Thursday, July 26, 2007

Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar

I did a little research on the creature I met on my San Bruno Mountain fog walk. It turned out to be a Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar, the larva of the butterfly of the same name. Apparently the butterflies only lay their eggs on the pipevine, and the larva eat the leaves, which contain a toxin so the caterpillars are poisonous to birds and don't get eaten. The individual I met did seem remarkably focused on his or her journey. Perhaps he or she was looking for a place to pupate. The above photo of another Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar is from larvalbug eye, a free nature image source.

The California pipevine, Aristolochia californica, is native to San Francisco and the Bay Area. It has an odd-shaped flower, supposedly like a pipe. Maybe I'm a square, but I've never seen anyone smoke a pipe that looked like that. Now I have a mission: next time I go up to San Bruno Mountain, I'm looking for the California pipevine, and maybe I'll see one of those beautiful butterflies.

There are some gorgeous photos by Paul Furman, on, of Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies mating on San Bruno Mountain and of the weird flowering Aristolochia californica. I really really wanted to put his photos on my site (with a credit, of course), but I just couldn't do it. I've been struggling with the question of when I can use other people's photography on my blog, but in this case it just didn't seem right. So you'll have to visit over there to check the photos out.

P.S. August 25, 2007: I saw a Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly on San Bruno Mountain today! It was feeding on agapanthus, and shimmering blue when it turned my way.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Fog Walk

We've been under a heavy wet fog bank for about a week, now. This is the kind of low fog that just sits on the coast and comes in a ways through the Alemany Gap, a break in the coast range. We live in the Alemany Gap, or at least part way up one side of it. Normally this means that our neighborhood is like a tidal zone; it is always windy and the fog moves in and out several times on most days during the summer. Usually we get a break in the fog around midday for a couple of hours or even longer, and then fog wins out over the sun and we get covered over again. But we haven't seen the sun for the last week. Every morning our deck is covered in puddles, as if it rained. The soil under our eucalyptus tree looks like it rained, too. But because the moisure is from fog, it only rains under the trees, as the leaves collect the fog droplets that eventually turn into drops that fall to the ground.

It is hard for me to keep my spirits up in this kind of a fog. Around five o'clock, it looks like it's midnight above the Arctic Circle in summer time. The sky has a darkish glow, and I want to put on my car headlights. I feel myself starting to walk around with my shoulders hunched. I lose interest in doing anything in the garden. I wear my fleece pants and fleece sweatshirt and hat--inside. There's a heavy weight on my shoulders. Are there Dementors around? Maybe I need some chocolate, quick! I know I just have to drive 15 minutes over to the Mission and even if it's not sunny there it will be much lighter and brighter because the fog will be higher, but somehow that makes it even worse.

Yesterday I took a fog walk--since it's the only kind of walk I can take. I was up on San Bruno Mountain, where my son's trumpet teacher lives. His lesson is 45 minutes, and during it I like to walk around the gated community that clings to the side of this barren mountain. Since the mountain is part of the coast range, in the summer the fog piles up on the western side until it spills over the top onto the eastern side. I'll try to get a good photo of that--it's spectacular.

These photos are actually from a week ago, when it was foggy but not the wet heavy fog of this week. I had my camera with me yesterday, too, but everything looked different: gray and flat and dripping. I decided it wasn't a day for photos.

You can see Lake Merced and the ocean to the west. Yesterday all this was completely obscured by fog.

A thick layer of lichen on the western side of the tree.

Look who I met on my walk. This creature was really hurrying along with somewhere to go and took no notice of me. I see a lot of birds up on the mountain, especially raptors. I've seen kestrels, red-tailed hawks, and kites. Also snakes run over by cars.

Wow, a spot of color (bottlebrush flower).

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Goth Sunflowers

I was inspired by the photo of the goth sunflower in the post called "Sunflowers and Lilies" by Alkelda the Gleeful to post a photo of my own goth sunflower. Only, I hadn't thought of it as goth until I saw Alkelda's, which she called goth. I was thinking of mine as a a black velvet sunflower--or "Prado Red" sunflower, which I think is the actual variety. Thing is, I don't know for sure because it's a volunteer, but we did plant some Prado Reds a few years ago. Of all the sunflowers growing around my house this summer, this one I didn't plant is the tallest and first to bloom. Is Mother Nature trying to tell me something? I love the color and, yes, the gothness of it. So I plan to collect and save the seeds and plant some next year.

