Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Tonic of Wildness

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau observes that
"you only need sit still long enough
in some attractive spot in the woods
that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns."
In my experience, this can happen
even when one just goes out of doors.

This week my husband and I have sighted several wild animals
going about their day-to-day lives
as we have been going about ours.
That chance intersection between human and beast
always seems to me an exciting and noteworthy event.
Somehow, it makes the day special and reassures
that we are not apart from the natural world.
It provides the "tonic of wildness" as Thoreau once put it.
So here are a couple of our creature encounters this week:

One of our neighbors has a crab apple tree that is full of fruit.
The last time it bore fruit, raccoons made it a regular stop
on their nightly forages.
I know this because while walking my dogs one night,
a large raccoon and I startled one another.
Its eyes shone in the darkness for a brief second,
but long enough to render me
more or less rooted in one spot,
giving said raccoon time to run for the woods.

Now this week a gray squirrel visited the same tree
and carried off a plump golden crab apple in its mouth.
I'm not exaggerating when I say the apple
was larger than the squirrel's head,
but there was no way he would relinquish it.
I tried to get a photo, but the squirrel,
certain I was after his food and not his image,
ran partly up a tree and then down the other side
and confounded my efforts.

Here's a recent photo of a gray squirrel
who is preparing to jump from the railing:

Then another evening while we were in the yard,
 a small rabbit came into view in our woods.
I always like seeing rabbits here in the Shire.
They move so quickly and have the cutest white cotton tails.
But generally they are too fast for me to photograph.
Here's an image I was able to capture a few weeks ago:

Tomorrow, more animals who exhibited themselves "by turns."

Friday, June 29, 2012

Stars at Heart

 The fireflies twinkling among the leaves,
make the stars wonder.
                                --Rabindranath Tagore

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung coined the word "synchronicity"
to explain the phenomenon of events coinciding in time
even though they are not causally related.
It seems that I experience this kind of thing quite frequently.
For example, just recently, references to fireflies kept popping up.

The first occured the other night when my husband and I
went for another night-time walk
to the small neighborhood marina at the Elizabeth River.
There were lots of fireflies that night;
and we remarked on the intense flashing of their bright green lights
as they struck the darkness.

A day or so later, I came upon
a article "14 Fun Facts about Fireflies";
 the day after, the electricity went out at my house for several hours.
Hmm. Fireflies, facts about fireflies, and no lights--
it all seemed like synchronicity to me.

And I was even more certain that was so after I read Fun Fact #3:
"In some places, at some times, fireflies synchronize their flashing."
An interesting fact, especially since I never noticed fireflies
synchronizing their light displays
even though I've seen a lot of fireflies.
But indeed they do.
Here's a two-minute news video showing synchronous fireflies
in the Great Smoky Mountains:

Seeing all those people in the video
as they trooped into the woods to see
fireflies lighting the night reassures me
that people still have their priorities straight.
What is a more worthy use of time than enjoying nature?

One enjoyable activity of my childhood
was catching fireflies, or "lightening bugs" as we called them,
 with my brothers and sisters.
There seemed to be hundreds of bright fireflies back then.
I remember the firefly lights as being pink and blue and green.
That must have been imagination, as I can find no scientific evidence
that firefly lights blink any spectrum colors 
besides what the Smithsonian article noted as
"yellow, green, or orange."

I think ours here in the Shire are only green-lighted ones.
We probably see so many because fireflies are most prevalent 
near marshes on very warm nights.
Apparently woodlands and wetlands here in the Southeast,
as in the Great Smoky Mountains,
are favorable for firefly growth and mating. 
According to the web site,
firefly larvae grow in damp or muddy areas
and subsist on snails, grubs, and earthworms.
All conditions that we are rich in.
The larvae also glow like the adult fireflies do.
That's why fireflies are sometimes called glow worms.

