is this sh*t?" I asked Jared.

As if possessed, he begins to sing along, "Irritate irritating ting ting. Irritating IRRITATING IRRITATING IRRITATING. ting ting. IRRITATING IRRITATING IRRITATING. ting ting."

"I think it's Peaches," he says.

And, with that my son needs my attention more than electroclash does.


My son Beren sits on the kitchen floor. Cabinet drawers are open, and spatulas, potato mashers and hand mixers are strewn about. He's working on pulling our old electric blender base from a low drawer, by wrapping himself in the electric cord and pulling with all of his 12 month old might. Causing Papa some modest alarm (mental note, tell Momma to watch Beren extra closely when cords are nearby...).

He's fueled entirely by curiousity. He knows not the concepts mine, yours, property line, nor the costs of different items. What is this, he wonders? How does it move? Can I pick it up and manipulate it? Does it make noise or smush or smash?

We take walks outside and he is engrossed for hours. Sticks and gravel in infinite supply, topography to test balance and strength (up to the walnut trees, down to the swampy meadow, visit the hackberry, repeat). Puddles in the dirt driveway, multiplying and diversifying with every storm, worth a visit every time.

The way he picks at the lichens on boulders or crinkles the dry oak leaves transcends the concept of "toys". Here is a young creature exploring his world, honing the subtleties of his senses, trying his strengths and getting wet, bruised, and covered in dirt and moss in the process.

In one of my favorite photos of him, he is crawling on an Adirondacks trail, plastered in mud and tiny winged yellow birch seeds from his pants legs up to his chest. He's one of the wild life, dispersing seeds as he wallows, crawls, and digs around.

Inside the house is different. After a few days of investigation, most of the "baby toys" he has are more-or-less ignored. Which means that days cooped up inside can get frustrating and boring, as he tries to climb the drawer handles to get at the interesting items on top of the rolltop desk, or open the top drawers in the kitchen (knives, Felco clippers, glass measuring cups, etc.)

I cringe (a little) thinking ahead to a time when all this unrelenting curiousity about objects is superimposed on a greater acquaintance with the marketplace, and the word "mine". Partially, the concern is financial. But more so, it hurts to think of all that intense, sensual curiousity being transformed into consumerism.

And isn't this a process that has happened to all of us? I'm bored, I'll go shopping. There are people, behind the scenes, who have dedicated their lives to creating items that appeal to as many of the long-evolved curiousities, proclivities, and desires of human beings as possible, all wrapped into one. Sleek, shiny, easy, interactive... with sugar on top. Utility... but only enough to help the desiring person to justify buying what is often a direct appeal to a swirl of senses, needs, and the desire for self-transformation.

I'm hoping that the natural world remains available and interesting to Beren, as an antidote to the enchanting world of the consumer object. Natural medicine against the thrall of plastics, virtual realities, and the broken promises of the newest and most fashionable.


 A nest from a native bee nesting block. I built from a hunk of tulip tree, using plans from The Xerces Society

 We usually eject or welcome insects into our home, excluding ants and stink bugs. This bumblebee made it inside, but couldn't get out while we were away. 

Honeybees can be pesky gang. As the weather warms, before the window screens go in, they like to come inside. 

Birds of Winter

Blackbirds, primarily grackles, take flight, December 4

Each year I look forward to the grackle wave. Tens of thousands of birds use the opening around our home to forage. When the flock is at a distance, the birds sounds like a waterfall. So black and featureless, they appear like paper cut outs in the sky. From the porch, my husband and I watched the birds fly over. 

Jared wondered if our son was awake, so he too could see the birds. No, asleep. And there we let him sleep, one year and two days old, teething and croupy.

Along the trail at Cook Natural Area in Kingston, December 5 

My husband gasped and said, "Look!" I thought, "Snake."

To my husband's frustration, when he exclaims, "Look!", "Look out!", "Duck!", or "Slow down!", I usually say, "Huh?" I think a touch of fight or flight comes on.  Instead of seeing more clearly, my eyes blur and I get ready to... stand still. Of course, 'fight or flight' doesn't take animals like woodcocks and grouses into consideration--animals that do best by moving slowly or not at all.

Life in a Diabase Boulder Field

Crack in diabase boulder near the headwaters of Rock Brook. The crack follows a harder band of rock--less eroded than the rock surrounding--running through the boulder.  

"Make no mistake," my kung fu teacher says, waving his hand, "soft is powerful. Hard is not always more powerful. Soft is more powerful than hard." Sifu demonstrates the first form of Ngo Cho Kun, sam chien, with incredible power and tension. "The young ones do like this."

Again he demonstrates sam chien, this time alternating powerful strikes and relaxed parries and counters. "When you become older, more experienced, you do like this."

