Thursday, May 31, 2007

Peonies Up Close

Peony Peony pink-edged petals

Yesterday, the peonies popped open, and the fragrance was wonderful. I don't know how to share scent over the World Wide Web, but this is what you'd see if you put your face close to inhale.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

More Fun With Flies

Male rhagionid fly rhagionid fly, side view

Yesterday's snipe fly was a female; this morning I found a male of the same species waiting for me outside the front door on my tiny new peony plant. The drosophilid fly below (often miscalled "fruit flies;" that common name belongs to another family) was perched on the tip of an apical milkweed leaf, looking as if he were about to leap, although he sat there very still for a long time.

drosophilid fly

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Snipe Fly

Rhagionid fly

This is a rhagionid, or snipe fly. I was aprehensive about creeping close to it, because it looks a bit like a tabanid, but snipe flies in these parts are slow-moving and don't bite. I'm practicing with the macro lens--it's certainly different than my film camera's macro.


Buttercup unfolding its anthers Buttercup with beetles Buttercup ovaries after the petals have gone

I just got a macro lens for my digital camera. Now I can capture the splendor in the grass. Something I've always remembered from plant taxonomy class is that buttercup "petals" have been considered non-homologous with true petals. They have a special name: Honigblatter, or "honey-leaves."

Monday, May 28, 2007

Good Picking at Vandalia Gathering

Larry's guitar student, Jake Ryder, placed first in the Flatpick Guitar "Youth" category at the 2007 Vandalia Gathering yesterday. His mom, Mrs. A over at Country Life, filmed the performance and put it on Youtube. Jake's in the eighth grade, and he's a mighty fine picker, in my opinion. Here he is playing "Beaumont Rag" (first video) and "Whiskey Before Breakfast" (second video).

Oh, and just in case you're wondering, that's Larry S. Combs playing backup for Jake. Did I mention Larry gives guitar lessons?

Wood Thrush

Wood Thrush

This wood thrush had a close encounter with our front window the other morning. He later perked up and flew away, I hope without permanent damage. Here's a bit of what Emma Bell Miles had to say about the wood thrush in Our Southern Birds.

Listen to him reverently and with an open heart, for here is one of the world's perfect voices. The Thrush tone is the purest and sweetest to be found among American birds...Fortunately he is common throughout the wooded portion of the South, and not too shy,--never so shy as he is reserved, with a delicate dignity of manner and a love for the deep recesses of green leaves....Here is a fit instrument, fine in every detail, through which the very soul of music speaks....To me, the song is chiefly associated with the hour of dawn, for the thrush is earliest waking of all our birds. Morning after morning it is his voice that awakes the sleeping forest, when the east is streaked with rose.

Perhaps I have low tastes, but I think Ms. Miles was over-influenced by Thoreau, and by indifferent versifiers of the late nineteenth-century. Give me a house wren or a Carolina wren any day.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Rachel Carson's 100th Birthday

Sunday, May 27, will be Rachel Carson's 100th birthday. I'm rereading her books this year, although I don't think I'll get through Silent Spring again. I was an entomology student in the early days of the DDT ban, working in a mosquito control lab. DDT was once as promising in the control of infectious disease as antibiotics, and its loss was a blow to public health, especially in the tropics, but blaming all this on Rachel Carson (as some people did) was naive. For years before it was banned, indiscriminate overuse of DDT had produced many resistant strains of disease-vector insects, and its effectiveness was in serious decline, a pattern that ought to have inspired antibiotics resistance research long ago.

It seems the voting public only considers problems when they reach the status of impending apocalypse, so I understand the desperate rhetoric of Silent Spring (and An Inconvenient Truth as well), but I really hope people will remember Rachel Carson for the beautiful, inspiring books she wrote about the natural world: Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea. Here's a passage from The Edge of the Sea.

On the sands of the sea's edge, especially where they are broad and bordered by unbroken lines of wind-built dunes, there is a sense of antiquity....the sea and the land lie here in a relation established gradually, over millions of years.

During those long ages of geologic time, the sea has ebbed and flowed over the great Atlantic coastal plain. It has crept toward the distant Appalachians, paused for a time, then slowly receded, sometimes far into its basin; and on each such advance it has rained down its sediments and left the fossils of its creatures over that vast and level plain. And so the particular place of its stand today is of little moment in the history of the earth or in the nature of its beach--a hundred feet higher, or a hundred feet lower, the seas would still rise and fall unhurried over shining flats of sand, as they do today.

Here are some interesting Rachel Carson links.

  • An Environmental Icon's Unseen Fortitude: Rachel Carson's Persistence and Pain In Focus 100 Years After Her Birth a Washington Post article by David A. Fahrenthold, Friday, May 18, 2007. Fahrenthold focuses on how Carson kept her terminal cancer a secret, lest people attribute the message of Silent Spring to personal outrage over her own illness. The cost of this approach was that Carson fought her disease nearly alone. Her cancer was still a surprise to many people when she died at the house in Silver Spring in 1964, at age 56.
  • The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, a website by Linda Lear, author of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature
  • Time Magazine's profile of Rachel Carson in their "100 Most Important People of the Twentieth Century." Lots of interesting photographs; a slick, professional site.
  • The Rachel Carson Homestead.
    The Rachel Carson Homestead is the birthplace and early home of scientist and author, Rachel Carson (1907-1964). The 19th century farmhouse is listed as a National Historic Landmark and is located in Springdale, Pennsylvania. The Homestead is situated in a suburban neighborhood where visitors can tour the four remaining rooms that Rachel Carson shared with her parents, her brother and sister. Standing in her bedroom, you can look through the window as she did and imagine what life was like for her as a young girl in the early 1900s. This was a humble home that had no indoor plumbing and a lean-to kitchen at the back of the house.
  • The Lies of Rachel Carson by Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, an editorial from 21st Century Science and Technology Magazine, 1992. The article is subtitled "A well-known entomologist documents some of the misstatements in Carson's Silent Spring, the 1962 book that poisoned public opinion against DDT and other pesticides." Edwards focuses on Carson's use of inflammatory language and misleading statements, and there is no doubt, she was writing political polemic. Unfortunately, Edwards is as angry as Carson was, and uses inflammatory rhetoric that poisons his case too.