Watching fireflies glowing as the day turns to night
 is a peaceful pursuit.
Here's a silent video showing fireflies in a Nebraska field at twilight:

It's hard to imagine, but not all fireflies light up.
From about the western part of Kansas to the west coast in the US,
fireflies have no light at all.
 I find that sad, for there is nothing more magical than seeing
hundreds of tiny firefly lights flickering off and on
in the darkness of a summer night.
 Title "Stars at Heart" is a line from the Robert Frost poem, "Fireflies in the Garden" 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Daisy Oracle

There is a flower within my heart,
planted one day by a glancing dart, planted by Daisy Bell.
Whether she loves me or loves me not, sometimes it's hard to tell,
and yet I'm longing to share the lot of beautiful Daisy Bell.

--opening lyrics to "Daisy Bell" by Harry Dacre, 1892
cited in American Popular Songs by David Ewen, 1966.

Harry Dacre wrote the song "Daisy Bell" as a British music hall song.
Music halls were much like American vaudevilles,
except they offered food and spirits to the patrons.

Dacre's song was immensely popular in the UK and in the US.
When I was a kid, this song was part of my family's musical repertoire,
although we called it "Daisy" and only sang its refrain:
Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do,
I'm half crazy, all for the love of you ...

It was a fun song to sing, but we didn't realize at the time
that our Daisy song also referenced
another youthful activity of longstanding:
plucking the petals from a daisy
and saying "loves me, loves me not."

It's amazing to me how this simple game
has endured through time.

Some accounts say this is a game of French origin, with the words:
il m'aime un peu, beaucoup, tendrement, constamment,
á la foliem, point du tout
In English: he loves me a little, a lot, tenderly, constantly,
madly, not at all.
(source: "effeuiller la marguerite" thread, 2007)
But there are as many variations for this in French
as there are for the "Daisy Bell" song verses.

Besides "Daisy Bell," the "decision of the flower" occurs in several works,
including Part 1 of Goethe's 1806 Faust
and Alexandre Dumas' 1842 play Halifax.
But the earliest reference to the "daisy oracle" is said to appear
in a 1471 songbook by the Bavarian scribe Clara Hätzlerin.
According to the book of the same name by Wolfgang Mieder,
in German the game is called "liebt mich, liebt mich nicht ..." 
(source:, as noted above)
so perhaps its appearance in the songbook
means it is German in origin.

Wherever the daisy oracle came from,
it's fascinating to know
that it has endured for more than 500 years.
Apparently, no one can resist an early summer day,
 a field full of daisies, and the wonder of it all.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Patience Muffet and the Spider

Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet, Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider, who sat down beside her,
and frightened Miss Muffet away.

In yesterday's blog, I wrote about some of the spiders we find outside here,
including cobweb weavers and orb web weavers.
But I wondered, what kind of spider plunked down on a straight-line web
and startled Little Miss Muffet?
And, for that matter, was there ever a real Miss Muffet?
And perhaps most vexing of all: what exactly is a tuffet?
Nursery rhymes are often centuries old,
so their origin is often lost, raising many questions.
But today I've got a few answers.

Let's start with Miss Muffet.
According to Gloria T. Delamar in her book
Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature,
some sources claim that the rhyme was written by Dr. Thomas Muffet,
a naturalist, physician, and entomologist who lived from 1553 to June 5, 1604.
This interpretation is based on the fact that 
Dr. Muffet studied silk worms and spiders,
and because he was instrumental in extending and editing
the medieval science book Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum,
or more simply Theatre of Insects (source:
And because he had a stepdaughter named Patience Muffet.
In conjunction, all of these facts were probably too tempting for theorists to ignore.

But Delamar points out that the earliest published version
of the nursery rhyme dates only to 1805,
making it less likely that Dr. Muffet was the author.
So the rhyme's authorship remains a mystery.

As for the type of spider,
it's inconclusive, since many use long web strands to move around.
The most likely candidate is a tiny black spider called a jumping spider.
And that's one I don't think I've ever seen here in the Shire.
 I also read that the long strands can move a small spider over a mile.
That seems an incredible distance,
so I'd want more verification that it's true.

But I can say with more assurance what a tuffet is.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary,
the word tuffet is a 14th-century Middle English word
derived from the French word touffe, meaning a thick tuft or clump of grass.
And we do have tuffets here.

