The Monarchs Are on the Move!

March 18, 2005 @ 10:26 am | Filed under:

MonarchJourney North reports today that the monarch butterflies are beginning to leave their wintering ground in Mexico. Here they come!

Read about the migration here.

Our milkweed plants are still in dormancy, here in central Virginia. Milkweed is the only host plant for monarch caterpillars, so if you want to attract the butterflies to your yard, be sure to plant some. is a good source.

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Guest Blogger: My Husband Scott

March 17, 2005 @ 10:06 am | Filed under: ,

Scott wrote this for his own blog today, but I enjoyed it so much I’m hijacking it for mine. Credit where credit is due, of course: if you want to read it in its natural habitat, visit his site.

Disclaimer: As with any website linked to from here, the opinions expressed therein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect my own.

Note: Scott and I both use aliases for our children on our blogs. His are slightly different from mine; his “Max” is my “Jane,” our nine-and-a-half-year-old. Max was one of her baby nicknames, because she growled like a little Wild Thing. Jane is the title character of her favorite non-Redwall book, L.M. Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill.

My Philosopher

by The Bean’s father

So it’s Thursday, which means it’s The Bean’s music class. She’s one of only three students and just loves the class—no big surprise there. Being the kind of oh so on top of everything parents that we are, we remembered that she was supposed to make a sculpture to bring into class today. No sweat—we’ve had a week to work on it and the class isn’t for nearly an hour yet. We can whip something fantastic up. Piece o’ cake.

And so with twenty minutes ‘til class, the girls sit down with some Sculpey clay and begin working. The Rose makes a Hershey’s Kiss. Max makes…I don’t even know what, but it’s mighty impressive. The Bean decides on an animal of some sort. I suggest an alligator, figuring there aren’t many animals as recognizable and yet easy to pound together in less than half an hour. But no. She wants an elephant. She doesn’t shoot small.

Being less than worthless in these matters, I retire to the office for my (first) cup o’ morning joe and to read the New York Times editorials and get irate—what better way to start your day? I come upstairs in time to take The Bean to her class, and Top Management’s just popping the sculpture into the toaster oven to fire it.

Their creation is a thing of magnificence: light brown body, dark brown ears and tail, bright orange feet, fiery red eyes and the crowning achievement, lime green tusks, presumably in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. One suspects the Lord above looked down and wondered why He hadn’t thought of this color scheme when making the originals in the first place.

We scurry around getting shoes on and coats ready and I look up to see Top Management with an expression of utter panic and horror on her face. Alarmed, I rush over but she quickly shushes me and turns around. Peering over her shoulder, I see she’s cradling the elephant, which has been burnt by our apparently infernally powerful toaster oven.

It’s not fatal for the poor beast: his ears are pretty toasty, but they were already a dark enough brown that it’s not terribly noticeable. Ah, but those wondrous green tusks aren’t looking so chipper anymore: the tops of each are a decidedly smoky brown. If one were honest, one might even say they were approaching a blackish kind of color. Like, say, black.

Ever resourceful, Top Management sends The Bean to go get a hairbrush for her weekly brushing of hair, and quickly slaps some fresh green clay atop the defiled tusks. Presto! Good as new. Not exactly rock hard, but hey, there’s a rock-hard interior hidden beneath those externally squishy tusks. Don’t mess with ‘em.

All this makes us late for class. We rush in, take off her coat and sneakers, toss her backpack and run over to where the teacher and the other two students are sitting in a circle. The Bean notices that they’ve each got their sculptures so she gasps, “Oh!” and runs back to get hers and add it to the collection. Obviously her fellow scholars have already explained their creations because the teacher asks The Bean to tell them about her sculpture.

This seems to throw The Bean a bit. She just stares down at the thing in her hands for a few seconds and I’m suddenly worried that she’s noticing it’s a tad singed.

But no. She finally says, very simply, “It’s an elephant.”

She pauses, then adds, “It’s got a bwown body, and bwown ears and a bwown tail and a bwown twunk, but the ears and tail are a DIFFEWENT bwown, and wed eyes and look! It’s got owange feet!”

The other children seem to be appropriately appreciative of the orange feet.

“And,” The Bean says meaningfully, “It’s got gween tusks.”

One of the kids nodded at that—clearly a fellow connoisseur—while the other said quietly, “Whoa.”