Update: For a detailed discussion of the Rachel Carson controversy, see Paul Decelles' blog.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Looking Forward to Vandalia Gathering

Camping at Vandalia, view of the DMV

On Memorial Day weekend, May 25-27, the Cultural Center and State Capitol grounds will be the site of the 31st Vandalia Gathering--the state's annual celebration of the traditional arts, music, dance, stories, crafts and food of West Virginia. The free festival's unique blend of ethnic and cultural heritage combines an atmosphere as comfortable as a family reunion with the excitement of a state fair....

For those who love the sounds of traditional music or would like to be introduced to it, Vandalia Gathering can fit the bill. Concerts and contests fill the weekend, and impromptu musical jam sessions spring up all over the grounds. At any moment, a shade tree becomes the site of a lively performance as strolling musicians stop to join in on a favorite tune....

Vandalia Camping: Railroad tracks and interstate

Every Memorial Day weekend, we pack up our little camper and leave beautiful Pocahontas County to camp out in a parking lot next to an interstate highway, some railroad tracks, and the West Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles in Charleston. A surprising number of people agree that Old-Time's a Good Time at the Vandalia Gathering, and I'd have to say that it's a lot more fun than West Virginia's State Fair, which is located in Lewisburg, much closer to our home than Charleston. West Virginia's Department of Culture and History has the 2007 Schedule on its Website.

Monday, May 21, 2007

An American Homeplace

Donald McCaig, a Highland County, Virginia author, has a new book out, Canaan: A Novel of the Reunited States after the War. This is a sequel to his 1998 novel, Jacob's Ladder: A Story of Virginia During the War. News about his book readings and signings reminded me that he belongs in my Literary Pocahontas Compendium, because Highland County borders Pocahontas County, and because he has written eloquently about this stretch of the Alleghenies in his 1992 essay collection, An American Homeplace. I particularly admire the section of An American Homeplace in which he traces the history of his Highland County farm. It's quite informative about this part of Virginia/West Virginia, although our local historians have, inexplicably, overlooked it.

I think McCaig's best-known book is is novel with a border collie protagonist, Nop's Trials. Although McCaig seems, in An American Homeplace, to have plenty of empathy with his farming neighbors in Appalachia, he paints his villains in Nop's Trials with the standard "inbred, dirty hillbilly" brush. The moonshine-distilling, trailer-dwelling "bad guys" keep bear dogs, and hunt deer and grouse out of season. Mr. McCaig is something of a regional stereotype himself--a back-to-the-land hippie who moved here from the urban Northeast in the 1970's.

Despite his foray into the Land of the Nine-Fingered People, I admire An American Homeplace, especially for the local history, and the excellent writing about farming and land use and stewardship. Here are some Donald McCaig links I've put together.

Book Cover: An American Homeplace Book Cover: Caanan Book Cover: Nop's Trials

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Ragged Blooming Season

Hawthorn blossoms on Droop Mountain

Apples, cherries, peaches, pears--none of these bloomed this year on our ridge due to the Easter Snow. A few scattered hawthorn branches preserved flower buds, however. The wild cherries were more cautious in April, and are blooming in places I've never noticed them before. Perhaps there could be a small batch of wild cherry jelly, if the birds don't beat me to it.

Wild Cherry on Droop Mountain

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Matewan Massacre

Mother Jones Broadside Thanks to the West Virginia Department of Culture and History for this: " On This Day in West Virginia History, May 19, 1920, a gun battle in Matewan between Baldwin-Felts detectives and armed miners resulted in the deaths of ten persons." They have several informative links, including Matewan Massacre and Mother Jones' broadside.

The spring of 1920 was a troubled time in the West Virginia coalfields. A nationwide coal strike settled during the winter had won unionized miners a 27 percent wage increase. Unfortunately, the settlement didn't help most miners in southern West Virginia, the largest non-unionized coal region in the country. When the United Mine Workers (UMW) stepped up its campaign to organize Logan, Mingo, and McDowell counties, coal operators retaliated by hiring private detectives to quash all union activity. Miners who joined the UMW were fired and thrown out of their company-owned houses.

Despite the risks, thousands defied the coal operators and joined the UMW. Tensions between the two sides exploded into violence on May 19, when 13 Baldwin-Felts detectives arrived in Matewan to evict union miners from houses owned by the Stone Mountain Coal Company. Matewan chief of police Sid Hatfield intervened on behalf of the evicted families. A native of the Tug River Valley, Sid Hatfield supported the miners' attempts to organize. He was also known throughout Mingo County as a man who was not afraid of a fight.

After carrying out several evictions, the detectives ate dinner at the Urias Hotel then walked to the depot to catch the five o'clock train back to Bluefield, Virginia. They were intercepted by Hatfield, who claimed to have arrest warrants from the county sheriff. Detective Albert Felts produced a warrant for Hatfield's arrest, which Matewan mayor C. C. Testerman claimed to be a fake. The detectives didn't know they had been surrounded by armed miners, who watched intently from windows and doorways along Mate Street and, while Felts, Hatfield, and Testerman, faced off, a shot rang out. The ensuing gun battle left 7 detectives and 4 townspeople dead, including Felts and Testerman.