And what about those curds and whey?
They are equivalent to today's cottage cheese.
The etymologies of the words are more interesting.
Curd appeared in Middle English literature in the 14th century as crud.
Through a linguistic process called metathesis, the r and u were reversed.
This kind of sound change is fairly common, having been the genesis
of our modern word "bird"--once "brid."

"Little Miss Muffet" is a fun rhyme, 
but I can't imagine any self-respecting spider
would have been interested in Patience Muffet or her curds and whey.
More than likely the little guy got caught by the breeze
or was making his way to  the tuffet to look for some insects to eat.

Instead of running away,
Miss Muffet should have looked the spidery interloper
straight in the eye and said these special words of warning
 from a rhyme by Eve Merriam:

Keep out of sight for fear that I might
glom you a gravely snave.
Don't show your face around  any place
or you'll get one flack snack in the bave.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Along Came a Spider

Arachnophobes may want to skip today's blog post.

Since our house is surrounded by trees,
we notice a lot of spider webs outside around the lights and windows.
Thankfully, most spiders around here are content to remain out of doors
and only occasionally come in the house looking for a meal.

For some time now, there has been a spidery enterprise unfolding outside
on a couple of our windows.
I usually go around with a mop and clean them all off,
but these have spun their webs on a window
that provides a perfect observation place,
 and I confess my curiosity has compelled me to leave them alone.
Here's one with a fly it caught for a snack:

I figured spiders must be good for something besides frightening or disgusting people,
and it turns out they are.  According to an aptly titled  article "All About Spiders"
by Dr. Linda S. Rayor,
an assistant professor of entomology at Cornell University,
(published on a Colorado State University web site), 
spiders are the good guys in the garden.

The spiders we have on the windows are apparently
called cobweb weavers. Trust me, they live up to their names.
And even though they may be worthy contributors to the balance of nature,
they are messy housemates, leaving their cobwebs filled with spent carcasses,
countless pine needles, and siftings of dirty tree debris. 
This morning I had an interesting encounter
with another type of spider we see here often.
This spider had spun a gossamer web
 from the top of our patio umbrella to the top of the table:

Based on Dr. Rayor's article and an accompanying photo,
I'm guessing this gentle spider is called an orb web weaver.
The curious thing was that every time I raised the camera to take its picture,
it seemed to interpret the camera as a threat and would move away.
Not ten minutes later I went outside and the spider
and its entire web had completely disappeared.
Dr. Rayor says that these webs are re-built daily,
so that probably explains why said spider packed it in and went home.

She also points out an interesting feature of these orb web weavers:
 if they are building a web during the day,
they will incorporate white decorations in it
to prevent birds from flying through.
Kind of like putting stickers on  glass patio doors.
Tomorrow, Patience Muffet and her infamous spider.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Flower Carpet

Every year for the past few years,
 I have bought an angel wing begonia.
I  find the name "angel wing" appealing,
as are the succulent green leaves,
and the fact that begonia flowers look delicate
 but are instead rugged survivors,
 unphased by relentless sun and drenching rains.

And that's why these West Indies natives are the flower of choice
for an annual phenomenon called the  Belgian flower carpet.
Thousands of begonias are carefully placed by volunteers
to create a massive living carpet for the public to enjoy.
According to the web site below,
 the first Belgian flower carpet was created in 1971
by landscape achitect E. Stautemans. It measured around 84 yards by 27 yards,
although a subsequent flower carpet in Ghent measured more than 178 yards long.

The  link below shows some incredible streaming photos
that detail the creation of the intricately designed flower carpets.
Go to the page  "Making a Carpet,"
but click on the tab  "The Floral Carpet"
 to view selected carpets from 1976 to 2010:

The Belgian flower carpet begonias come in many dazzling colors,
but choices for summer begonias here where I live
are limited to white or shades of pink, red, and sometimes coral.
Here are a couple more of mine:

Not enough to design a flower carpet,
but lovely nonetheless.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Little Matoaca

One of the things I like about living in the Shire
is our proximity to so much of early American history.
So it's not surprising that one of the first places my husband and I visited
when we moved to Virginia so long ago was Jamestown Colony.
The glass works was there back then,
but not nearly as many exhibits as today.

