"Sharp, quirky, and occasionally nettlesome", Walking the Berkshires is my personal blog, an eclectic weaving of human narrative, natural history, and other personal passions with the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills as both its backdrop and point of departure. I am interested in how land and people, past and present manifest in the broader landscape and social fabric of our communities. The opinions I express here are mine alone. Never had ads, never will.
"I once knew a farmer, if the weather was hot and his oxen disposed to loll, as is not uncommon when much heated, who would send his plough-boy to the nearest brook to collect frogs, and on his return with them the farmer would open the mouth of an ox, and let one or two live frogs leap down, and it served always to cool the ox in a moment, so that he could immediately resume his ploughing without the danger of overheating the ox. I mention this fact here merely with the hope that it may be useful to farmers as a means of preserving their oxen from a surfeit of overheating."
The author of this astonishing bit of agricultural wisdom was the Reverend James H. Lindsley, and it was conveyed as part of a catalogue of the reptiles of Connecticut that he presented to the Yale Natural History Society. While it would be news indeed to find amphibeans grouped with reptiles under modern scientific nomenclature, it would be odder still to find other proponants of feeding live frogs to livestock and indeed I have never heard of any. One wonders why the oxen were not merely led to the water from which the frogs came. It is my understanding that ample drinking water is essential for animals to avoid heat stress. But then, I am not an old farmer, and the state of agronimy has progresses considerably since the 1840s.
Though it must be said that I do know of a dairy farmer, not far from here, who once fed his herd an entire container truck of condemned Twinkies. Apparently this sort of thing is encouraged :
"Due to the high price of grains (corn, barley, etc.), any opportunity to feed cows energy and avoid these grains would be beneficial. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, this includes the use of potato waste, where in some instances cows can be finished on a potato-based diet absent of grain. “With the growing ethanol industry, biodiesel industry, and use of waste cooking oils, it is likely that by-products from these industries may provide a lot of energy at a reduced cost vs. traditional grains,” Ahola notes.
In the Northeast, Mike Baker, PhD, PAS, Cornell University, says there is access to bakery and other food processing byproducts such as sweet corn silage, beets, carrots, bagels and pastries. “The most economical feed will be refusals from the milking herd as well as mildly spoiled silages that are separated from the main ration,” Baker suggests. “Any economical energy sources can work.”
Massachusetts Main Streets and Back Roads ,a quarterly publication from the same folks behind Vermont Quarterly hits the newstands this month with its first edition. The Magazine covers the history and lore, food and entertainment of Western Massachusetts, and I was approached to contribute a story on Berkshire history. The Spring 2009 edition features a two page article of mine entitled "Berkshire's Big Dig" about the Hoosac Tunnel, an engineering marvel in the northern reaches of the county. Along the way, Readers of this Blog will not be surprised to discover, I manage to incorporate a good does of natural history, a reference to the "Great Road" through a "hideous howling wilderness", and a picture of a Civil War General on a one-man pontoon boat.
When there is an on-line link to the piece, I'll be sure to steer you to it. If you live in the region, keep your eye out for a copy. I'm on track to write recurring features for this magazine, and am starting to think up an appropriate topic for the summer edition (ideas welcome).
"Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said `Bother!' and `O blow!' and also `Hang spring-cleaning!' and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, `Up we go! Up we go!' till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow."
- Kenneth Grahame "Wind in the Willows"
There was a chorus of spring peepers singing praise songs in the twilight when I stepped outside last evening. Nature's Great Revival is underway. The maple sap run is over, the salamanders are on the march, and with the first ospreys back in Buzzards Bay, can the herring be far behind? The finches at the feeder are shedding their olive drab for canary yellow, and redwings rasp in the marshlands. Our human neighbors emerge from their dens on about the same schedule as the local black bears, shaking off their winter torpor and reclaiming their sometimes overlapping territories from long disuse.
If the senses of my species were not dulled by progress and evolution, they would quicken with every fresh scent on the warm Spring wind. They would pulse with the first impossible bloom of skunk cabbage, literary melting its way through the frozen earth through the heat of its cellular respiration. They would feel the stirring of the aged and tattered mourning cloak, one of the longest lived butterflies, reemerging in senescence to mate with the impulse of youth. They would thrill with the drone of insects drawn to sticky buds and rank wet earth.
This is the season of quickenings. The word itself derives from the old English "cwic", meaning living or alive, but its modern usage is also appropriate for a season of accelerations. The fetus is said to quicken when its movements can be felt in the womb. The heart quickens with life and vitality. The poetic language of the Nicene Creed proclaims the second coming "in glory to judge the quick and the dead." It is no accident that the Christian celebration of Easter falls at this time, when new life is self-evident.