Hatfield became a local hero and was eventually acquitted of murder charges for his part in the "Matewan Massacre." But in the summer of 1921, Hatfield and an associate, Ed Chambers, were shot dead by Baldwin-Felts detectives on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse, where they were to stand trial for a shooting in a nearby coal camp. Their murders galvanized thousands of union miners, who planned to march on Logan County. The march ended with the Battle of Blair Mountain, in which state and federal troops defeated the miners and halted the UMW's campaign in southern West Virginia. Most of the southern coalfields remained non-union until 1933.

Friday, May 18, 2007


Black capped chickadee

There's a lot of traffic in our kitchen window.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sewing Tips and the History of Underwear

I tried to find a unifying theme for this collection of sewing links, but they are a miscellany, saved for miscellaneous reasons. Here we have pattern alteration tips, lingerie patterns, costume resources, and the history of underwear in the twentieth century. Enjoy!

  • Debbie's Sewing Tips and Project Instructions. Good explanations, good pictures. I found the full bust adjustment section particularly useful.
  • Sewing Lingerie. Patterns and notions for sale. I haven't tried these, but other sewing bloggers like her patterns very much.
  • presents an astonishing amount of information, primarily on the history of ladies' undergarments in the twentieth century. One can read for hours and not see everything. The authors say:
    The original idea was to publish the fascinating history of Spirella and the corsetieres who worked for this company before knowledge of the era became lost forever....As the compilation of this web site progressed, we began to realize how little we knew about this fascinating era....I am always grateful to correspondents who correct me when my assumptions from the east of the Atlantic contradict those from the west.
  • Laughing Moon Mercantile has authentic period sewing patterns for Western, Civil War, Edwardian and Victorian wear. If you're interested in foundation garments of the past, either from an engineering or historical view, period sewing patterns like their ladies' Victorian underwear are instructive. They also offer links to other costume sites.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Annie Proulx's "That Old Ace In the Hole"

Annie Proulx's novel That Old Ace in the Hole is my most recent fiction reading. It seems as though reviewers find her subsequent work inferior to The Shipping News. I had some trouble with Accordion Crimes myself. It was vivid and fascinating, but about two-thirds of the way through the book, my tolerance for sudden, gruesome death stories just broke down. It was the description of amputation and exsanguination at the clothesline caused by flying scrap metal from an unsecured truck load that did it. I just put the book down, and couldn't pick it up again.

However, That Old Ace in the Hole is a more even mix of the grotesque and the sublime. The New York Times review (December 12, 2002) by Laura Miller, is typically critical of her story line and pace, but I read Ms. Proulx for her descriptions of places and people. I don't require action-packed adventure from someone who describes prairie vistas like this:

There were several pieces of farm machinery in a large field to the west, ungrazed for some years and grown up with big bluestem and weeds. He counted five rusted wheat combines, three pickup trucks, four old tractors, various harrows and rakes, all sinking into the earth....In the dulling light he noticed a low rise to the south, too low to be called a hill even in this flat country, little more than a swelling as though the earth had inhaled and held the breath....Beyond the rise was a great indigo cloud spread open like a pair of dark wings, monstrous and smothering, shot through with ribbands of lightning, and in the distance the stuttering flash of strobe lights at the ends of the irrigation pivot water arms, The dusk sifted down like molecules of pulverized grey silk. Chapter 7, The Rural Compendium

Passages like this windmill description mix engineering details with poetry, and the combination brings me intense sensory memories of stock tanks, dry winds, and hot summer days.

As he read, a few hundred feet away an old windmill made a shambling rattle and, with each revolution of the bladed wheel, a stream of water arced into the tank, the liquid pulse of ranch life. The tank had been in the ground so long and so many dust storms and gritty winds had blown over it that a deep layer of silt lay at the bottom and a clump of cattails ten feet across had grown up in the center. The original corner pipes, set for a larger tower, stood a foot outside the legs, which were fastened to the corner pipes with bolts and flanges. The whole mill floated in the air on three points. The platform at the top was rotted out, a single decayed board hanging by a rusted bolt. Another board lay on the ground. Green scum covered the surface of the water except where the mill pumped in fresh, a waxing-waning stream the diameter of a quarter....Chapter 9, The Busted Star

If you're curious, the first chapter of That Old Ace in the Hole is available online: Chapter 1: Global Pork Rind, and here are some other things I've written about Annie Proulx.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Evolution and Gravity: Everyday Processes

I usually avoid joining in or even reading "debates" over evolution. Growing up in a rural state in a rural school system, I heard plenty of florid verbiage implying that "believing" in evolution made you a godless atheist, and during my grad school years, many academics in authority positions proclaimed that anyone who believed in any sort of god was stupid and unfit for employment in the sciences. Besides this sort of useless name calling, I heard sufficient acrimony among evolutionary biologists of different persuasions to make me heartily sick of academic debate as well.