Over the decades, archaeological digs have yielded many artifacts
that have helped historians reconstruct the 1607 Virginia Company settlement,
first chartered by King James I in June of 1606.

The Preservation Virginia web site cited above
 has lots of interesting information about Jamestown.
Part of the history explains the colonists' reliance
on the assistance of "Wahunsenaca" (Chief Powhatan) 
and his "most deare and wel-beloved" daughter Pocahontas
who more than once intervened on their behalf.

Like most Americans, I was familiar with the name Pocahontas,
but little else about who she really was.
I hadn't even remembered (if I ever knew)
that she was part of the Jamestown story.
But I was reminded of her importance to not only the Tidewater area,
but also the establishment of the United States, 
when we toured St. Luke's Church in Isle of Wight County recently.
One of the stained glass windows was dedicated to her memory:

According to The Preservation Virginia web site,
Pocahontas was named Matoaca at birth,
but was later nicknamed Pocahontas,
which meant "Little Wanton" because she was so playful and full of fun.
Indeed, one 17th-century account describes her turning cartwheels
around the fort along with the young English boys in the colony.

Pocahontas took the name Rebecca after her conversion to Christianity.
And from her marriage to John Rolfe in 1614,
until her death in 1617 at 22 years of age in Gravesend, England,
she was also known as Rebecca Rolfe.

A year before her death,
John Smith wrote a letter in which he credited Pocahontas
with no less than saving the English colonists from
"death, famine, and utter confusion."
Not bad for a little girl turning cartwheels.


For more information about Pocahontas,
there is this National Park Service article:
the well-documented entry "Pocahontas" in

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Culture for Marigolds

When my brothers and sisters and I were kids, 
our mom sometimes let those who were interested
 pick out packets of flower seeds to plant in the spring.
I remember choosing marigolds
and planting them in a neat row in some dry and dusty ground
at the west end of our house.
My mom tried to prepare me for the eventuality
that they probably wouldn't grow there.
But I stubbornly insisted they would.
 And somehow they did. And they were beautiful.
Since then, I have always thought of  marigolds as old friends.

And I like all the different colors and types.
I love the little French marigolds, the plump African marigolds,
and the old-fashioned crimson and yellow ones. 
But I'm not the only one that finds marigolds special.

They are important flowers in several cultures.
In Mexico, marigolds, or cempasuchitl,
play an important part in the November celebration called
Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead,
a celebration similar in ways to our American Halloween.
Marigolds are used to create elaborate decorations on loved ones' graves
and adorn altars erected in their memory.
Marigold petals are scattered to guide the immortal spirits back home.
This is why in Mexico, marigolds are sometimes called
Flor de Muertos or flower of the dead.  

In India, marigolds, or in Hindi ghenda
are offered to the goddess of wealth and fortune, Lakshmi,
during the Festival of Diwali, the festival of lights.
An entry in explains that
garlands of marigolds are also important for the Nepalese festival called tihar.
According to the following website:
marigolds have an important mythology as a sacred flower in India
and other south Asian cultures.
One story says that after the god Gondmuli was slain,
his grieving wife dropped a hairpin which turned into a marigold.
Photos of the Hindi god Ganesh, who is said to remove impossible obstacles,
often depict the elephant-headed god being honored with red flowers or marigolds.

I never thought of marigolds as spiritual,
I just find that cultivating them gives me comfort and pleasure.
Last year I planted some that ended up looking quite cheery
on my kitchen window sill:

This month, I saw a veritable flood of them at a local store.
It's interesting that what is just a common annual in America
is in other cultures a sacred flower connecting heaven to earth.
It makes me wonder if that little packet of marigold seeds I picked out years ago
didn't actually pick me instead.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Hummingbird Vine

The hot days of summer awaken a ubiquitous and showy native plant of the Shire:
the trumpet creeper, campsis radicans.

