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Squirrel Thoughts


One of our neighborhood’s black gray squirrels has so far survived the cold, the owls, foxes, coyotes, traffic AND the red-tail hawks. There’s a lot to worry about if you’re a squirrel.

Yesterday one of his “buddies” was devoured by a red-tail hawk.

I think Frederick Buechner speaks to this when he says,“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

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Very Special Tree People


It was difficult to bear the removal of our very large, old maple tree. I think this video was the only way I could make sense of it. (You’ll need to follow the link to view this.)

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Organic Coffee and Organic Babies

coffee from Finca Los Nietos in its unique "tipica" cloth bag


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Our older daughter was born in our home on the small Maine island where we lived decades ago. Over the years we lost contact with Christina, the young midwife who attended Sarah’s birth.

Today is Sarah’s 30th birthday. My wife’s and my thoughts and memories go back to Sarah’s middle-of-the-night birth in which we shared coffee with Christina and her assistant as we waited and Cindy labored.

Google and Facebook made it easy for us to find Christina again. We were thrilled to discover that Christina and her husband still live in Maine but spend most of their time working on the organic coffee farm they bought several years ago in Guatemala. Finca Los Nietos (The Grandchildrens’ Farm) is not only a place where coffee is grown but also a vacation destination where you can watch the process and “relax in our spectacular gardens, watch birds, sip coffee and visit our plant shop.” The Wall Street Journal says, “this tiny coffee plantation caters to those looking for a more intimate experience than a big coffee factory tour.” I want to go just to see their worm farm.

A few days ago we got a bag of Christina’s coffee in the mail wrapped in its unique “tipica” cloth bag. Sarah, now in Los Angeles, got a bag too. How nice that we can again all share coffee after thirty years.

Christina (left) and Cindy checking Sarah just after her birth thirty years ago today

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My Trips Down the Rabbit Hole

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For a child, wonder and amazement is a gift and there is little distinction between fantasy and reality. Time can stand still, a girl can have underground adventures and a rabbit can sing.

For some children, however, reality can take a cruel form that rivals fantasy. I saw little people.

As a child I took it in stride when the world around me suddenly shrunk and moved away from me while sitting in our living room. Everything I saw became tiny and far away. This happened quite often in my childhood and usually while I was watching television with my brother. I came to look forward to these episodes as an enhanced dimension to my tv-watching experience. It was Ding Dong School with a Lewis Carroll twist.

During these periods conversations with my brother usually went something like this:

Me: “Well, here it comes again. Superman looks really tiny and so does mom.”
My Brother: “How ‘bout me?”
Me looking at My Brother: “Yep, you’re about the size of a hamster.”
My Brother: “Go get some more popcorn. I’d go but I guess I’m too small.”

To anyone that would listen I compared this to looking through the wrong end of binoculars.

These occurrences diminished as I grew older but lasted through early adulthood. I’ve had no symptoms for nearly forty years.

While in my early twenties Cindy and I took a long road trip with her parents. We did a lot of driving at night so we could enjoy our days. One night while I was driving between two small Maine towns I began to feel a familiar transformation. Everything began to shrink. My tiny wife was sleeping next to me and my own hands that tightly gripped the steering wheel looked like they were twelve feet in front of me.

What had been for me a quirky but pleasant hallucination as a child quickly became a terror as an adult. Trying to reconcile what I saw with what I knew to be fact made me feel like I was threading a needle with a Buick at 60 mph in the dark.

My initial thought was to wake up my wife or even my in laws in the back seat. I needed some help. But what would I tell them that could possibly make sense? How could they help?

It seemed like a good idea to pull the car over and ask someone else to drive. I thought that would be an easy solution. I would simply say that I was tired. But that wasn’t going to work. No spot on the side of the road was nearly big enough to park what I knew was a very big car in what I saw was a tiny space.

I realized even when I was a child that these episodes were only about perception, not reality. My brother was not really the size of a hamster and the car really could fit on the side of the road. Seeing isn’t always believing.

Then I drove by a small strip mall with a good-size parking lot. Nope… not big enough.

At this point I was sweating pretty heavily and my grip on the steering wheel was causing some serious cramping. I was certain we were all going to die.

Then I remembered something from my childhood. I had developed a way that I could sometimes undo the hallucination or “break the spell” as I called it. If I illuminated the room in which the aura was taking place, everything would begin to return to normal.

I turned the dome light on in the car. Within two or three minutes my perceptions were normal. That also woke up my wife who turned to me and said, “I’m glad you’re driving. I’m so tired!”

Just a couple of weeks ago I was watching an episode of House, a television medical drama that features rare and quirky maladies. It featured a man that had episodes quite like my own. At one point Dr. House looked through the wrong side of binoculars and said, “That would really suck.”

It turns out that the man had Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, a rare form of migraine aura that can present with a number of body image disturbances. Lewis Carroll probably had this and I probably did too.

As a photographer I am in the business of creating and sometimes altering perceptions. I can assure you, however, that I will always do so without the aid of a fish-eye lens.

