Saturday, September 10, 2011

Summer Garden

It's been hard to maintain a garden, this summer. Back in June there was a yellowjacket nest near the woods, and there were scouts patrolling my garden; every time I pulled a weed they would come to see what had changed and who had changed it and why. Some deer decimated everything that wasn't a weed, and the few things they missed, they stepped on. Here are some pictures of what managed to straggle through.I grew this 'Mr. Majestic' marigold from seed. It's the sole plant that survived; squirrels dug up the other seeds and ate them. I love the striped petals. At least deer don't eat marigolds-- yet.I have two rose-of-sharon bushes-- this light pink one, and another with a lilac-bluish tinge to the blossoms. The deer chewed the buds off the second one, though. Rose-of-sharon likes to grow at the corners of the house where the downspout is, so that it gets lots of water. It's the national flower of Korea, and reminds me of some folks I'm fond of and haven't seen in a while. The deer didn't eat my monarda, either. This specimen came from a plant sale at a local botanical gardens a few summers ago. I forgot to stake it, so it flopped everywhere. I love the way it looks like fireworks. Hummingbirds like these, but I didn't see any this year.The feverfew finished blooming by mid-July. It's a biennial; I got two little plants many years back when I was first diagnosed with migraines, and now they've taken over my garden and come back every year. They're pretty, with leaves that smell muskier than chrysanthemums', and dainty flowers a little larger than baby's-breath but with a similar effect. Sometimes I make a tea of the leaves, but prefer to mix it in with another type; it tastes rather unpleasant. There are times when I have felt that it slightly dulled my headaches, but I'm not sure if it's that or the fact that drinking tea is therapeutic for me.The liatris bloomed earlier in the summer, too. Goldfinches like the seeds; I've often seen them perched on the blooms and pulling them apart to see if they're ready yet. I have five or six of these, nice big clumps that I grew from corms. The flowertops are over waist high. One year a pest control man decided to put a termite trap right on top of one of them. I guess he thought it looked like a perfect place. I was greatly displeased.These black-eyed susans are descendents of a plant that my auntie got for me at the farmers' market in Tonawanda a few years ago. Its leaves and stems are fuzzy, and the flowers are big and soft-looking with rounded cones. This year the flowers have been rather stunted due to being constantly chewed off and trying to grow off the sides of the stalk in a desperate attempt to survive. The flower on the left is what it originally produced.The fuzzy black-eyed susan reseeded itself and grew some non-reddish ones, too. The flower variation in its offspring is interesting. Here are two of the results. I also have some black-eyed susans which a neighbor gave me several years ago. They have narrower petals and leaves, flat "buttons," and are not fuzzy. Next year I'll be giving away a lot of fuzzy and non-fuzzy black-eyed susans to happy homes, since there are too many here and they're choking each other out.These are my leucanthemum daisies. A neighbor gave me three spindly, half-dead specimens and insisted that they would grow-- and grow they did. I just gave away several bags this year, and can't even see where I took them out.My phlox barely had a chance to bloom before being eaten. Now there is literally one floweret sticking off the top of a stalk, but since that picture was too depressing to post, here are the original plants that mine were divided from, in my Nagypapa's garden. Hummingbirds love these-- it's so cute to see them checking each tiny floweret on a whole florescence. Actually, if you look really closely, you can see a sphinx moth somewhere towards the left half of the picture. They look like overweight hummingbirds with antennae, and are hard to get used to.My dahlias are still trying to bloom. I didn't stake them, either, and then couldn't find them in the tangle until they resurfaced. These white-tipped burgundy ones are some of my favorites.I wanted to take pictures of some young skinks with turquoise tails, but couldn't find any. Here's a spiderweb, instead. The spider has a curled leaf near one side of the web where it sits to keep out of the sun and rain. It chose not to be in the picture. I know how it feels.

I'll have one more post for fall flowers in the next month or so, and that's pretty much it for this year's garden. Right now there are more horse nettles and microstegia than anything else. I think next year I'm going to downsize slightly and give away bunches of things, so that the remainder can have room to grow again. There are also some fascinating mushrooms coming up with all the rain we've had here-- stay tuned for more in the next few weeks. ^_^

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How to Construct a Personal Dress Form

I've wanted a dress form in my own size for a long time. Not only would it make fitting a lot easier, I would be able to post pictures of my outfits on this blog. See, I'm violently non-photogenic-- not so much as in looking particularly bad in photographs as simply hating having my picture taken. I also don't model clothes well in pictures, and would rather not stand around for photo shoots, to say nothing of finding a photographer. In addition, I have quite a few skirts and things that I'm going to attempt to sell online, and clothes on models tend to sell much better.