My birthday is also an early Spring arrival. In these parts, the daffodils will be in bloom a week afterward, and as a young boy I worked out for myself that the last patch of snow would be gone the week before. The first of the spring ephemerals are working their way upward in the bare light below the leafless trees. Dutchman's britches, wild leeks, trout lily and trillium will usher in April's wildflowers, along with the winking yellow eyes of blood root, and clusters of marsh marigolds adding their splash of color to shadowy wetlands.
All these awakenings take place in a brave, bright time when frogs lay eggs in ice-rimmed pools and early birds battle for prime nesting sites. Even as the season advances, a fickle rain can blight the apple's bloom just as surely as longer days call forth its flowers. All around us, nature is striving, seeking, obeying urges as involuntary as breathing. Spring is a serious business, yet still given over to the domain of the heart. "Hang spring cleaning" says the industrious Mole, with a spirit that soars on diaphanous wings. Even a raw wet day like today has a sweet expectancy, like a kite that strains on its tether, ready to take wing.
Last night on the way home from a board meeting, I noted that the light rain and temperatures were just within the range required to kick off the first wave of migrating amphibians. By the time I pulled into Canaan I started to see wood frogs by the roadway, so I rousted my children from bed, stuffed pajamas into boots and jackets and rounded up three functional flashlights. We headed over to a bend in Rte 41 near Dutcher’s Bridge where judging by the carnage I have observed there in past years, there is a major migration corridor. There were a few frogs there, nothing spectacular, but once over in Salisbury I saw numerous frogs and heard the first chorus of Spring Peepers coming from a nearby oxbow of the Housatonic.
I checked one of my favorite spots for salamanders on Taconic Rd but saw only a frog or two. However, the big salamander crossings in Sheffield, MA on Rte 41 showed evidence that the yellow spotted salamanders were beginning to move. We escorted a handful across the highway between Sages Ravine and Berkshire School Road, but it was on this latter route, running East / West across Sheffield’s extensive seepage wetlands, that we observed them moving in significant numbers. We found many more living than dead, perhaps 40 in all, which is not as many as we find in really big nights. The temperature was 42 and perhaps more began to move later in the night for I found the thermometer was nearly 50 when I awoke this morning.
My biwekly article in the Lakville Journal concerns migrating salamanders and vernal pools, and can be read here with free registration:
...On warm rainy nights in early spring, there are certain roads in our area that are littered with hopping, skittering and — regrettably — squashed amphibians. Volunteers sometimes monitor heavily traveled crossings during the migration and assist the frogs and salamanders on their journey to the opposite side of the road. My children and I look forward to being out one evening very soon when The Big Night arrives, “saving Spotty” and its many relations.
My latest article in the Lakeville Journal, readable here with free subscription, is about Great horned owls. Fair use extract:
"The dead of winter is the season of love, if you happen to be a great horned owl. In late January, when it would seem to our weary eyes that there could be neither sign nor expectation of spring, solitary owls are seeking each other. In the hours after dark and again before dawn, their deep-throated hoots echo far and wide, for their territories are large and they hunt alone. Great horned owls reunite only to breed, and their dark music and preening display have a terrible beauty. These birds are the dragons of their kind."
I managed to wander quite far afield in this week's Nature Notes articlein The Lakeville Journal, which is readable on-line with free subscription. Only the bookends of the piece are rooted in the local enviroment, since I found it difficult in the dead of winter to find something new and fresh to say about life outdoors. As for the rest, I went back to my days in Africa and what I learned about tracking from a sleeping elephant.
Here are the bookends:
"‘I track humans,” said the stranger sitting next to me, by way of introduction. As a conversation starter it made quite an impression. He was the sort of character who could fairly be described as crusty, and I suspected I might end up as captive audience to his Ancient Mariner. He went on to volunteer that he was an expert tracker whose services had been of particular value to law enforcement, and who now was responsible for preventing poaching on a large piece of private land in the Berkshires.
“You know how I catch ’em?” he asked, raising a craggy eyebrow with the confidence of one in possession of secret knowledge. “I find their tracks in deer season and then I go to the nearest bar. Anyone sitting on a stool is showing me his boots. I just compare what I see to what I saw...”
"...The last elephants to roam the valleys of the Litchfield Hills passed away at the end of the Pleistocene age. But one of the old family names of our region, the Spurrs, comes from the Dutch 'spoor', meaning the trail left by a person or animal. As a follower of spoor, I limit myself to following the tracks of small animals in the snow, the one time when our poor blinkered senses discern what other creatures know in every season."
