I played bocce tonight for the first time this season. The courts looked great, though they were wet from this week’s rain. They’re in a bottom area and the drainage isn’t great. So they looked great despite all of that. Ron, the guy who organizes the league has done a fine job. He’s got two weekday evenings and a Saturday afternoon worth of league games going on. He got someone to put up lights so we can play after dark. It’s awesome.

Anyway, bocce is pretty relaxing and bucolic. I needed to get my mind off of work this evening so it really helped. And I played pretty well to boot. I was too late to sign up for a team last month, but one of the teams needs a fill-in so I’ll be playing now.

Memorial Day activities

I worked today. We scheduled a number of activities and they were very well attended. I’m actually encouraged. We had some living history demonstrations and tours, ranger-guided history tours and prairie walks, and the Presidential Library had their annual Civil War Remembrance program. All this with occasional rain.

I have a positive feeling that I accomplished something, like vindication. Of course, I’ll brace myself for the barrage of what-I-did-wrong-this-time that will come throughout the week. It’s always something. We’ll see how cheeky I feel on Friday.

Walk and schnitzel

For today’s adventure we drove up to Backbone State Park near Strawberry Point.

Backbone is a limestone gorge with a lake. Some of the scenery was pretty but it was not altogether impressive. The trails were not maintained or marked well nor were they challenging, the road signs were poor, the pit toilets were disgusting, and there weren’t any interpretive signs. The drive up was a bit more exciting and we saw another cool county courthouse in Manchester.

After an afternoon of hiking we drove down to the Amanas. We took a spin through the different villages and ate at one of the German restaurants in Main Amana. I had a nice chicken schnitzel, which was a breaded chicken cutlet with potatoes, gravy, corn, cole slaw, cottage cheese, and sauerkraut. Not a green vegetable as far as the eye could see.

Now we’re home. I am tired and I’ll have a long day tomorrow. We’ll be getting up early so Ava can get to the airport, then I’m off to work.

Iowa food odyssey

Ava and I traveled to central Iowa Saturday in search of food. We followed an article in “Edible Iowa River Valley”, a magazine “celebrating the abundance of local foods.” I picked up a free copy at the farmer’s market a couple of weeks ago. Ava took these photos.

We started in Grinnell, a little college-and-farming town, at the Phoenix Cafe and Inn. It was closed for dining but the proprietor, Kamal–an Egyptian immigrant and Chicago transplant–let us in to look around. It was a nice, homey place with a bed and breakfast. I bought a loaf of challa bread, and after having a nice conversation with him, he gave us two small pieces of baklava to take with us. It was fantastic.

We took a little spin around Grinnell on foot and by car. It’s a cute little town with a Louis Sullivan bank building used by the Chamber of Commerce.

Next, we drove up to Marshalltown, an industrial city with a meatpacking plant and a site of a recent major illegal immigration raid. We stopped at Lillie Mae Chocolate for a tasty assortment fudge and famous “Tor-tush” (basically a chocolate turtle, so named as to not violate trademarks) before trying out the exceptional local Mexican food at Restaurante Aztecas. The waitress didn’t speak English very well. One of the other patrons translated for us and convinced her to let us try what he was having: menudo, a spicy soup with tripe. Ava and I weren’t too nuts about tripe–it doesn’t have a nice texture–but the soup itself was awesome. We bought some gorditas and tacos to go, as the day was getting late and we were discovering these places close early on Saturday.

So we sped down to Newton, home to Maytag appliances and, apparently, the Maytag Dairy Farms, for some blue cheese. We were one minute late and they had closed, so we zipped across town and found the Jasper Winery open. Jean, the owner was still there pouring samples and selling crates for the long weekend. She let us taste the whole lineup, starting with the dry stuff, and showed us the distillery floor. I bought a red and a white.

We took a break at the Newton courthouse to eat our gorditas, bought some Maytag blue cheese at Hy-Vee, then headed for Lynnville and the Maasdam Sorghum Mills.

The mill turned out to be on a family farm down a gravel road. When we called ahead, we found they weren’t particular about when we stopped by. The mill doesn’t operate until late summer when the sorghum is ready, so lady of the farm showed us a video of process and then let us sample the sorghum syrup, which has a strong taste and consistency similar to molasses, but which is supposedly rich in antioxidants. I bought a couple of small bottles and in fact used it in my oatmeal this morning.

We had to skip some of the food stops in Pella because it was too late. On the way out of Lynnville, we found a giant tree sculpture made of wagon wheels.