He demonstrates sam chien one final time with no force. He begins to add other strikes and blocks. "Like the white crane. When you become senior tis is how you maintain your power. This is very powerful."

Woodpecker holes follow the edge of the tree's scar tissue. I wonder if the scar itself is too hard, too dense for ants to drill into. Did they find the place where soft meets hard?

"Look for the weak point. Do not punch your opponent in the chest. If he is very strong, he will not feel anything."

"Use this," he makes a phoenix fist, "to the temple. Very painful. He will get dizzy and fall down. Or, to here," he points to where his jaw meets his face. "You cannot body-build this."

Trees can be difficult to identify by bark alone. Individuals may appear very different based upon age, habitat, and even the side of the tree one is facing. 

Tupelo tree, opposites sides of the same tree. Bark tends to slough off the southern or sky-facing (if leaning) side. Exposed to the sun and thus more drastic fluctuations in daytime and nighttime winter temperatures, ice thaws and refreezes, causing the bark to fall off. 

"Do not let him know what you are doing. You must be quick. He will want to hug [grab] you," he puts his hands around a student's neck. "Like this. What do you do?" The student blocks out with both hands, presses down, and pushes. "That's correct!" he exclaims. 

Black birch tree tip up. Black birch seeds germinate on bare ground. This tree's roots were flattened on the bottom from the diabase boulder it grew upon. I began to think boulder fields are similar to plants grown in pots -- sometimes there is not a lot of room for roots.

"if you are not rooted, he will knock you down. It is very easy."

 Turkey vulture cruises overhead, far above the widow-makers that we walk beneath.

A diabase boulder cracked by the pressure of tree roots--that boulder-field/potted plant situation again. This must have taken awhile. Native Americans used diabase--hard but could be fashioned to a sharp edge. 

A classmate and I practice attack, defense, and counter moves. We're polite to each other. I'm the only woman in the class. "Move! You have to move when you attack. No, like this." Sifu, a slight man, takes monstrous steps across the floor. He gently but firmly places his outer blades of his hands on my shoulder joints. He suddenly snaps his hands forward and strides. I step back quickly, following his movement, lest I trip over my feet.

"Add power at the last moment. Very powerful." He says, "You push. Then you throw away. Like a rubber band."

Cranefly orchis. A nice surprise.

Winter Walk

 Wood-nettle (Laportea canadensis) in a depression along Rock Brook. 

Though the daytime temperatures have been reminders of early autumn, peak color was blown away overnight by heavy rains. We have a late-November landscape and September thermometer reading.

Pileated woodpecker holes on an ash. 

 Apical dominance of an American beech.

 Witch hazel.

The work of winter resident birds - woodpeckers or nuthatches?

all images Sourlands, November 27, 2011

Sassafras hedgerow

I never crop my images, or so I say.

What is excluded from the frame? What is included in the frame? Why was the photographer made these choices? Who is the photographer?

These are the questions we asked again and again during critiques and slide shows of well-known photographers at the university.

Sometimes in the photo there was an indigenous person (a person closer to ancestral culture or very much Other than ourselves, the university students) carrying an object (Coke can), wearing striking clothing (Yankees t-shirt), or in a terrible place (environmental wasteland such as a city, barren land, woeful cropfield). The person displayed various degrees of dignity.

"It's ironic that..." a classmate might begin when asked to comment on the image.

"What the photographer does not reveal, is the..." another would continue.

Above, I've decided to crop out the invasive Callery pear seedling that was in the foreground of this photo. Bright red and out of place against an autumn sky and sassafras hedgerow. I just couldn't stand it.

And then the next storm came...

Mother and child vagabond in the public square by the Princeton Public Library. Here, we stop for lunch--a Rainbow Wrap from Whole Earth Center's booth at the Princeton Farmer's Market. We found our appointed seat. During the blackout my son and I walked into Princeton a half dozen times to pass the time.

We left Saturday (10/29) morning for kung fu class and dropped our son off at my in-laws' house. We packed pretty well, thinking we might stay out after class.

As we practiced, the rain shifted to snow.

Back at my in-law's the world appeared ready for snow shoes, not trick or treating. We called our house, and already, the power was out. No answering machine - no power.

Snow fell, branches fell. Our son was ill, my husband was ill. We stayed with my in laws until our power came back on Thursday night.

Rain Barrels, Barrels and Barrels

We're still working on the house - our house always grows mold in August. This year was the worst. According to preliminary data from Rutgers an average of 17.22 inches of rain fell in August. Our 'new normal' for August is only 4.21 inches. The house was disgusting - my throat closed, my chest tightened, and I coughed every time I was inside. My son, too, became ill. We felt better outside and away, but getting out and away while 17.22 inches of rain fell was difficult.