On a technical note: I figured out how to make that link to Alkelda's site within my posting! This was new to me, and not so obvious since my browser does not support the Post Editor buttons so I had to do it manually.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Last of Harry Potter

I just finished reading "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." Sigh. It was satisfying. Now my son can take it to camp tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Changing the Earth

“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.” –from "Hamlet," William Shakespeare
Is it any wonder that we feel squeamish about worms? Amy Stewart uses this quote in her book "The Earth Moved" to illustrate our association of earthworms with death and decay, but also the transformative power of earthworms. Through the action of earthworms, "...a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar," as Hamlet says. Earthworms are great levelers; we all become food for them no matter who we are.

I like to think of Stewart's book as reconditioning our thoughts about earthworms--like my uttering "Nice worm!" when I see a particularly long one in my garden. Here's another passage by Stewart that I like; it makes me imagine that writing a blog is a little like the action of earthworms:
"Worms are ruminators; they sift through whatever surrounds them, turn it over, explore it, move through it. They are deliberate creatures, in no great hurry, but always in motion, twisting and burrowing, shrinking and contracting, and eating. They spend their lives in a kind of active mediation, working through the detritus in which they live, the bits of leaves and grass and particles of soil. For a being with such a simple brain, a worm seems, in this way, almost thoughtful."

If earthworms can change the earth through consuming what's around them, maybe all the thousands (millions) of blogs digesting our world can do the same. Each blog is like one earthworm's casting (I guess that would make me an earthworm). And blogs are levelers, too; it doesn't take much to create one. Taken all together the blogs enrich and nourish our intellectual life and create a fertile ground in which people can connect and ideas can flourish. Have I beaten this metaphor into the ground?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Earthworm Revelations

"It is both fascinating and a little disturbing to pull something out of the ground and stare at it, something that does not belong up here with the rest of us." --Amy Stewart, "The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms"

I found out a lot about the earthworms in my garden after reading Amy Stewart's book. For one thing, my worms were not bathing in the moonlight when I observed them half out of the ground. They were most likely foraging and dragging organic materials into their burrows. That's assuming the worms I saw in my garden at night were the same earthworms Charles Darwin studied, Lumbricus terrestris (nightcrawler), which do leave their burrows at night (other worms don't seem to feel the desire to wander about on the surface).

One thing Darwin discovered in his study of worms was that earthworms have enough intelligence to determine which end of a dead leaf will fit most easily into its burrow. Before him, no one had really observed the activities of earthworms. But Darwin did more than observe: he conducted experiments with little triangles of paper to see which end--the narrow end or the wide end--the earthworms would grab. Out of 303 little paper trianges, according to Stewart, the earthworms grabbed the narrower end 62 percent of the time. Darwin concluded: "We may therefore infer--improbable as is the inference--that worms are able by some means to judge which is the best end by which to draw triangles of paper into their burrows." Oh, and although they are sensitive to light, earthworms are blind. So how do they do that?

I have seen a few really large nightcrawlers--like 8-10 inches--in our garden before, but the ones I have seen most recently are shorter. Those long ones make me shudder, only right afterward I say "Nice worm!" to recondition myself. I know worms are good for the soil, at least soil that I want to grow things in, but those really long ones are, well, disturbing. When I'm digging to plant things, I see other worms: smaller, thinner, pinkish or even grayish. They could be Lumbricus rubellus (redworm) or Aporrectodea turgida or Aporrectodea tuberculata or Allolobophora caliginosa (gray worm or field worm), names almost as long as the worms themselves. These are all common garden worms, non-native to the U.S. and spread by European settlers. There are a few native California worms but they do not live where the soil has been disturbed by humans, unlike the non-native species.

I would like to know just what is on the end of my trowel, but it's surprisingly hard to find out. So far I can't find anything online that lists which worm species are common to San Francisco, or even the Bay Area, specifically. There is Worm Watch, a Canadian site with a detailed field guide for identifying one's own worms (and reporting one's findings to the Canadian government in the interest of monitoring the distribution of worm species), so if we have some of the same species, I suppose I could try identifying them myself. I called the SF Garden for the Environment, and the staff person knew what species of worms were in the worm composting bins, but not the ones living in the soil. She said if I find out, please call her back to let her know.