Our food odyssey concluded in Susan’s kitchen. It may seem like we ate a lot but we restrained ourselves admirably, which left us room for homemade rhubarb crisp dessert with Blue Bunny vanilla ice cream, served by Susan in her kitchen.

Iowan for a year

I’ve been in Iowa City for a year. I really like living here. I don’t know how to say it… it’s more “liveable” than Mississippi, at least for me. I like the bike trails, the downtown, cleanness. I wish I liked my job more.

I’m looking for a new apartment. The one I’m in now is a few blocks from downtown and on a quiet block, but it is way too small. I need something with a better kitchen. I’d like a dishwasher. When you live by yourself and cook for yourself you spend more time cooking and washing dishes than actually eating.

I’m mentally committed to another year at this job. After that I don’t know, as usual. There’s still a lot to accomplish here, but it feels sometimes like if I don’t take these things up nobody else will bother.

Right brain

I’ve moved my poems, short stories, and other creative works to the Right brain category. I want this site’s content to be driven by the blog posts (the blog functions as a database) rather than static pages. If you are looking for something, use the search function in the sidebar menu.

Artwork and some other things are still at the old site. I’m still trying to find ways to migrate content from there to here. It’s a process.

Cache Mountain fire

This is a repost from a previous version of my website.

Cache Mountain is in Deschutes National Forest in Central Oregon, near the town of Sisters. The fire on Cache Mountain started on Tuesday evening, July 23, 2002 after a lightning storm. The fire grew to 700 acres by Friday, when my crew was called out. It threatened recreational forest, timberlands, bald eagle and spotted owl habitats, and the 1,300-home community of Black Butte Ranch. Continue reading Cache Mountain fire

A what tree?

In September, things start to slow down at Acadia National Park. The Hulls Cove Visitor Center, which is unbearably busy during August, starts to experience quiet periods once the school year begins. The stressed-out families from New York and Massachusetts disappear and are replaced by Europeans and occasional busloads of old Southerners and who come to see the leaves change. Continue reading A what tree?

Recovery of the barrier islands six months after Katrina

Wind and waves are always rearranging barrier islands. If you’ve ever stood on the beach at the edge of the water and watched the sand sloshing around your feet in the waves, you’ve seen it action. On breezy days you can feel bits of the island blowing by in the form of sand against your face. Hurricanes are the most radical versions of this constant movement. When Katrina’s giant storm surge washed across the barrier islands of Gulf Islands National Seashore, it leveled their dune systems, scoured out new channels, and washed away sand flats at the islands extremities. It also swept away and drowned plants and animals.

In February I rode out to the islands with our park biologist to take photos. The islands looked pretty bleak. Little of the massive dunes of Horn Island are left: eroded rumps clustered around broken trees. The trees that stood up to the surge are gray and dry, and only sun-bleached and leafless stems remain of many of the smaller plants that covered the islands’ interiors.

But I didn’t go to take pictures of destruction. If you’re like me, you’re probably tired of looking at the devastation. I was looking for signs of natural renewal, and evidence that Katrina might even have been beneficial to the islands or to the life they host. After all, these islands have survived hurricanes since the first day of their existence.

The first living thing I noticed when I went ashore on Petit Bois Island was a small indestructible mustard plant called sea rocket. Sea rocket lives on the margins of the habitable island. It is found on the bare, infertile sand of the upper beach–the part of the beach that is closest to the water but doesn’t get wet during most high tides. It lives exposed to extremes of summer heat and windy winter cold, to the frequent pelting of airborne sand and the occasional pounding surf. It lives there because it is the best adapted plant at doing so. It has tenacious roots that soak up scarce fresh water during rains and thick rubbery leaves that lock in moisture against evaporation. (Sea rocket is one tough plant. I once found one growing on a beach in New York, its tiny purple four-petal flowers blooming in defiance of the howling, sub-zero winter day.)

It turns out that sea rocket can grow anywhere on the island. The storm surge moved a lot of things around the Mississippi Sound: refrigerators, roofs, casinos, etc. But it also moved sea rocket around the islands. I found sea rocket growing in an unusual place: in the middle of Petit Bois Island, under the shade of some pine trees, through a heavy litter of pine needles. It is growing there now because it took hold ahead of the island interior’s usual inhabitants. Those other plants may come back later, fed by nutrients washed ashore by the storm, and push the sea rocket back to the beach.