I stood about fifteen feet away, off to the side. All the other parents had left already—we come back for the last ten minutes of class—so I was only waiting for her to notice me so I could say goodbye. But she never turned. The teacher smiled at me happily—she adores The Bean—and I figured that was my cue to exit.

As I was leaving it occurred to me that my little girl had done what I always try to do and usually fail. She managed to see both the Big Picture and the vital details. She pulled back for the forest first: it’s an elephant. And yet she was still was able to focus in on each individual tree: it’s got wed eyes and owange feet and gween tusks. No bunch of blind philosophers, my Bean.

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Today is the Feast of St. Patrick

March 17, 2005 @ 9:43 am | Filed under:

I love the ancient prayer known as the Breastplate of St. Patrick. Here is an excerpt:

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The brightness of the Sun,
The whiteness of Snow,
The splendor of Fire,
The speed of Lightning,
The swiftness of the Wind,
The depth of the Sea,
The stability of the Earth,
The firmness of Rocks.

I bind to myself today
God’s Power to pilot me,
God’s Might to uphold me,
God’s Wisdom to guide me,
God’s Eye to look before me,
God’s Ear to hear me,
God’s Word to speak for me,
God’s Hand to guard me,
God’s Way to lie before me,
God’s Shield to shelter me,
God’s Host to secure me.

I will never forget the chill that went up my spine the first time I, as an adult, came across this prayer. It called up an immediate echo from one of my favorite books as a teenager: Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The first stanza, above, is the substance of the “rune” quoted by Calvin’s mother and later used by Charles Wallace. I haven’t read the novel in some twenty years, but I can still remember part of that powerful poem: “In this fateful hour/ I call upon all heaven with its power,/ The sun with its brightness,/The snow with its whiteness,/The lightning with its rapid wrath,/The fire with all the strength it hath…” I can almost recall the rest. At the end there is, I think, “the rocks with their starkness;/ All this I place,/ with God’s almighty help and grace,/ Between myself and the powers of darkness.”

I am sixteen again, shivering at the majesty and faith in those words.

Three Ways to Get More Poetry into Your Day

March 16, 2005 @ 1:37 pm | Filed under:

If you read this blog regularly, you probably know I’ve got a passion for poetry. Actually, I talk about it a lot less here than I could if I gave myself free rein. Maybe when I finish up this (overdue) novel I’m working on, I’ll loosen the reins for a while…we’ll see.

But for now, I’ll keep it brief. Three suggestions:

• Get a copy of Favorite Poems Old and New, edited by Helen Ferris. This excellent anthology is arranged thematically, so it’s easy to find a perfect poem to fit your day. There’s a happy mix of serious classics and whimsical children’s verse. My pal Sarah just scored a copy at our local library sale for $1.50—lucky woman! I keep our copy beside the kitchen table for our breakfast poetry readings.

• Look for books in the Poetry for Young People series. I mentioned the Emily Dickinson edition the other day. We have several of these lovely books, because Scott gives the kids one book for every holiday. This series has been a consistent hit. The William Butler Yeats edition is breathtaking. The volumes are picture-book-sized, with lovely art and brief, helpful glosses on the poems.

• Sign up to receive PoemHunter’s “Poem of the Day.” This free email service sends a poem to your mailbox every morning. In the past week I’ve enjoyed poems by James Whitcomb Riley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, my beloved Robert Burns, and—what lovely timing (see previous post)—Henry David Thoreau.

Jane’s addendum to my Henry Hikes post

March 15, 2005 @ 2:15 pm | Filed under: , ,

She was reading Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, which I posted about the other day, and pointed out several connections:

• Thoreau is mentioned in the novel The Fledgling, by Jane Langton, which I have not read but Jane loved.

• As I noted in my review last week, among the neighbors for whom Henry’s friend does odd jobs are Mr. Hawthorne, Mrs. Alcott, and Mr. Emerson. I knew Jane would recognize the name “Alcott”—Little Women and Little Men are two of her favorite books— after reading the author’s note in the back of Henry Hikes, which briefly mentions Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father) and his unique ideas about education, Jane said, “Well, that explains Eight Cousins, doesn’t it?” Indeed, the heroine of this Louisa May Alcott novel comes to live with an uncle who has unorthodox (for his time) notions about how young girls should be raised and educated. “Simple clothes, plenty of fresh air and exercise, few parties, no fripperies, and lots of oatmeal,” Jane summarized. (“What are fwippawies?” Beanie wanted to know.)