According to Alice M. Coats
 in her book Garden Shrubs and their Histories,
cited in, campsis radicans was first discovered
by early Virginia colonists
who referred to the plant alternately as jasmine, honeysuckle, or bellflower.
And according to this web site by Fairfax County Public Schools,

the trumpet vine is also called "cow itch vine"
because the leaves can cause a rash similar to the dreaded poison ivy.

Today, this plant's polite name is hummingbird vine
because the long trumpet flowers attract ruby-throated hummingbirds.
But I usually call it trumpet vine.

The orange-red trumpet vine is seldom cultivated in home gardens;
it's most often found wrapping itself around utility poles
along hot, sun-baked roadways.
For that reason it's often considered a weed, a nuisance, or a sign of neglect.
But with nowhere to climb, it takes on a shrubby form
like this one at First Landing State Park on the beach side:

As shrub or vine, the plant provides cover for birds
like goldfinches or sparrows,
and nectar for hummingbirds and bees.
But cows and humans would best admire it, or condemn it, from afar.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Near Summer on Main

Mid-June in Tidewater is usually very hot and humid,
sometimes more like the dog days of summer
instead of the gently warming days of late spring.
But this year June has been very cool,
so even though we celebrated the Summer Solstice
last night in the seven o'clock hour,
our "near summer" walk down Main Street in Smithfield, Virginia a few days ago
was more like a pleasant day in spring.

A stroll down Main Street reveals a bit of the town's sense of style and sense of humor.
Besides colorful trims and other 19th-century details on many of the buildings,
like these unusual twin chimneys:

there is this hogly homage to the town's commercial  history:

Here's a porcine fellow with an artistic flair: 

And on his other side, a depiction of two bubble-gum pink pigs in debtor's stocks,
a nod to the town's colonial history:

Of course, besides little piggies,
cheery flowers of summer are there to greet shoppers, too:

 Whether on Smithfield's Main Street or some other sunny place,
summertime has officially arrived.
So "roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer" and let the fun begin!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Fooling the Eye

Yesterday we explored the interior of historic St. Luke's Church,
called the "Old Brick Church" its first couple of hundred years.
One of the features of the interior was this 17th-century chamber organ:

Krys Stefansky's 2008 article "Houses of Worship: Historic St. Luke's,"
cited in yesterday's blog, explains the painted scenes on the inside of the organ.
Stefansky describes the left door depiction as "Saul and David in the temple"

and the right door's image as being "Jepthath's daughter
welcoming him home from battle just before she is sacrificed."

The center image is a trompe l'oeil "fool the eye" painting of a grand hallway,
designed to obscure some of the organ's 150 pipes.
It does a great job because I never noticed the pipes,
just the painting's one-point perspective.

After our tour of the Old Brick Church,
we headed to Main Street in Smithfield, Virginia.
Main Street is lined with many boutique-type businesses
housed in old Victorian houses. 
Although we visited some of the shops,
 our primary destination was lunch at the historic Smithfield Inn.

The Smithfield Inn is a legend in this part of the world;
 it's been feeding and sheltering locals and travellers since 1759
when the 7-year-old house was converted to an inn and tavern.
And the Inn's web site confirms that George Washington really did sleep there--really.
Here's more about the history of the Inn:

We enjoyed our lunch in the "Garden," a sheltered terrace
between the Inn and an adjacent brick building.
I was completely charmed by the shutters and planters filled with flowers:

And then I was equally charmed by this:

And on closer inspection, it turned out to be another trompe l'oeil painting:

I thought that was quite a coincidence
since we had just seen the chamber organ at the church.
But then, walking back to our car after lunch, I saw this "window."
Seeing it from a distance, I was completely fooled.
 It really looked like a window until I got closer and realized what it was.

Sometimes being fooled can be a lot of fun.
Tomorrow, more fun on Main Street.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Inside the Old Brick Church

Yesterday I showed  the exterior of "Old Brick Church"
in Smithfield, Virginia. Today we will find out what the interior
of an early 17th-century Anglican church looked like.
Through its long history, the church has been used, abused
and at intervals abandoned to the ravages of time.
Some items in the interior are original,
like the sounding board over the pulpit and one of the balusters in the altar rail;
as I understand it, others are historical reproductions or period artifacts
which largely represent how the church would have looked in its time.
So let us enter...