The Cabinet of Curiosities Blog Carnival is back in town, bringing assorted marvels to light from forgotten museum cases and the murky recesses of fading family lore. Where else do you find yeti crabs and the World's weirdest and most bizarre perfumes presented side by side for your reading convenience? Think of us as the sort of Whitman's sampler P.T. Barnum might have concocted if he hadn't gotten sucked into the animal cracker racket.
Like its namesake curiosity cabinets of old, CofC makes little effort to categorize its offerings, separating sheep from goats and ensuring that nary the twain shall meet. Whatever meaning there may be in this mélange comes from its constituent parts and the relationships that you or I are inclined to draw among them. If you are as fascinated as they are at Urlesque.com by the Top Eleven Weirdest Burgers (including this fetching hamburger dress, modeled at right), perhaps you might see a connection between this item and the image of the yeti crab, above, instead of, say, a more logical link to this marvelous collection of some of the weirdest boots that they've ever seen over at StyleTips101. Who am I to prescribe? The author, as those terminally nihilist French deconstructions have been muttering for decades in themusty corners of academe, is decidedly dead. Long live the text (and context)! Hopefully this disclaimer will assuage the wrath of my indignant spouse, who declares that comparing a woman dressed as meat with a crab is utterly beyond the pale. Right, and someday pigs will fly.
Brian at Ancestors At Rest was astounded to find this family photograph which could be a missing link in the the evolution of the Afro. There are some pictures of me in college when I foolishly teased out my long ringlets into something that would have looked fetching on a Borneo head hunter. Hopefully this turn of the 20th century photograph was taken along those same lines. Gena's Genealogy discovered a photograph of Francesco Lentini: "The Human Tripod" in a family archive, and suspects that a Nebraska relative who once housed traveling circus performers my have encountered the three-legged Lentini while he was part of Buffalo Bill's outfit.
Miles Meyer of Miles' Genealogy Tips shares the story of a remarkable family artifact: the original steamer trunk that his 3rd-great grandfather carried to America from Germany in 1854. This tangible piece of the past becomes a touchstone of discovery, as Meyer's traces the path of his ancestors' immigration. "Starting with just one artifact, an old steamer trunk , I have now gained a much more in depth understanding of the trials that the early immigrants had to endureto come to our great country."
"Some references suggest that my articulated fish may be composed of "Turkish silver" and that it be of fairly recent origin dating to not earlier than the 1920s. As more and more families used a spice box shaped like a tower for the spice ritual, some suggest that the popular fish ritualware piece became more of a decorative piece than as a ritual spice container. The date and place of origin of my fish are unknown. One reference was found to a three-piece set of almost identical fish from the early 1930s but in three sizes (one much larger and one much smaller than the 9.5 inch one I have) used as decorative objects in the style of earlier articulated fish spice boxes."
"Was she swept off her feet when she left her family for a non-Cajun Protestant? Did he attend church? Was it important to him, or was it important only that Elia not be Catholic? Was she ever accepted by her parents again?"
"Next, we unlock the doors. Yes there is a lock which allows entry into the lower portion of The Bar - a bit of a chastity belt, as it were - where the serious business takes place. If you know my family you know that a lock is required on most all liquor cabinets and bars."
"mask-wearing, cross-dressing priests and clerks ran amok through their church, burnt old shoes as mock incense and ate black pudding at the altar! "
What relation, if any, this medieval festival has to baby jumping, which grown men dressed as the devil have been doing in Spain since the 1600's, I will leave to others to determine, but at least they have the decency to leave the bull running out of it.
Just in time for Presidents Day, Offbeat Earth rolls out the newest models of the world's weirdest cars. The Mini Cooper pick-up looks like it has just enough payload capacity for a pony keg.
Finally, one of CofC's favorite sites, the glorious blog Curious Expeditions, maintains a Flickr site as well, featuring oddities and Curiosities of Nature. If you think a box of taxidermy eyes is just the thing to add to M. Diane Roger's grandmother's button box or Thomas MacEntee's bar, then clearly this carnival was made for you. Why not consider hosting next month's edition?
We have reached a Baker's Dozen of these things since I launched C of C back in the Fall of 2006. There is no dearth of wierdly wonderful material out there to agregate and add to each month, so why not consider whether you have a post, or a lead to a link, or just the taste for adventure required to add to the mix? Recall that while our Curiosity Cabinet is a marvelous melange - and manages to engage everyone from family historians to scientists to artists in fields both sacred and profane - we still have a few standards. We value dstyle as well as substance. We are not shills for subjects that manage to miss even this very broadsided barn. We are not a one person operation. Aside from that, we have few limitations. So bring it on. Send us your best by this Sunday the 18th of January for Monday's edition. feel free to use the handy submission form, and if you have a hankering to host one of these things, you have only to ask.