Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Out Like… a Lion?

I have been pining for spring after all the cold weather and snow we had this winter. With the coming of March, things have started to take a turn for the better. We had some heavy rainstorms around the beginning of the month, but also some dry stretches with temperatures in the 40's and 50's (F). I've watched with pleasure as the giant piles of snow in my backyard and throughout the neighborhood have gradually disappeared until there is very little left.

Even a Very Faint Hint of Green Lawn

The seedlings I planted a couple of weeks ago are all pretty much up and growing too. Another sign that spring is coming! This weekend I'll plant a bunch more.


This past Sunday, March 20 was the equinox, the official beginning of spring (equinox… I've always really liked the sound of that word for some reason… equinox… equinox… equinox…). It wasn't exactly a warm day, mid-40's maybe, but it was sunny and dry. And then what did I wake up to the next morning? A snowstorm! Massachusetts, so cruel art thou. They say that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Here it comes in like a lion and goes out like a very slightly smaller lion.

Supposedly There's A Lamb In There Somewhere

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Seeds of Hope

Rising temperatures and thawing snow are clear signs that against all odds, spring may actually come to Massachusetts this year. But long before that happens, even as winter is only just getting seriously underway, there is another sign of a coming spring. Every January, just after the first of the year, my mailbox becomes clogged with seed catalogs.

I buy more or less the same stuff from the same three suppliers every year. I get tomatoes and peppers from a supplier that specializes in those things, I get lettuce and other greens from a second supplier, and everything else from a third. Obviously they share their mailing lists with other suppliers, because I always end up with catalogs from over a dozen others.

Looking out at my garden from my bedroom window at that time of year, spring still seems a long way off. All I see is a sea of white. This year, with record snowfall, that sea was deeper than ever, reaching almost to the top of the garden fence, which stands a little over four feet high.

2/2/11: I hope the groundhog was right…

Now that we are into March, and we've had some warmer days and a bunch of rain, the snow is starting to disappear, but it still looks pretty dreary outside. All the rain we've gotten in the last few days has melted away a lot of snow, but it doesn't all drain away quickly, so the ground in my back yard has a soggy, squishy character.

3/6/11: I can actually see the ground now

3/6/11: A little sun, and the glacier is receding further
With the snow gone I can also see all of the dead plant material, stakes and whatnot that I promise myself I will clear away every fall before the snow comes, but somehow never get around to doing. I will end up doing it before I plant in the late spring. I don't know that it really matters, objectively speaking, but it might be nice to start the gardening season with everything already looking nice and tidy.

But for now the gardening work is happening indoors. The seeds I ordered recently arrived, so on the weekend I started planting things that I have learned from experience to start planting about now: eggplant, peppers and cabbages. I get out the starter trays and fill the little compartments in the trays with moistend sterile seed starter mix. Then, using my trusty zircon-encrusted tweezers, I carefully poke one seed into each little compartment.

Mühsam ernährt sich das Eichhörnchen
The whole thing is a pretty tedious business and I tend to sort of space out as I'm doing it, especially if someone happens to come up and start talking to me while I'm in the middle of it. Hmm, did I just put a seed into that compartment, or did I put it in the other one? Yes? No? Guess I'll put another one in to be safe. Wait, did I already put two in there? And on and on… It's hard work, but somebody has to do it. I just try to think of it as a zen meditation sort of thing, something that will help me be at one with myself (whatever that means), but I'm still glad when it's done.

After the trays are filled I put them on my seed starting bench on electric mats that are supposed to keep them warm enough for the seeds to germinate. My seed starting bench is one of the many things I've whipped together quickly out of a bunch of scrap lumber for temporary use, but has then lasted for years and years afterward. My woodworking hobby and general deep-seated compulsion to be constantly building something or other ensures that there are always plenty of materials lying around from which something at least marginally useful can be constructed.

This year My Favorite Wife has decreed that this elegant piece of fine furniture is no longer welcome in the dining room, so I've found a spot for it in the garage. This will be an interesting experiment because this time of year the unheated garage still has an average temperature of about 45° F, so I am hoping that the heating mat will work well enough for the peppers and eggplant, which like warm soil, to germinate and not just rot in the damp soil.

Banished to the Garage

For the cabbages at least I know it's working, since the first seedlings (red and white varieties!) are sprouting, three days after I planted them. I find this tremendously exciting. But then I am not like you.

Newborn baby cabbages! Look closely. Aren't they darling?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Enough Already!

This winter has just gone on way too long. But at last things are looking up here in this howling wilderness to which Providence hath brought us. The temperature actually stayed above freezing over the entire period of the last 24 hours, which I think is the first time we've had that so far this year.

We had way more snow this year than usual, somewhere between 70 and 80 inches (or between about 175-200 cm for you overseas readers). The average in this area is around 22 inches. Most of that fell during a four-week period in January. Usually we have a weather phenomenon called the "January thaw", a period of around a week or so when the temperature gets up above freezing during the day and a fair amount of the snow that's accumulated up to that point melts away before it turns cold and snowy again. This year we didn't have that, though, so between the substantial snowfall and the consistently cold temperatures, we ended up with huge piles of snow everywhere that nobody quite knew what to do with.