Mold grew on the
musical instruments
kitchen drawers
kitchen implements
on the isopropyl alcohol bottle!

My vintage light clothes became spotted rusty colored ('foxed' is the used book term), photo mattes warped and mildewy, anything black was spotted whitish-grey... I'm still opening boxes and leaving things in the sun.

Asters, pollinated, chewed, and in seed.

Crab spider on goldenrod.

Dew on New England aster.



Gerardia about to bloom.

I have read that the first 3 months of life are like the fourth trimester. My son hardly left my arms, or my husband's arms, during this time unless he was on the changing table. He was on the changing table about 24 times a day. We had 2 dozen size small pre fold diapers, so it was easy to calculate. Nothing else was easy to calculate because nothing else had an abacus as the diapers did.

"How often does he nurse?" someone might ask. I had no idea. I still have no idea though my short term memory is returning as my son allows longer blocks of sleep.

Blocks of 3 hours, mind you. I often hear, "Oh, my daughter slept through the night at 2 months." I think those who are willing to share are those who share success stories. Or, horror stories, of course. "My son did not sleep through the night until he was 3 and a half years old," related the gentleman behind the desk just after my husband and I signed away thousands of dollars on a used car. "We thought we were great parents, giving everyone advice. Then my son came along," he shook his head.

Weeks later I was back at the dealership signing away an additional $44.50 in DMV fees, and the the gentleman behind the desk repeated his story in the exact same words with the exact same emphasis on "3 and a half years old."

This year, last year

Flowering Dogwood, brown leaves by July 2010
Last year, the drought was deep and parching, dusty leaves wilting, wilting, finally falling.

Spicebush lost leaves, whole stems. Flowering dogwood dropped leaves mutely tinged with scarlet, some chlorophyll returned to the tree, the rest browned out and squandered.

By July, hickory seedlings browned out on the shale barrens at St. Michaels.

Multiflora rose and barberry yellowed by late summer. Goldenrods flowered for an instant, then went to seed. Black cohosh knew in advance, didn't even try to flower.

From May until late September, hardly a drop fell on our side of the mountain. The only plants that looked good were the oaks, deep-rooted, thrifty, ponderous.

Last year's effects linger. Some plants responded with incredible seed production this year-- hornbeams, flowering dogwood. Spicebush is still reeling from last year, working on stem production, fruiting very scanty.

This year, we're somewhere near twenty inches of rain over the average. We'll see what that means... next year.

Goodbye to another car

Sunset at Dayton Toyota, late September 2011.
Our old vehicle in right foreground, new in center, other people's tired cars awaiting service in background.

One of my grade school teachers liked to quote Ben Franklin. "When the founding fathers were drafting the Constitution," my teacher explained, "Benjamin Franklin would point at the carving on the chair he sat on and say, 'Gentlemen, I am glad to see that this is a rising sun and not a setting sun.'"

Was it the Constitution drafting? Maybe it was the Declaration. Was Ben sitting in the seat or was George? Or, was it a wall hanging of a sun. I must admit, I can't recall. That's not the point, so why mention a tattered memory of two decades ago? To reveal my poor memory? My odd memory? My lack of memorization of American history? None of the above.

It's to note that the sun is in fact setting in this image. And that unlike the rising United States of America in the mid-1770s, the sun has set upon yet another car. Goodbye, minivan. We'll miss your aroma of wet dog and land steward sweat, the faint traces of violet herbicide dye upon your interior, and the ruddy glow of the ABS, check engine, TRAK OFF, and VSC lights that glinted in my eye each time I started you up. I hope your trip to the auction was dignified. I hope your body has gone on to the great compactor in the sky. Farewell.

Ruderal ground

Abandoned farm field. Foxtail grass, common mullein, sweet everlasting, and Chinese lespedeza were the common species.

The plants said, Somebody was here. This was used land - the untilled edges were dominated by Chinese lespedeza and the remainder of the fields were primarily foxtail grass.

The forest at the edge of the fields were empty of an understory and herb layer. Two exceptions: 1.) Wreath goldenrod and white wood aster clung to the most precipitous shale bluffs over the brook. There, these herbs were safe from the deer.
2.) Where the land sloped gently to the brook, scraggly multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, and Morrow's honeysuckle made up the understory, and Japanese stilt grass, Japanese honeysuckle, and white snakeroot the herb layer. Interesting that not only the invasive species but also white snakeroot, a native herb, was found only on the disturbed ground. One could see the path that pasture animals had been allowed to take to drink of the brook's waters and wallow in the shade.