Recently, though, I enjoyed an article by Janis Antonovics, an evolutionary ecologist particularly fond of quantifiable data rather than vague statements about "selfish genes" and "god delusions." In Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word, he quantified the differences between biomedical and ecological literature on the use of the word "evolution." Medical researchers shy away from the use of the word "evolution" in their papers on antibiotic resistance, while microbiologists in evolution and ecology departments talk freely about "the evolution of antibiotic resistance." Having worked in both sorts of environments, I can agree with his conclusion that biomedical researchers omit the word "evolution" to avoid controversy. Antonovics asserts that failure to call the development of antibiotic resistance "evolution" keeps the research from benefiting from evolutionary modeling methods. He closes the paper with this astute observation:

Nowadays, medical researchers are increasingly realizing that evolutionary processes are involved in immediate threats associated with not only antibiotic resistance but also emerging diseases. The evolution of antimicrobial resistance has resulted in 2- to 3-fold increases in mortality of hospitalized patients, has increased the length of hospital stays, and has dramatically increased the costs of treatment. It is doubtful that the theory of gravity (a force that can neither be seen nor touched, and for which physicists have no agreed upon explanation) would be so readily accepted by the public were it not for the fact that ignoring it can have lethal results. This brief survey shows that by explicitly using evolutionary terminology, biomedical researchers could greatly help convey to the layperson that evolution is not a topic to be innocuously relegated to the armchair confines of political or religious debate. Like gravity, evolution is an everyday process that directly impacts our health and well-being, and promoting rather than obscuring this fact should be an essential activity of all researchers.

Antonovics J, Abbate JL, Baker CH, Daley D, Hood ME, et al. (2007) Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word. PLoS Biol 5(2): e30.

Monday, May 14, 2007

More Tee-Shirt Test Patterns

Tee shirts on

The seemingly endless tweaking of tee-shirt patterns continues as I look for reasonable fit. You can see these are very simple patterns, and the necessary fitting adjustments are straightforward. The factor that keeps me dissatisfied with my projects is the great variation in "hand" of light-weight knit fabrics. These four fabrics have the same percentage of stretch, but they have different textures, weights, and degree of recovery. Some stretchy fabrics snap back, like swimsuit nylon lycras, while others stretch and stay stretched, like cotton thermal underwear. I keep mis-predicting how my tee-shirts will behave.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Visit From Aradus

aradid on Droop Mountain

This aradid (probably Aradus sp., possibly crenatus) turned up on some white fabric on my clothesline a few days ago. He was about a centimeter long, and though you can see the long shadow he cast, you can't see how flat he was. Aradids are dramatically flattened, dorso-ventrally like bedbugs. They feed on wood-decomposing fungus, and the heteropterist's "old saw" is to look for them under the bark of dead trees. I've never found one this way, although I look often. I have found several on clotheslines. Drying laundry is a good place to look for bugs.

The really cool heteropterans are too small to photograph without a macro lens, so I rushed in the house with this fellow to get my film camera, and found the (non-rechargable, hard-to-find) batteries dead. Back in the house I went, bug in hand, to grab the digital camera. By this time, my little buddy was tired of being banged around, and drew up his legs to play dead. Being very flat, he didn't look at all like a bug, so I waited until he stood up again. I was only able to get this one poor photo before he flew away.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Dropping Out of School

I read this article earlier this week: New Figures Show High Dropout Rate Federal Officials Say Problem Is Worst For Urban Schools, Minority Males by Daniel de Vise, Washington Post Staff Writer, Thursday, May 10, 2007. Although the Post focuses on urban problems, the study they cite has bad news for the entire country.

The statistics paint a dire portrait: Seventy percent of students nationwide earned diplomas in four years as of 2003, the latest data available nationally, a much lower rate than that reported by the vast majority of school systems....

The summit marks a growing national sense that high schools are facing a dropout crisis. The extent of the problem -- only two students in three graduate with their class -- has been clear for years within the education community but not among members of the general public, who, according to surveys, believe that nearly 90 percent of students graduate from high school.

The statistics come from's New Graduation Rate Resource from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, which gives "comparable, reliable data on graduation rates...for every school district in the country." The site was a little slow even with broadband, but I did find all the information promised, and the map interface is quite nice. Of course, I checked our local school system, and found that it is right at the national average, with a graduation rate of two out of three students. This corroborates statistics distributed by the West Virginia Adult Basic Education program, which used to employ me as a teacher.

Before I started teaching adult basic education, I never really thought about school dropouts, who they were, why they dropped out, or what their skills were. About 100 people passed through my classroom (some of them very briefly). None of them were members of minorities, but I can't think of any other generalization to make about them. I never asked anyone personal questions, but most of them wanted to explain why they dropped out of school. Their reasons were as varied as the students themselves.

Some of these drop-outs had excellent academic skills, others couldn't read at all. Some were there to please their probation officers and some had dropped out of school to care for sick family members. I learned that any teenager could drop out of school, given the wrong circumstances.

I also learned that even these new figures under-report the drop-out rate in that they only consider grades 9 through 12. If students turn 16 in the eighth grade, as quite a few do, they can drop out of school without counting toward the school district's dropout rate.

Failure to graduate cuts young people out of entry-level jobs, even jobs mucking out barns in Greenbrier County. More damaging than this is the sense of inferiority that so many kids feel. They may actually have better academic skills than kids who graduate, but they were "quitters," and a lot of them go on quitting at other things in their lives. It takes an enormous amount of effort to reverse this life pattern, and I've had many adult basic ed students with excellent skills find excuses to avoid taking the GED test. This is especially sad because there is a tremendous self-esteem boost that goes along with getting a GED.