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My P.S. on Our Flashes of Hope Shoot

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I recently wrote about our shoot for Flashes of Hope. The purpose of these sessions is to create portraits of some of the 12,000 children diagnosed with cancer each year. For families of terminally-ill children it is particularly important to preserve through photography the bravery, grace and dignity of their child. This is done using volunteer professional photographers as well as sponsors such as WHCC, the professional lab that donates photographic prints to the families.

Though most Flashes of Hope photo sessions take place in a hospital, we photographed at a picnic hosted by Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. A forest preserve provided a much more relaxed atmosphere for these kids than a hospital setting. It was an afternoon of ice cream instead of IV tubes.

The same day that I photographed 15 children and their families, I read the following in the New York Times: “RIGHT now cancer care is being rationed in the United States.” There is a severe shortage of cancer drugs. In fact, in “Shortchanging Cancer Patients” Ezekiel J. Emanuel reports, “If you are a pediatric oncologist, you know how to cure 70 to 80 percent of patients. But without these drugs you are out of business.” Apparently, the shortages seem to be the results of corporate decisions to cease production because of low profit margins.

This is just ONE thing that these kids and their families face on a daily basis. It’s not hard to see bravery on their faces in the photos.

If Flashes of Hope “changes the way children with cancer see themselves through the gift of photography” as they say on their web site, I think quite possibly they’ve changed the way photographers see themselves as well. If drug manufacturers could see some of these kids there might also be some changes in how they see their mission.

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Flashes of Hope Shoot

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Cindy & I have looked forward to this since shooting this event last year. Flashes of Hope is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating powerful, uplifting portraits of children fighting cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. In the photo here, sisters enjoy a moment at the Peds in the Weeds picnic sponsored by Advocate Lutheran General Children’s Hospital near Chicago.

Politics, medicine and finances were set aside for an afternoon of fun, food and remembrance. What a joy it was to photograph these kids and their families!

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I Use the Wayback Machine… and Return

Norway maple tree trunk

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I met Mrs. Stevens around 1970. I was 20 years old and living with my parents in a small apartment while I attended college nearby.

She was a small, elderly lady that lived on the floor above us. I have no idea what sparked our conversation or even where our unlikely meeting took place. Quite possibly my mother invited her for coffee or we may have met in the laundry room. I do remember that our discussion very quickly turned to grizzly bears.

The moment Mrs. Stevens mentioned that her son-in-law was Frank Craighead, she had my complete attention. Frank and John Craighead were in the midst of a groundbreaking 12-year study of grizzly bears in Yellowstone Park. I was very familiar with their numerous National Geographic articles and television specials. Few who had seen these would forget the images of the Craighead twins tracking grizzlies over the mountains carrying enormous antennas.

If Frank and John Craighead captured my young imagination with their bear exploits, it was their sister, Jean Craighead George, that had already lit a fire in my soul. When I was ten or eleven years old I read George’s My Side of the Mountain, a story about a young boy that leaves his home to live in the mountains where he learns to live off the land. The book so affected my sense of independence and adventure that it inspired me to run away with my brother to a state park determined to live in a hollow tree just like the boy in the book. Though our incautious wilderness adventure did not last long, the influence of George’s book remains with me.

Yesterday I contacted Ms. George to tell her about my single conversation with Mrs. Stevens and to tell her that I was a fan. I had also hoped that she could provide confirmation that my memory had been correct.

I was thrilled this morning to receive an email from the 91-year-old author. She confirmed some information and clarified even more. Yes, Mrs. Stevens was John Craighead’s mother-in-law and she lived in Wheaton, Il during that period. And “she was a splendid woman.”

She ended her note with evidence that her book was, as I suspected, partly autobiographical. She said, “…I did write MSM after years of trailing behind my brothers and Dad living off the land, making lean-tos and fish hooks.”

Perfect.

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Using the “Obama Method”

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In a post this past January I posed the question of the viability of genetic engineering as a solution to hunger in Africa as does the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof. I have significant doubts as to the wisdom of using GMOs in any country and the subject continues to generate more heat than light.

It just could be that the solution to Africa’s hunger problem is less scientific. The answer may come from a simple string.

Roger Thurow is Senior Fellow for Global Agriculture & Food Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. He was struck recently by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s assertion that the rest of the world is jealous of American agriculture’s use of extension services. Thurow agrees and having just returned from a visit to African farmers he knows how much they cherish those services.

He says, “Extension agents were essential in spreading the agricultural revolutions in every part of the world: America, Europe, Asia, Australia, Latin America. Everywhere except Africa. Government budgets didn’t have enough money to fund them, nor political will to insist that they do; international development agencies, in their negligence of agriculture, thought Africa, alone among the continents of the world, could do without them. As a result, the continent’s extension services fell into a woeful state during the past three decades of neglect of agriculture development. In many countries, if there were any extension agents, they did little extending; very few even had bicycles to go from farm to farm.”

Thurow goes on to tell of Vilsack’s wish to use extension services around the world. Vilsack says, “It’s not just biotechnology. It’s also conservation tillage. It’s drip irrigation. It’s multiple cropping practices.”

Very simple practices common to all gardeners in our country is what needs to be taught to Kenyan farmers. Correct spacing of seeds, simple understanding of sun and nutrient requirements are all news to those that don’t know them.