Signs of natural renewal are everywhere on the barrier islands. Besides the amazing sea rocket, beach grasses are now poking through the sand, and saw palmettos and prickly pear cactuses are re-sprouting. Around the island’s brackish ponds and marshes, plants like cord grass and black needle-rush that live partly submerged during high tides are doing just fine. A close look at a stand of yaupon holly reveals new growth. Even many of the slash pines, reddened by the initial burn of wind of salt water then fading to a drab gray, are showing a little green these days.

Island animals are clinging to these little bits of green. Dragonflies still buzz around the ponds and marshes. There are monarch butterflies and song sparrows in the bushes, and footprints of herons and raccoons around the tidal pools. A pair of bald eagles is already nesting in a tree on what’s left East Ship Island. This spring we’ll be looking for ospreys, skimmers, and terns to return to their island breeding grounds.

You can see it all for yourself. Ferry service to West Ship Island will resume on April 14, though amenities on the island will be very limited. If you have your own boat, you can also visit Petit Bois, Horn, and East Ship Islands (Cat Island is still closed). You can help the islands recover by being a low impact visitor. Stay off the dunes and steer clear of osprey nests and ground-nesting shorebirds.

The hardest thing for us people–park staff and visitors–to cope with out there will be the loss of our facilities and the damage to our monuments. Work and money will heal those wounds. If we let nature take its course the islands, and their plants and animals, will take of themselves.

March 20, 2006. This article appeared in Arrowhead, the newsletter of the Employees and Alumni Association of the National Park Service, published by Eastern National, Spring 2006, vol. 13, no. 2.

Interpreting the salt marsh

“Where’s the beach?”

When I worked in New York City, I brought a new park ranger to see the salt marsh at Great Kills Park on Staten Island. He remembered going to the broad sand beaches there when he was younger. I showed him a place where the beach had eroded to an abrupt dirt slope. A few feet below was the leading edge of a growing salt marsh. When he looked out at the narrow green ribbon that had once been a hundred yards of sand beach he said with horror, “My God, look at the destruction!” Continue reading Interpreting the salt marsh

Full speed ahead at NIW 2005

The National Association for Interpretation (NAI) held its annual National Interpreters Workshop (NIW) in Mobile, Alabama this November. I’ve been a member of the NAI since 2002, but until this year I haven’t made much use of it. This was my first NIW. The motto for this year’s NIW was “Full Speed Ahead,” as Admiral Farragut is supposed to have said while invading Mobile Bay during the Civil War. Continue reading Full speed ahead at NIW 2005

Employee assistance after Katrina

While Hurricane Katrina pulverized the Mississippi Gulf Coast early on Monday, August 29 I visited the little shotgun shack in Tupelo where Elvis Presley was born. I waited out the diminishing storm that night with a friend in Oxford as it passed through northern Mississippi. Though I was having an uncommonly good week hanging out with graduate students at Ole Miss, the inability to communicate with the coast was maddening. I didn’t drive the six hours back to Ocean Springs until Saturday, when I knew that an NPS recovery team was in place and I’d have a regular supply of drinkable water. I wasn’t sure of the condition of my apartment but had heard third-hand on Friday that it was “fine.” Continue reading Employee assistance after Katrina


01-512 – Gateway NRA (NY/NJ) – Rescue

On Saturday, August 18th, supervisory park ranger Tom O’Connell and chief lifeguard Ken Cevoli were patrolling park waters in lower New York Bay when they came upon a 19-foot pleasure boat in distress. Operator Steve Rothenberg, 35, and passenger Michael Gonzalez, 37, were frantically waving hand flares as their boat rapidly sank. Cevoli immediately radioed the lifeguard headquarters at Great Kills Beach Center, while O’Connell piloted the park’s 19-foot rescue Zodiac to their assistance. Cevoli, O’Connell and lifeguard Brian Hopkins, who responded in the park’s beach rescue rowboat, transferred Rothenberg and Gonzalez to the Zodiac. The USPP and Coast Guard were notified. The sinking craft was recovered by a private operator and towed to the marina concessioner at Great Kills. The two men were transferred to a Park Police boat. [Adam Prato, VUA, GATE, 9/14]

September 16, 2001. From the NPS Morning Report, courtesy of the National Park Service.

National Geographic Magazine

I really wish this one had been published. National Geographic did not respond at all.

December 21, 2005

Every once in a while I open up National Geographic to read the always depressing news that exotic funguses are killing off amphibians worldwide. Might the scientists who penetrate the most isolated and sensitive habitats so they can probe frogs’ genitals with an instrument be part of the problem? I would hope not, but there right there in the same article is a photograph of someone reaching to pick up a critically endangered frog with her bare hands. Leave the damned frogs alone!