My father finished the eighth grade in 1918, and that was considered a complete education for his time and place. He was a life-long reader, and could do enviable feats of mental calculation, including square roots and trigonometry. He could recite poems, and name all the townships in Union County and all the counties in Iowa. Many high school graduates today have less education than he did. It seems Americans are losing educational ground, that education is returning to its old status as a perk for the wealthy. Rhetoric like "no child left behind" masks the death of free public education for everyone.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Bypassing Early Spring Entirely

Early spring, tree bud

Last year, Spring proceeded as usual, with that passing cloud of color on the trees as the buds began to open. Maples were red, sarvice and hawthorn showed a little white, and the fruit trees and ornamental shrubs hinted at color to come. This year, we had a four-day hard freeze and snowstorm just as the first flush of color began, and the whole stage was called off. The woody plants, both introduced and native, lost all their buds. The buckeyes and lilacs looked the saddest, with dangling dead leaves, but the maples, oaks, apples, and cherries had their expanding buds frozen too. More than a month later, the maples and the fruit trees are sprouting adventitious leaf shoots, but the locust trees and oaks are still bare.

Early spring

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Yogurt Recipes From Dr. Bootsie's Test Kitchen

These are the recipes I've worked out for my own personal yogurt making, to go along with the tips and advice in yesterday's post.

Instant Powdered Milk Yogurt
1 1/2 cup powdered milk
Water to make 3 3/4 cups milk
1/4 to 1/3 cup yogurt with active culture

Measure powdered milk into quart jar. Add water and mix until you have 3 3/4 cups milk in jar. Heat jar, uncovered, in microwave, to 110 degrees F. That's about 1 1/2 minutes in my microwave--your milage will vary. Add 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup "live" yogurt--either from storebought yogurt with the label "active cultures" or from your previous batch of yogurt (my favored starter.) Incubate yogurt at 110 degrees F until it thickens. This may take 14 hours with grocery store starter, or as little as six hours with fresh, home-grown yogurt. Refrigerate when it reaches the desired texture and degree of sourness. This slows down, but does not stop yogurt culture growth.

Pasteurized Fresh Milk Yogurt
3 1/2 cups milk
1/3 to 1/2 cup instant powdered milk (to thicken finished yogurt)
1/4 to 1/3 cup yogurt with active culture

First, scald the milk, as described in yesterday's post. Disolve the powdered milk in the hot milk. Allow mixture to cool to 110 degrees F. (You can speed the process by placing your hot milk in your quart jar, and setting the quart jar in a pan of cold water.) Once the yogurt cools, add the live cultures. (Don't put it in too soon, or you'll cook your microbes, and no yogurt will appear.) Incubate yogurt at 110 degrees F until it thickens. This may take 14 hours with grocery store starter, or as little as six hours with fresh, home-grown yogurt. Refrigerate when it reaches the desired texture and degree of sourness. This slows down, but does not stop yogurt culture growth.

Yogurt Thickened and Flavored With Jell-o

If you have developed a taste for grocery store yogurt, especially the fat-free, sugar-free, artificially sweetened and colored types, you can duplicate them at home. Make a package of Jell-o according to directions on box, but leave out 1/4 cup water. Add 1 cup yogurt to partially-set Jello. To duplicate the total grocery store experience, you can pour the mixture into cup-sized containers for individual servings.

Here are a few food science links about factors that affect yogurt texture, and some miscellaneous cool stuff.

  • A sample test for high school science teachers from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
    What process is responsible for the gel-like texture of yogurt?...Curdling is caused by proteolytic enzymes, heat, lactic acid, and other means. Each milk gel consists of a protein matrix, which is modified by lactic acid to produce a smooth yogurt product....Lactic acid bacteria produce polysaccharides that decrease the flowability of the yogurt.
  • A taste of culture - culture polysaccharides, flavors, stabilizers and sweeteners
    Next to taste, texture is the most important sensory attribute in dairy foods. Dairy cultures, with the assistance of stabilizers, are responsible for imparting desirable textures. Yogurt cultures produce exopolysaccharides in two forms, as a non-ropy capsule surrounding the cell and as mucoid material that freely moves away from the cell causing ropiness...capsular polysaccharides play an important role in the development of yogurt microstructure and texture. Yogurt made using such cultures has increased viscosity, a more stable structure and a softer texture.
  • Foods Under the Microscope
    by Miloslav (Milos) Kaláb, Ph.D., a full-time Principal Research Scientist at the Centre for Food and Animal Research, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Ottawa until August 1995. Then, he continued - part time - in electron microscopy studies of foods and foodborne microorganisms at the Food Research Program in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Yogurt Making Tips and Techniques

When I blogged about my collection of contradictory yogurt-making advice last month, I promised to share my test-kitchen results. I've tried most of the different tips and recipes I read about. Here is what worked for me, and a what didn't.