• I was surprised the kids recognized Nathaniel Hawthorne’s name, but I forgot that Jim Weiss retells Hawthorne’s short story, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” on his Spooky Classics for Children collection.

• And finally—one might say: last and most certainly least—Jane tells me that she knows about Emerson “because Nancy Drew’s boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, went to Emerson College.” All righty, then. Certainly wouldn’t want to omit that important piece of information.

She’s Back

March 14, 2005 @ 7:15 am | Filed under:

It must be spring: Crazy Mama Bluebird has returned. There’s a bluebird house under our back deck, and we’ve had a nesting pair every spring since we moved here three years ago. They’re an amusing couple; the hardworking papa busies himself down below the deck, inspecting his house, while his mate spends her days attacking her own reflection in our windows. She darts forward, delivering sharp raps to the glass, over and over, as fierce as any warrior sparrow-queen in a Redwall book.

We’ve tried all the tricks recommended on the birding sites, like pictures of owls taped to the glass. She just finds a new window. Last spring she targeted the high window in our entryway, the one we can only reach by ladder. In the early mornings, she’d wake us up with her frantic, insistent drumroll on the glass. Scott would stagger into the hall and hurl rolled-up socks at the window to scare her away. By late March, when she finally retired to the nest her patient spouse had carefully arranged to her satisfaction, there were five pairs of socks sitting on the inaccessible windowsill next to the paper airplane my father (aka “Funny Grandpa”) landed there during his last visit.

Now she’s back. She reminds the girls of Ginger Pye, the puppy in Eleanor Estes’s book of the same name. For a time, Ginger is terrorized by a strange dog who stares out at him from a large pier-glass mirror. Yesterday we were talking about this book, discussing the part when Ginger is missing and his young owners, Rachel and Jerry, are seeking the identity of an Unsavory Character who had been lurking about their house. Before long, the reader has a pretty good idea who the dognapper is, but Jerry and Rachel haven’t a clue. They’re stalking an imaginary suspect whom they’ve pictured right down to his sinister mustache, while all the time the (mustache-less) truth is right in front of them. The girls and I talked about how this is a good example of dramatic irony.

They want to know if there is dramatic irony in the antics of fierce Mama Bluebird, since we know something she doesn’t know. That led me to ponder what our house must look like through her eyes—this mammoth structure full of hostile rivals, all darting beaks and fluttering wings. How brave she is, and how persevering! Imagine preparing to raise a family under such conditions! It’s no wonder she seems a little crazed at times.

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Chain Chain Chain

March 13, 2005 @ 9:39 am | Filed under: , , ,

I love that we use the word “links” to describe internet sites cross-referenced on a web page. I wonder who coined the term. It’s a perfect metaphor for the interconnectedness of all knowledge. Each thing to know is a link in the chain; each link I click on binds a new idea to those I have already encountered.

I’ve always loved to play the game of conversational backtracking, where you try to retrace your steps to see how on earth you started out talking about, say, the Olympics and ten minutes later found yourself deep in a discussion about iodized salt. Sometimes, after a busy day with the kids, I try to make a list of the links we encountered in that day’s discovery chain. I can never remember all of them. And the chain isn’t a straight line; it sprawls out in a dozen directions—but all of them are linked.

Like yesterday’s breakfast conversation. It began with poetry, as breakfast usually does. This led to a rambling discussion which encompassed:

—Our favorite poets

—Emily Dickinson in particular (Jane’s favorite)

—Our favorite books about Emily Dickinson:

Poetry For Young People, edited by Frances Brolin
Emily by Michael Bedard, beautifully illustrated by Barbara Cooney
The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires—an absolute gem of a book!

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Illustrated Edition by T. S. Eliot (because Grandma J. gave it to Rose for Christmas along with The Mouse of Amherst, and therefore the two are forever linked in Beanie’s mind)

—Back to our favorite poets: Rose announces that hers is “the guy who wrote that poem about the fairy queen. Edmund somebody.”

Me: “Do you mean Spenser? The Faerie Queene?” (Knowing full well she has never read it and frankly surprised she’s even heard of it.)

Rose: “Yes, that’s the one. It’s in that ‘Green Grass’ book. It says Edmund Spenser wrote ‘Roses are red, violets are blue,’ and that’s my favorite poem.”