Thurow tells of Kennedy Wafula, a field manager for the One Acre Fund who shows farmers in Kenya and Rwanda a string with a knot tied every 25 centimeters. He tells them, “Twenty-five. This is the distance between plants.” He explains to them that they should only use one seed every 25 centimeters so there is no competition for sun, nutrition and water. There is no need to broadcast precious seeds only to have most of them die.

Kennedy says that One Acre farmers are able to double and triple their yields as a result of telling farmers about these practices that he calls the “Obama method.” The President’s father grew up on a Kenyan farm.

So, it seems that the knowledge of simple procedures can go much farther than expensive, questionable – even destructive technology to do a better job of providing food to a growing population.

Thurow says the Kenyan farmers often tell him “Knowledge is power.” It is food as well.

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My Neighbor, the Carpenter

A baseball post in a gardening blog should not be confusing to those who appreciate both. For me, the anticipation of gardening and baseball – both said to have “seasons” – make Chicago winters bearable.
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My brother and I lived on Nelbon Avenue in Pittsburgh. It was a mostly blue-collar neighborhood where people lived that worked for J&L Steel, H. J. Heinz, Westinghouse and U.S. Steel. It had just enough suburban charm, however, to attract workers in education, medicine and maybe the corner store.

Most of us lived in small, two-bedroom cape cod homes on streets that encircled the hills & valleys of the city’s eastern outskirts. They all looked slightly different but nobody’s stood out much. You recognized your house for its small pieces of decorative trim or maybe its brightly-colored shutters. Maybe you had a flower garden. These homes were built quickly to house the enormous numbers of baby boomers that were to come.

Elroy Face lived behind our house on Beulah Lane. His house was pretty much like everyone else’s; plain, simple and adequate. He was a slight but muscular man that looked like he might work in a steel mill or a foundry. He didn’t. Elroy was a baseball player.

We were fortunate enough to live in Pittsburgh in 1960. That was the year the Pirates won the World Series in a season that ended with an exclamation point named Bill Mazeroski.

Although two other Pirates lived a forkball’s throw away from us we liked having Elroy as a neighbor. He was an inspiration to little leaguers like myself. As an outfielder I never aspired to pitch. But if I had, I’d have known who to talk to. Elroy’s winning percentage in 1959 (.947) is a record that still stands.

Though I certainly remember the cookout he hosted in his yard after winning the World Series, a quirky fact has always stood out even more to me. This was also noted at the end of Wikipedia’s article about Roy Face. After a long, statistic-filled tribute recognizing an outstanding career in professional baseball is the line, “Following his baseball career, Face became a carpenter.”

In this morning’s New York Times there is a wonderful article by Manny Fernandez. In When Players Like Duke Snider Were Also Neighbors the author writes about a time when professional baseball players like Duke Snider, who died this week, lived in blue-collar neighborhoods.

For many of us today it would be very hard to imagine a baseball star as a neighbor. Derek Jeter next door? Kerry Wood passing out Halloween candy? (Well, maybe.) Before there were private underground parking privileges and large contracts there was an era when baseball players played because they were driven to play the game. They worked at other jobs in the off season. And some, like Elroy, found manual labor jobs after they retired.

I will always remember my neighbor whose love of the game defined what baseball means for many of us.

our house on Nelbon Avenue

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I’m a Bloomin’ Idiot

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Years ago you could buy pretty much anything you wanted at a Woolworth’s store. As the Walmart of its day, it was a place I could find everything like toys, clothes, bb guns, pet supplies and have a quick soda or grilled cheese sandwich on the way out.

But early spring was my favorite time to go there as a kid. That was when I could have my pick of the brightly-dyed baby chicks or ducks to take home. I was even happy to skip the soda to get my chicks home. I also didn’t care what color they were.

I had just a bit of a flashback to that era a couple of days ago at Home Depot. While picking up a few gardening supplies I wanted to check out their selection of flowers & plants. My wife & I don’t make a big deal of Valentine’s Day but I thought a little plant might be nice.

It seemed appropriate to bring home a cactus for Cindy since we had just returned from a trip out west that included a particularly enjoyable visit to the desert. A small cactus with a few colorful flowers caught my eye. I had my choice of red or pink. It was easy. I’d get the red one. It was Valentine’s Day.

As I went through the checkout I thought of the cactus my daughter got me several years ago. There is a photo of it below. That one blooms about once a year with flowers that last two days. I was pretty lucky to find a cactus at Home Depot that was actually blooming. The label said “Fairy Castle Cactus.” Yep, I was a lucky guy and Cindy was really going to appreciate that she was getting something special for the $ 6.98 spent.

A quick Google search on how to care for our Fairy Castle Cactus provided the big reveal – and even bigger embarrassment.

A gardener that writes a blog with a name like photo-synthesis should have known that these were straw flowers hot glued on a cactus. Even as a child I understood that those Woolworth’s chicks didn’t hatch from their eggs looking like that. I knew they were dyed. But Home Depot fooled me.

I guess we now have a cactus that blooms all the time. And you’ll never, ever see a photo of it.

cactus with real flower

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