  • Apparatus. I use a yogurt-maker, a Salton I got on sale at several years ago. I've made yogurt in coolers filled with warm water, in a dehydrator, and in a warm oven. All these things work, but the small yogurt maker is most consistent, and these days it costs about $25. (Watch for sales; sometimes it's quite a bit cheaper.) I replaced the cheesy little plastic yogurt bucket with a quart size canning jar.
  • Batch size. I make yogurt one quart at a time, and find it the easiest quantity to manage. Many recipes are aimed at people who need to use surplus milk (people who milk goats or cows; people who shop the sales). I like yogurt, but a gallon or two at a time is a lot for me to use up.
  • Powdered (instant) milk. I find yogurt made entirely from instant powdered milk has the same taste and texture as yogurt made from fresh milk supplemented by a little powdered milk. Time was when instant powdered milk was much cheaper than fresh, but when I checked my local grocery store in April, a gallon of skimmed milk cost $3, while a box of instant powdered milk sufficient to make two gallons cost $9.25. That's 50% more for powdered milk. The advantage of all-powdered milk is convenience: you don't have to scald it.
  • Scalding the milk. If you make yogurt with pasteurized milk from the grocery store, you need to scald it. Some people don't bother, and it often works well enough. However, you don't want to smell what happens when the microorganisms that survive pasteurization (often Pseudomonas is among them) take off and outgrow your yogurt culture. I recommend you scald storebought milk. Scalding milk involves heating it to 180-190 degrees F, and allowing it to cool down to yogurt incubation temperature, 110 degrees F. If you do scald on the stove top, you need to watch and stir so that the milk doesn't scorch. You can do it in the microwave, but you also must watch so that it doesn't boil. I prefer the microwave because it reduces exposure to airborne microorganisms (and ladybugs) while heating.
  • Yogurt culture. Where I shop, plain yogurt and active culture yogurt are infrequent finds. That's the main reason I make my own. Many yogurt recipes recommend you buy fresh yogurt from the store every three or four times you make yogurt, while others say you will have better flavor if you always use your homemade starter. I find that my homemade yogurt starter works much more quickly now that it is many generations removed from the batch from the grocery store. Every source I checked on the Web said you must start your yogurt from plain, unflavored active-culture yogurt, but the only essential part of that is "active-culture." If you use flavored yogurt, you get a little artificial sweetener and flavoring in the first batch (which is easily disguised by strawberry jam or apple butter). After the first batch, the flavoring is diluted out, and the yogurt culture starts to "work" much more quickly.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Land Use in Pocahontas County

Recently, I've been reading and thinking about land use issues, so this article from the May 3 issue of the Pocahontas Times was timely for me. I'm quoting it at some length because in two days it will disappear into the unsearchable land of the for-pay archives, and I'm sure I'll want to refer to it again someday. Here's some of what David Holtzman had to say about Rising land values cast shadow over farming in Pocahontas.

...As property values climb, the logic of selling the farm to a developer becomes harder to resist....

Though the changes are most noticeable within a few miles of Snowshoe Resort, land values have risen steadily throughout the county, as more people find the area desirable for their second homes....Fortunately for residents who dislike the appearance of subdivisions like those just north of Lewisburg, in Greenbrier County, people moving to Pocahontas County tend to like the rural, isolated landscape and don't want to look out their window into their neighbor's house. Most sales are of unimproved lots of at least two acres, and the buyers hire contractors to build their houses. Unlike many people settling in Greenbrier and Monroe counties, newcomers in this area are typically not moving here on a full-time basis, and they aren't concerned with having easy access to services.

That doesn't mean newcomers have an interest in living near working farms, however. The main attraction for outsiders is the area's recreation opportunities, which are found in the forests that make up some 70 percent of the county. Moreover, people like that much of the forest is under state and federal protection.

"The county has so much land that's not going to be developed," said Oak Hall, who owns Red Oak Realty. "And much of what's not publicly owned is owned by timber companies or farmers who have had the land for generations. There's a scarcity of land and people expect that will continue, so their investment will be protected."

Contractors and realtors say they are selling and building almost exclusively for people coming here from other parts of the country, with just a handful of migrants from cities in this state. Almost no one is building homes for Pocahontas County natives, who have been largely priced out of the market.

"I'm doing a home now for a lawyer who's putting $70,000 into his kitchen," said Calvin Butler, whose company, Express Builders, is active in the Snowshoe area. "Most people from around here can't afford $70,000 for their whole house."

One result of the focus on building second homes is that fewer people live here year-round. In 2000 nearly half the homes in Pocahontas County were vacant part of the year. That means less of a demand for county services such as water and sewer connections and ambulances.

Still, the recent controversies involving the proposed Slaty Fork sewage treatment plant and emergency services suggest newcomers could eventually put a strain on the county's resources....

...The county has been losing farms and farmers since at least 1950, when there were 1,114 farms on over 206,000 acres. By 1987 there were just 379 farms on 118,000 acres, as many people got out of the business. Those numbers have actually stabilized since then, but now development threatens to send them on another downward spiral.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Compression Dyeing Cotton Jersey Yardage

Compression-dyed cotton jersey

This weekend's project has been dyeing some cotton jersey cut yardage. I wanted to duplicate the effects I got from "baggie dyeing" woven cotton yardage, so I poked around the Internet and assembled this library of links.

Procedure used on this fabric: I accordion-pleated the wet fabric, coiled it in a wash pan, and poured on my dye solutions (Procion MX dyes, "fuchsia" and "turquoise"). After half an hour, I added the alkaline fixative (soda ash) the same way. After a few hours I turned the fabric over so that both sides of the fabric would stand in the shallow fixative solution. I let it stand about 16 hours at 80 degrees F before washing. It doesn't duplicate the delicate detail of the small batch methods described below, but it'll do.

The following references show how to hand-dye small amounts of fabric to create a "palette" of different fabrics for quilting and other patchwork projects. I find the techniques don't necessarily scale up from quilters' fat quarters to yardage sufficient for a garment, but I really like the looks, especially the color gradient dyeing projects in Adriene Buffington's book and Heidi Lund's study group project.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Thinking About Thinking Bloggers

Thinking Blogger Award

I'm thrilled that Sherry Chandler gave me the Thinking Blogger Award. It has left me, however, with the difficult duty of passing along the award to only five more blogs. Now, all the blogs on my blogroll are thought-provoking, and a number already sport this tasteful insignia. What I've done is choose five that make me think about things I would not otherwise have thought about. My watchword is "eclectic."

The best thing about the award has been backtracking, and looking at the "Thinking Blogs" other people have selected. It's a dandy way to sample things I wouldn't have learned about otherwise. (See above.)