Although the major roads were mostly free, driving in residential neighborhoods became something of a challenge because the plows can only pile it up to a certain height. The usable surface in my own neighborhood got narrower and narrower until in most places it was only barely possible for two cars to pass each other.

Pass Me If You Can
The sidewalks weren't much better. I live in a neighborhood in which most (though unfortunately not all) of the residents are pretty good about clearing the sidewalks in front of their houses. It's hard to get every last bit of it off with a shovel or snowblower, especially if you are clearing it after people have walked on it and compacted it onto the surface of the sidewalk. Most of the sidewalks on our street are asphalt, so if you get most of it off, when the sun comes out subsequently, even on a cold day it will warm the asphalt to the point where most of what remains will melt and evaporate. But there are still many stretches where the snow is repeatedly warmed only enough to become liquid and then freezes again, turning some stretches of sidewalk into a sheet of ice. So there you get to choose whether you want to risk falling on the ice, or whether you would prefer to walk in the street and instead risk getting hit by some unobservant motorist.

Take Your Chances
The more heavily traveled roads in the city were generally cleared to their full width, which in some cases meant bringing in construction equipment to load snow onto dumptrucks and cart it away. Where they took it I don't know. There were discussions about dumping at least some of it into the ocean; usually that's prohibited because the snow cleared from roads and parking lots tends to be full of road salt, motor oil and all manner of other flotsam and jetsam, but I think this year there may have been some exceptions made. I wrote previously about how the snow looks nice at first, but especially in the more heavily-traveled areas soon turns into grey-black piles that you get pretty tired of looking at. Well, this year we've been getting to enjoy that phenomenon even longer than usual. Even on those days when the sun comes out it's kind of depressing to walk or drive through that landscape.

Ugly Grey Gunk
Son of Ugly Grey Gunk
Return of the Son of Ugly Grey Gunk
As the snow recedes, it's exposing some of the most enormous potholes I've ever seen. I'm talking over a foot wide and 6–8 inches deep in some cases, and that's no exaggeration. I also wrote previously about how the winter freeze-thaw cycle, paired with the action of the snowplows, tends to wreck the road surfaces around here, but this year it's extreme. I'm guessing it's because there were a lot more plows out plowing a lot more snow than usual this year. But whatever the reason, driving on any of the main roads in this town in the last couple of weeks has been a pretty exciting game of pothole slalom every time.

At least the end is in sight. To measure the approach of spring I need look no further than the end of my driveway. The pile of snow that had accumulated from the series of storms we had in January is slowly receding. Another month and maybe it'll be gone…

February 2: Six Feet High

February 15: I'm Melting!
March 6: Land in Sight!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


I just read a couple of stories about perpetual Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's appearance on The Steve Malzberg Show on WOR, New York. I have never listened to this show before, but from the little I did listen to, I gather that Steve Malzberg is just another right-wing Rush-Limbaugh-wannabe talk radio host.

I used to think of Huckabee as a kind of affable middle-of-the-road Republican who was at least worth listening to even if I might not agree with him. That was before he became a host on Fox "News", and also before a 2008 presidential debate in which he raised his hand in response to the moderator's question as to which candidates do not believe in evolution. But as far as I'm concerned, he's now completely disqualified himself from any consideration as a presidential candidate.

Listen here to what he had to say when goaded by Mr. Malzberg to discuss President Obama's US citizenship or purported lack thereof. You will find that discussion starting at minute 13:20 and ending at minute 15:20. (You are of course welcome to listen to the entire recording but I assume no responsibility for the nausea that you are likely to experience as a result.)

Now, I will concede to you that Huckabee does not take the bait when Malzberg tries to get him to say that Obama wasn't born in the US. But Huckabee does say pretty clearly (twice) that Obama grew up in Kenya, and did so under the influence of his Kenyan father and his Kenyan grandfather, and that this shaped certain aspects of his worldview. The truth, of course, is that Obama never lived in Kenya and, according to his autobiography, had only the most fleeting contact with his absentee father when he was ten years old.

Because I said so, that's why!!

Huckabee has since sought to characterize his statements as "a simple slip of the tongue", having said "Kenya" when he met to say "Indonesia". This is pretty laughable. Listen to the recording of the conversation. Substituting "Indonesia" for "Kenya" would render his statements completely incoherent. He said "Kenya" because he meant "Kenya". At best he was caught out discussing a topic which he in fact knew very little about. At worst he was taking a cue from his demagogue host to pander to what he knew would be a sympathetic audience that is more receptive to slogans than actual information. Either way he has been caught red-handed manufacturing "facts" and now he is just trying to look a little less stupid (and thereby digging the hole a little deeper). Is this guy presidential material? You tell me.