As a kid growing up in Arizona, I never really got the whole groundhog predicting the weather thing because we didn’t have groundhogs and by the beginning of February we were well into spring, long past the need for a coat. Stats show that this is a poor way to predict weather and the groundhog is right about half the time. So what’s up with this rodent-weather-prognostication apart from a way to bring tourists to a small Pennsylvania town in the dead of winter?
The tradition of forecasting the length of winter through a hibernating mammal catching a glimpse of its shadow may have come from a German tradition where a bear plays the starring role. Turns out it’s really about the date (February 2nd) and darkness or light; the mammal is local tradition. It is no coincidence that the shadow is a central part of the ritual. In the natural world, only the sun and moon make light and cast a shadow. The first few days of February mark the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.
This is an important date for humans. No matter how dark and cold the weather, from here on out the light will get stronger. This is a time to celebrate the promise of Persephone’s return and the triumph of light over darkness once again. It makes sense that many cultures celebrate their New Year around this time. There are a number of pagan festivals that happen in the first few days of February that celebrate light, agriculture and rebirth.
The groundhog or woodchuck is a most fitting symbol for this resurrection day and much easier to handle than a bear. The marmot is our West Coast relative and shares similar habits and habitats as it’s eastern cousin. It is the largest of the squirrel family. It is the size of a large house cat (about 15 pounds) and spends most of it’s life underground in carefully constructed and brilliantly designed borrows. During the seven to eight months of hibernation, a marmot doesn’t sleep but rather lowers its metabolism so that it is just living. It breaths once every minute or so, its heartbeat slows and its body temperature holds at 40 degrees F, in a near-death state. For this reason, the marmot is associated with shamanic trance states and the mystery of death without dying. It is a cute, furry symbol for rebirth and resurrection.
Sometimes the endless, dark grey days of winter can feel like a near-death state. This year, consider Groundhog Day as the herald of spring, the start of a new year and your own rebirth. Celebrate the fading darkness and the triumph of the light. Shine on!
I love to make pie or wrap some savory mouthful in flaky pastry dough and bake it until golden brown. So delicious. The thing is, mosttimes the thought of trying to get six to seven tablespoons of water to incorporate with two cups of flour without overworking the dough causes me to choose other options for dinner. Then I learned the trick of making pie pastry dough in my food processor – so easy, you’ll want to make two batches at a time. Let’s make some pie dough.
Here’s what you’ll need:
2 cups flour (I use organic unbleached all-purpose white flour from Bob’s Red Mill)
½ teaspoon sea salt
12 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter
6 - 7 Tablespoons ice water
Here’s what to do:
Put 4 ice cubes in 3/4 cups of water, set aside. Put flour and sea salt in the large bowl of your food processor. Pulse 2 or 3 times to incorporate. Cut cold butter into half-inch cubes. Add half of butter to food processor. Pulse 4 times then add the rest of the butter. Pulse 4 to 6 times until butter is the size of little green peas. Put 6 or 7 tablespoons of ice water in a measure cup. Quickly pour ice water into food processor, pulsing as you pour. Continue to pulse until dough starts to come together. Dump dough out on counter, divide in half and make two balls. Put dough balls in a plastic bag and chill for a half hour then roll out. Dough will keep in the fridge for about 5 days, just let it warm up for about an hour before rolling out.
My 3rd graders are studying the Monkey Puzzle tree on campus. I have noticed these unusual trees around the Puget Sound for years but never knew anything about them. More than just a botanical oddity, these trees are really cool and worth considering if you live in the Maritime Northwest.
The botanical name is Araucaria araucana, they are also called Chilean Pine or Monkey Tail Tree. It is an evergreen conifer that grows in part shade to full sun and in a variety of soils as long as there is good drainage. It grows in locations with abundant rainfall and a mild climate. It is extremely tolerant of salt-laden maritime winds and is hardy down to -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Monkey Puzzle grows natively at elevations above 3,300 feet in the foothills of the Andes in Chile and Argentina. It also thrives in the British Isles, the Maritime Northwest and New Zealand.