  • Prairie Mary. Mary Scriver writes about the high prairie, teaching English, western North American regional history, painting, sculpture, theology, animal control officers, and that's just a sample. You never know what you'll find there, but you know it will be well-written.
  • Heraclitean Fire. Harry Rutherford is similarly eclectic, but very different. I expect to find science, technology, flora, fauna, and literature, but I'm often treated to art history, pop culture, and other surprising things.
  • Via Negativa. Dave Bonta writes poetry and poem-like things, but I first bookmarked him for the natural history of Pennsylvania, so similar and so different from Pocahontas County. His essays are always thought-provoking, and his Smorgasblog is a great place to find other interesting bloggers.
  • Burning Silo. Bev Wigney's natural history knowledge is both broad and deep. She writes wonderfully, and her pictures are marvelous, especially the insects and spiders. Like my other Thinking Bloggers, you never know what she'll write about next.
  • Riverside Rambles. Larry Ayers' list of interests sounds a lot like mine, including Open Source Software, traditional music, and natural history. He does his musings in Hannibal, MO, watched over by the shade of Mark Twain, while Pearl Buck and Louise McNeill haunt me here in Pocahontas County. Except for the knitting, I think we're blog twins.

Update: I poked around a bit and discovered that the "Thinking Blogger" business originated with the thinking blog, oddly enough. The rules include: # 2: Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme. So I have, although after browsing there, I'm a bit reluctant to throw it a link. It seems oriented toward people who "monetize," "promote," and "improve their page rankings." These things seem the antithesis of thoughtful writing. Still, that's the origin of the little emblem, and that's reason enough to credit it.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Everybody Loves the Wood Stove

Everybody loves the woodstove. It's very relaxing to sit by the fire on cold, damp evenings. We took these embarrassing photos of Princess, but, had she opposable thumbs, she could have done the same to us.

Princess the cat sitting by the
stove Princess the cat
relaxing Princess the cat

Friday, May 04, 2007

Two Species of Dicentra on Williams River

I did notice a difference between these two Dicentras, but I assumed they were all dutchman's britches, perhaps at different stages of development. Last spring I happened to pay more attention to my field guide, and discovered the existence of squirrel corn. Both these photos are from the headwaters of the Williams River, in the Monongahela National forest, taken the same day, about a year ago. They're blooming again there this year, but the light hasn't been great for photographs.

Squirrel Corn in flower

Dicentra canadensis, Squirrel Corn

Dutchman's Britches in bloom

Dicentra cucullaria, Dutchman's Britches

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Emma Bell Miles

I learned about Emma Bell Miles about 10 years ago, reading that she was one of the first to describe traditional Appalachian string band music in print. I tracked down a copy of her 1985 biography, Emma Bell Miles, by Kay Baker Gaston, as well as the first edition of her most-cited book, Spirit of the Mountains. when the initial printing didn't sell well, the publisher gave Miles the remaindered copies, which she embellished with pen and ink drawings and sold near her home in Chattanooga. I have one of those copies, inscribed to "Mrs. R. M. Davidson."

Although she wrote in the nineteenth century "Appalachian local color" convention, Ms. Miles has been taken up by recent academic writers as an eco-feminist, a Scotch-Irish traditionalist, and an abused wife. Baker's excellent biography demonstrates that these are inaccurate projections on Miles' life and writing, but no one seems to have bothered to read the biography.

For example, David Hackett Fischer uses quotes from Spirit of the Mountains to illustrate his assertions about Appalachian/Scotch-Irish family, gender, and religious folkways in Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. He points to her maiden name, Bell, as evidence of her Scotch-Irish/Border Counties ancestry, and assumes that her book is a memoir. In fact, Spirit of the Mountains is a work of fiction, and Miles' parents were Yankee missionaries proselytizing in the post-Civil War South. Her mother was from a Quaker family, hence a member of one of Mr. Fischer's other "folkways." If Spirit of the Mountains is his main source, (and it's all he cites), he's got no data.

Here are some useful (and not-so-useful; see below) links about Emma Bell Miles.

  • Emma Bell Miles entry from The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, written by her biographer, Kay Baker Gaston
  • Fountain Square Conversations by Emma Bell Miles. Text of 33 newspaper columns by Ms. Miles, originally published in 1914 in The Chattanooga News.
  • Fall 2005 Issue of Appalachian Heritage features Emma Bell Miles, some of her stories and poems, and some biographical material. It's only available as separate .pdf files, but it's a good way to get a taste of her work.
  • Kay Baker Gaston Papers. "The Kay Baker Gaston Papers contain the papers of Tennessee historian and writer Kay Baker Gaston. The majority of the collection involves her research of Chattanooga writer Emma Bell Miles (1879-1919)." This is a list of material available, with some color .jpgs of pamphlet covers.
  • The Thistle And The Brier: Historical Links and Cultural Parallels Between Scotland And Appalachia by Richard Blaustein. This author (correctly) equates Miles with other early purveyors of the hillbilly stereotype/myth, including my favorite, John Fox Jr.
    The American idea of Appalachia is to a substantial extent grounded in comparisons to Scotland derived from selective, romantic readings of Scottish history and literature by such influential commentators as William Goodell Frost, John Fox, Jr., Emma Bell Miles and Horace Kephart. Though largely the descendents of Scottish lowlanders, the people of the Southern Appalachians have been equated with Scottish highlanders in popular and scholarly literature. The romantic haze of the Celtic Twilight continues to confuse perceptions of Appalachian and Scottish highlanders to the present day....
  • Shannon Brooks. "Coming Home: Finding My Appalachian Mothers Through Emma Bell Miles." NWSA Journal - Volume 11, Number 3, Fall 1999, pp. 157-171. Indiana University Press. This abstract is ubiquitous on the Internet. It exemplifies an academic tone I find unattractive--womens' studies meets multiculturalism with a side order of self-discovery. I wonder if these ladies have read Ms. Miles at all.
    Growing up in a culture that frequently denigrates the very women that it relies upon, I had a difficult time finding models for womanhood among the women of my Appalachia....Driven by a desire to break the cycle of dropping out, marrying, bearing children, and settling into manufacturing work, I abandoned the Appalachian women of my past in search of a future with the new womanhood I saw in the academy....Through the discovery of the writings of one of Appalachia's earliest feminists, Emma Bell Miles, I found the value of the culture I had left behind, as well as my own ability to create space for myself within that culture on my own terms.