—Brief digression into the unsurpassable humor (by 6- and 9-year-old standards) to be found in the pages of And the Green Grass Grew All Around, a collection of folk songs and silly rhymes.

—Back to Faerie Queene—do we have it? Yes, parts, at least, in my old college Norton Anthology. We read a few stanzas describing Britomart, the heroine.

—This reminds Beanie of K-Mart. Possible side-discussion squelched by older sisters.

—Britomart is compared to Minerva. Who knows the Greek name for Minerva? Jane knows but graciously allows Rose to answer, in consideration of Rose’s current passion for Greek myths.

—Instead of answering, Rose re-asserts her claim on all things related to Ancient Greece.

—Cue argument: Jane wants to learn Greek, like Rose is doing. Rose doesn’t want her to–she likes being the only student of Ancient Greek in the house.

—This sparks a debate about whether it is whether it is possible to “own” a subject.

—Argument grows heated and (despite being quite an interesting idea to explore) is summarily quashed by mom. Back to Minerva, aka Athena. Now Rose wants to hear a story about Athena.

—Serendipitously, a used copy of Padraic Colum’s The Children’s Homer arrived in the mail yesterday. I pull it off the shelf and begin to read.

—When the name Helen is mentioned, Beanie interjects: Helen! My saint! No, dear, not that Helen. Not St. Helen of the Cross; Helen of Troy. Story is put on hold while Jane and Rose explain the Trojan War to Beanie. She asks for more cereal. Priorities. We return to Colum’s Homer and read the first two chapters of the Odyssey.

—Rose remembers we haven’t yet read a picture book she checked out of the library: Count Your Way Through Greece.

—Another book in the library basket catches Beanie’s eye: Candace Ransome’s When the Whippoorwill Calls, which was recently recommended by someone over at the Real Learning message boards. We read it. Lovely, lovely book. Takes place in the Blue Ridge mountains (huge gasps from both ends of the couch—those are OUR mountains!) during the time when the government was buying up land to form Shenandoah National Park.

—After the story, we look at a map of the Park online and discuss its proximity to our town.

—Then we listen to a whippoorwill song at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website.

And that brings us to about ten in the morning.

You Heard it There First

March 13, 2005 @ 7:59 am | Filed under:

I know I posted about Journey North just last week, but we’re having so much fun with it that it’s worth mentioning again. We signed up for email “migration updates,” and every day or so we get an exciting email about what’s been sighted where. This week, barn swallows arrived in Louisiana, while the monarch butterflies (who have not yet left their wintering grounds in Mexico) suffered an attack by gale-force winds that whipped them out of their sheltered resting-places in the trees.

“It was relatively easy for us pedestrians to pick our way amongst the fallen butterflies,” writes Dr. Bill Calvert from Mexico. “But the horse carrying passengers to and from the colony didn’t bother. Some butterflies were crushed. Those that weren’t were exposed to increased risk of predation at night by the black earned mouse, and increased possibility of freezing if cold weather impacted the area. But the majority of the colony had moved down into the shallow headwaters of the Zapatero Canyon where they were protected from the high velocity winds.”

Breaking news about butterflies—my kids are on the edge of their seats!

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Having a Ball

March 10, 2005 @ 3:07 pm | Filed under: ,

Rose’s handwriting improved dramatically this week, quite suddenly and to my surprise. I commented on a particularly lovely word, and she told me matter-of-factly that Jane’s “writing idea” had helped her.

“What’s Jane’s writing idea?” I asked. This was the first I’d heard about any such thing.

Jane looked up from her Mossflower dictation to chime in. Jane is awfully fond of chiming in, no matter what the subject.

“It’s the bouncing-ball technique,” she enthused. “I invented it.”

“Yes, and it really works!” said Rose.

“See, Mom,” Jane explained, “here’s how it works. You pretend the line you’re writing on is a sidewalk. The point of your pencil is a little bouncy ball. The ball drops to the sidewalk from different heights and bounces back up. Sometimes, like for g or y, it rolls into the gutter. For little a, it bounces up and then you push it straight back down, see?”

I did see, sort of. Rose saw it clearly—this bouncing ball thing made more sense to her than any guidance I’ve attempted to give. She’s a perfectionist and tends to get frustrated about every tiny flaw in her handwriting. Not today, though. She contentedly bounced that ball off the sidewalk and into the gutter through half a page’s worth of “Cute Sayings” for the collection she is compiling.

Lots of material for that collection around here.

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