First, we step inside the tower and to our right,
  the open window frames the trees.
It's easy to see the 3-foot thickness of the church's brick walls:

As noted yesterday, the entry to the church is in the tower.
The front door is a massive "wicket door," a small door within a large door.
According to Krys Stefansky in an October 2008 article entitled
"Houses of Worship: St. Luke's Church in Smithfield"
published in The Virginian-Pilot newspaper,
the Medieval wicket door required those who entered
to step up and over its threshold,
and its function was likely to keep the interior warmer and drier.
That, or by some accounts, its purpose could have been to ward off evil spirits.

In each corner of the door's frame are original wood and pegs from the early 1600s:

After passing through the massive door and entering the nave,
one can't help but look up.
The trussed ceiling is spectacular yet simple:
The stained glass windows, added during the late 1800s,
are a colorful, light-filled focal point;
but according to the St. Luke's entry,
the original glass in the windows would have been "diamond paned, leaded glass."

The wooden baptismal font is to the right as one enters the nave. 
It is from the period, but not original to the church.
I'd never seen one with a pulley to raise and lower the cover:

Tall candlesticks are affixed to every other pew:

On the right side of the center aisle is the raised pulpit.
This pulpit is not original, but as noted, the sounding board above it is.
The large support pillars are turned from tree trunks:

This is called a rood screen; it separates the congregation in the nave
from those in the chancel (the altar area behind the rood).
"Rood" means cross, and the screen was so called because traditionally,
a large cross would be affixed to it.

Some sources say the church's original 17th-century bible rests on the altar,
but I didn't see it when I was there.
According to the St. Luke's Restoration's brochure,
the altar and flanking minister's chairs are from the 17th century:

According to a written text from 1746, the "wives of justices and vestrymen"
were assigned one of the box pews in the chancel:

Since the church was also the meeting place
for the pre-Revolutionary General Court of the Colony,
high box pews were also reserved for the "Lord Governour" and "Captaine Generall."

 On the other side of the chancel is this early 17th-century English chamber organ,
described in the brochure as "the only surviving intact instrument of its kind":


Tomorrow, a closer look at the trompe l'oeil paintings inside the organ
and a stroll down Main Street in Smithfield
where a few more paintings managed to "fool the eye."

References and more information, including photos:

To donate to the Historic St. Luke's Restoration:

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Old Brick Church

This past weekend my husband and I toured
old St. Luke's Church in Smithfield, Virginia.
We have driven past it on our way to Smithfield over the years,
and I always wanted to know
what a church dating to the early 1630s looked like inside.
June 16th was Heritage Day,
so the church and grounds were open to the public,
and I got my chance to see it.

This church was built around 1632 (some argue 1680s)
  in Warrosquyoake Shire, renamed Isle of Wight County, Virginia in 1637.
"Warrosquyoake" is the name of the Algonquin tribe,
part of the Powhatan Indian Confederacy,
that occupied the area before European settlement (

The church and its centuries-old cemetery are situated on peaceful grounds,
shaded by many mature cedar, poplar, and black walnut trees.

A lot of the church's history is available here at 
the web site for Historic St. Luke's Restoration, Inc.:

There is also detailed information on
(search St. Luke's Church Smithfield).

According to the Restoration web site,
the "Old Brick Church" is the only surviving example
of original Gothic architecture in the United States.
I don't know a lot about Gothic architecture,
 but I do know it is characterized in part by interior rib-vaulted ceilings,
arched windows, and support buttresses
like the ones seen here on the exterior of the church:

 The main entrance to the church is a three-story tower.
I think I read that the third story was added much later.

At the very top is an unusual weathervane: 

A very curious  feature are the ovoid openings in the first floor walls of the tower.
We didn't get a chance to hear what they were for,
but judging from the cool air that flowed through them,
they make an effective breezeway.  

 The other end of the church is characterized by roof gables
and tiers of windows that form an elegant arch:

And what did we see inside after this wide door swung open?

Find out tomorrow when we explore the interior.