These are some browse-able books that mention Emma Bell Miles in Appalachian scholarship context.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

John Henry Was A Steel-Drivin' Man

I've already written about John Hardy this year, so it's only fair to mention a new book about the similarly-named West Virginia ballad character, John Henry. A Washington Post article Tale of Folk Hero Wins New Award For Arts Writing by Bob Thompson (Washington Post Staff Writer) April 26, 2007 alerted me to its existence, and I hope interlibrary loan can track it down for me.

When Scott Reynolds Nelson set out to write "Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend," he couldn't have dreamed his book would win the National Award for Arts Writing. For one thing, the award hadn't been invented yet....

The National Award for Arts Writing is the newly hatched brainchild of the Arts Club of Washington, which will present it to Nelson at a dinner next month....The two other finalists were Ross King for "The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism" and Julie Phillips for "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon," a biography of the pseudonymous science fiction pioneer. The judges were poet Rita Dove and novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Alan Cheuse....

While researching his previous book [Nelson] stumbled onto reports from the board of the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond that told, he writes, "a terrible story about railroad work." In the early 1870s, black convicts were leased to the C&O Railroad, which was running a line across the Alleghenies. Many died doing tunneling and other work for the C&O.

Later, Nelson got interested in African American work songs and was drawn to the ballad of John Henry and his fatal contest with a steam drill. One day he ran across an old photograph of the Richmond penitentiary that showed "a large white building in the center." He found himself suddenly putting two disparate bits of information together: a conversation he'd had with an archivist about nearly 300 skeletons discovered near the penitentiary buildings, and a stanza from one version of the song:

They took John Henry to the white house,
And buried him in the san'
And every locomotive come roarin' by,
Says there lays that steel drivin' man . . .

Hypothesizing that the building in the photograph was the "white house" in question, Nelson checked penitentiary records and found a "John Wm. Henry" who'd been sent to work on the C&O. More research supported--though it cannot prove--his belief that he'd found a legend's origin.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Founding of Marlinton

The current edition of The Pocahontas Times reprints a much-quoted passage about the founding of Marlinton in the weekly Fifty Years Ago...from the desk of Calvin W. Price, Editor feature. This is the version all the other versions quote, by Dr. William T. Price, Cal Price's ancestor. I believe most of the details are Dr. Price's own embellishment, in accordance with conventions of nineteenth century local history, in which one's ancestors are "worthy" and beliefs of the past are "quaint." Nevertheless, when you read a roadsign or a local history, these (probably unsubstantiated) details appear.

Thursday, April 25, 1957: Marlin and Sewell

The first persons of English or Scotch-Irish antecedents to spend a winter in what is now Pocahontas County, were Marlin and Sewell. This was the winter of 1750-51. Their camp was in the delta formed by Marlin Run and a slough or drain near the east bank of Knapps Creek.

In the course of time- having agreed to disagree- they separated and were found living apart by Colonel Andrew Lewis, Marlin in the cabin and Sewell in a hollow tree. Upon expressing his sunrise at this way way of living apart, distant from the habitation of human beings, Sewell told him they differed in sentiments and since the separation there was more tranquility, for now they were upon speaking terms, and upon each morning "it was good morning, Mr. Marlin and good morning, Mr. Sewell!"

Under the new arrangement, Sewell crossed the slough, and instead of building another cabin, went into a hollow sycamore tree on the west margin of the slough, quite near where the board walk now crosses, and about in line with a walnut tree now standing on the east bank of the drain and the court house.

The lower part of the tree bore a striking resemblance to a leaning Indian tepee. The cavity could shelter five or six persons, and the writer has been often in it for shade or for shelter from rain or heat.

At the top of the cone, some eight or ten feet from the ground, the tree was not more than twenty inches in diameter, and at that height was chopped off about the year 1839, to avoid shading the crops. Thus the stump was left, a great convenience for shade or shelter, until it disappeared during the War, being probably used for a camp fire.

These persons differed, Sewell told Colonel Lewis, about their "relagian." There is traditional hint that "immersion" was the theme of contention. But it is more than probable that one was a conformist to the thirty-nine articles of the English rubric. This is known to have been a very live question of those times, both before and after.

This new arrangement did not last long, and Sewell in search of less molestation about his religion, withdrew about eight miles to a cave at the head of Sewell Run, near Marvin. Thence he went forty miles farther on to Sewall Creek, west Greenbrier, and was found slain by Indians. How impressively this illustrates the evils of religious controversy, so called.

Against her foes religion well defends,
Her sacred truths, but often fears her friend.
If learned, their pride: if weak their zeal She dreads
And their heart's weakness who have soundest heads;
But most she fears the controversial pen,
The holy stride of disputatious men,
Who the blest Gospel's peaceful page explore,
Only to fight against its precepts more.