The photo is from, species not identified.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Butter Pecan and Cream

No, this is not about a recipe. These are colors I am thinking of painting our bedroom. (FYI, Cream is the yellowish one on the lower left, and Butter Pecan is the lighter one in the upper left corner.)

I have become submerged in house paint. I have entered the House of Color (also known as the Benjamin Moore store on 24th Street) and have not yet emerged. Now I understand all those long boring conversations I had with my friends when they were painting their houses. I can see how painting one's house could become an obsession. I feel pretty certain, though, that once I figure out which of the 42 off-whites Benjamin Moore offers is the right one for my living and dining rooms, I will be able to lay this particular obsession aside.

At least I've ruled out colors other than white. Maybe in another life, or another house, I will paint my dining room Cinco de Mayo red and dance to "La Cucaracha" on the table. But for this house, and this incarnation, it needs to be white, or possibly yellow. I've also ruled out the other paint companies, mostly because B-M offers nifty little 2-ounce paint samples to try out the colors at home. Based on the collection of samples I've amassed, however, I figure I've already invested more than $50 in them. (Why stop at Whisper Violet when I can have Northern Cascades, too?) That doesn't include the quarts I had to buy of the paint they don't offer in 2-ounce samples. I have thriftily returned several samples that I never opened, the ones I got home and wondered why I bought, such as Lighthouse. Perhaps with that one it was the literary association, since I kept thinking it was To The Lighthouse. The problem now is that I've made such a nuisance of myself at the House of Color going back and forth with my tiny samples that I'm sure I caught Jose rolling his eyes when I went in the doors the last time. I actually went to a different B-M store yesterday, just so I wouldn't feel inhibited while I perused the samples.

I don't recommend consulting the B-M website, a many-colored hall of mirrors that I became trapped in briefly. Want to go on "an exciting journey of self-discovery?" Try the Color Scheme interface! (Or don't--you can discover more about yourself riding the bus.) I found myself clicking on photos of rooms and coloring them in fascinating combinations, until I realized twenty minutes later that none of the colors really look like that because they are composed of pixels of light on a computer screen and not pigment.

We have somewhat of a deadline for choosing the colors, since Grigor the Bulgarian Painter (see Still Life With Lemons) is coming with his crew to start painting a week from tomorrow. When he came to give us our estimate, I had painted my samples onto 2-foot squares of foam core so I could move them around the house. He asked, "Why don't you just paint it right on the walls?" I didn't have an answer for that. The foam core seemed like a smart idea when I did it. You'd think since he also paints paintings (as in art) he would be eager to consult with his clients on color choices. But when we were trying to decide the color of the exterior of our house--which he ended up painting Hacienda Clay--he wisely refrained from expressing any preferences. A woman's house is her hacienda, right?

When I started with the samples for the interior, I was prepared for problems in the area of The Husband. When I explained to him my concept for our living room, a Sheraton Beige with some kind of ivory trim, he was skeptical, so I decided not to spring Wheatfield on him for the bedroom just yet. But when I painted Indian White (my second choice) and Linen White (his first choice) directly onto the walls, we saw that there wasn't a huge difference between them. It seemed like we could find something in the middle. But that's when it got tricky. When paint goes on a wall, it looks a lot different than on the color chip. The surface is different, the color of the surrounding paint is different (in our case, greyish, flaking plaster is the surrounding color). So holding different paint chips up to the painted patches only made me more confused. Was Capri Coast really that much different than Pompeii (I will go to either place right now--Benjamin Moore, take me away!). And which one was going to be lighter than Indian White but darker than Linen White? He dug in his heels on the Linen White, so I countered with Cream for the bedroom. We had a tentative deal, but the next obstacle was the color for the coved ceiling (typical 1920s California bungalow). We had to go lighter than Linen White for that: Decorator White? Atrium White? Super White? Before I knew it, he was on the B-M website and telling me I should check out Montgomery White and Concord Ivory.

I'm still not sure about the Linen White. My instinct is to go a little darker on the walls--say, Antique White or Navajo White--with Linen White for the ceiling. Looks like I have at least one more trip to the B-M store before next week.