Monkey Puzzle got its common name in 1834. The story has it that a proud owner of a young tree was showing it off to a group when one of the visitors remarked that “it would puzzle a monkey to climb that.” The name Monkey Puzzle stuck.
They grow from seeds and are very slow growing. It takes 1 to 2 months for a seed to germinate and it can take up to 30 or 40 years to produce seeds. Monkey Puzzle can grow to be over 100 feet tall and 50 feet across. The trunk can be 3 to 5 feet in diameter. They can live for over 1000 years. Fossils have been found dating back to the time of the dinosaurs.
Monkey Puzzle seeds are edible. The female cones produce many large delicious seeds. Seeds are a staple crop for many indigenous people where it grows natively. Mature trees are highly productive and it is said that 18 female trees could sustain one adult year-round.
Monkey Puzzle are not self-fertile. Flowers are either male or female but only one sex is found on any one plant. It is fertilized by wind. One male plant can fertilize 4 to 6 female trees. They make cones in late fall. Male cones are oblong and shaped like cucumbers. They are 3 to 5 inches long and 2 inches across. Female cones are large and globelike. They can be 5 to 8 inches in diameter. Female cones contain up to 300 seeds and take 1 ½ to 2 years to ripen. Cones are ripe December through January. When mature, cones disintegrate and fall to the ground for easy harvesting.
Araucaria araucana is listed as an endangered species. It is threatened due to logging, overgrazing and massive forest fires in 2001 and 2002 that destroyed thousands of acres of Monkey Puzzle forest. My students and are I actively collecting seeds to eat and grow. With any luck we’ll have some for our May Plant Sale.
Little Flea Don’t Hop On Me!
Our flea problem reared its ugly head twice this fall with the appearance of little white, rice-like pellets popping out of our cat Luke’s butt. Tapeworms again, yuck! Sure, we can poison them and him thereby ridding ourselves of this icky nuisance but we aren’t addressing the real problem – fleas. This tapeworm (which really only infects cats) is transmitted via ingestion of fleas. Luke apparently finds eating fleas a way to rid himself of the itchy pest. More poison applied to the back of Luke’s neck only poisons him and breeds more resilient fleas. We need to reduce our flea population.
To defeat this little jumping pest, I must learn how to outwit it. The flea we are dealing with is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis). The cat flea has a typical insect lifecycle – egg, larva, pupa, adult. Adults suck blood from animal hosts, poop and lay eggs on their hosts. These eggs roll off the host animal anywhere the host lays down. Larvae hatch from eggs and feed on the feces of adult fleas. Feces are little bitty black grains peppered around where your cat sleeps. Larvae pupate in place. Pupa or cocoons are hidden beneath debris or blow with dust bunnies to the edges of the room. Adult fleas emerge from the cocoons and continue the cycle.
Important things to know about flea cocoons. They can be viable for a really long time – like months or years. They are stimulated by vibrations to break open and release adults. Think about it this way, the cocoons are waiting for food to be available; vibrations made by the movement of an animal mean it’s go time. That is why the flea infestation was so sudden in the book Angel’s Ashes.
To outwit the fleas, we need to vacuum frequently, groom our cat with a flea comb daily, wash animal bedding frequently and treat areas with desiccating dusts. Vacuuming is the key. Not only does it suck up eggs, poop, cocoons and some adults, it causes a vibration that excites the cocoons to break open. Close up or freeze vacuum bag to prevent escapees. Flea combs help remove adults, eggs, poop and cocoons from your cat. Dunk the combed-out hair in water with detergent. Launder and change animal bedding each week. Use smooth, soft cloth that is easy to clean and avoid fleece or wood chips that can help camouflage cocoons. Diatomaceous earth is effective at slicing open fleas and drying them out. Just sprinkle it on bedding, furniture and along room edges then vacuum up after 30 minutes. Be sure to use only food grade diatomaceous earth and avoid getting dust in the lungs.
Knowledge is power, now we just have to keep at it. Hop on!