Professional adjustable dress forms cost a lot more than miserly me is willing to shell out, and I've read that many will only be an approximate fit because while it might get the basic proportion of hip-waist-bust, it can't simulate the exact shape of an individual's torso (for example, very narrow or broad shoulders). Even more expensive ones can be custom-made, but if I were ever to gain or lose a significant amount of weight, I might very likely never fit that size (or shape) again.

I read a few articles about how to make dress forms out of duct tape. This involved having someone mummify your entire torso in several layers of duct tape. Comments from some of these people indicated varying levels of success mingled with reports of overheating and panic attacks because of the restrictive procedure. Many said that the resulting form would not hold its shape and needed to be stuffed with insulation foam. The forms also commonly came out a size or so larger because of all the layers. I have asthma to begin with, so this didn't seem like the best way to spend an average of three hours. Other equally uncomfortable-sounding methods involved paper tape, papier-mache, plaster bandages, and other things that you'd have to be cut out of with a buzz-saw.

Later, I came across an article on how to make decorative dress forms out of rusty chicken wire and got the idea to make one in my size, by the same general principle.

Here's how I did it, for around ten dollars and a little over an hour.

All you need is about six feet of about two-foot-wide chicken wire, duct tape, and wire cutters or tin-snips, and someone who can spare five minutes. Mesh could work instead of chicken wire; the point is that the wire has to be stiff enough to hold its shape but pliable enough to bend with the fingers. Here are some diagrams, since photographs might not be as clear.First, I measured from the top of my shoulders to my knees in front and back, taking all curves into account, and cut a piece of chicken wire of that length. It ended up being a little longer than I am tall. I covered the ends temporarily with a strip of duct tape to keep from scratching myself. Then I clipped a hole in the middle big enough for my head to pass easily through and taped the edges of it, too.Next, I slipped it over my head so that it hung down in front and back like a poncho. My particular roll of wire was two feet wide, so it extended several inches past both shoulders. It's advisable to wear very thin clothing for this, and nothing that would bunch up around the waist.With the chicken wire rolled tightly around me and fastened with a couple spare bits of wire at the sides, it was easy to cinch the front to fit my shape. I found that scrunching the wire a little smaller than I was made it sit at just the right shape when released. My brother shaped the back and shoulders. This whole process took less than ten minutes. It is perfectly comfortable, since the wire isn't tight enough to inhibit breathing, and the entire thing can be taken off and finished later without losing what you'd begun. You also get to experience what it's like to be a tomato plant.
All right, now for photographs.After unfastening the side wires, I took off the form and put it together again, making sure that it fit my measurements. At this point the shape should definitely look familiar, but unless you're accustomed to seeing yourself in a wetsuit or leotard in a three-way mirror, it might seem odd in places. If it's fitting your measurements, resist the urge to make it "look right." Since I cut the initial hole for my head a little large, I used a smaller piece of chicken wire to reshape the shoulders. I used empty duct tape rolls to make a neck.I covered the form in a single layer of duct tape to keep the wires from poking out, and to keep it from losing its shape outward. I might also sew a stretchy velour cover for it, just to give it a nice finish. Here's the just-about-finished product modeling the clothes I'm going to wear to work tomorrow (from Goodwill, of course). That's the sweater rumpling up on the side, not the dress form. I need to find some tape to finish covering up the rest of it, and also adjust the slope of the shoulders (right now they're unnaturally square).There are only two drawbacks about this model that I can see. Firstly, it can't be pushed hard against; it can support a good weight, but has the potential to collapse if squeezed or punched in frustration(I also wouldn't leave anything very heavy on it, like a ballgown or winter coat which could gradually press the wire out of shape, for long periods of time). Stuffing it with newspaper or insulation foam might reduce the chances of being crushed. Secondly, it can't be pinned to as a model with a layer of cloth or foam could. I guess if I sew a covering for it, I could conceivably pin things to it.

And there you have it-- an affordable dress form which can be made in any size and shape imaginable.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hungarian Cold Cherry Soup

Here is one of my favorite things to eat. It's a cold Hungarian summer soup, and is not difficult to make. The hardest part is finding cherries.The recipe calls for two pounds of cherries. It can be just a little more or a little less; generally one bag from the grocery store is enough for this.I like to pit the cherries. That's not actually required; the soup can be made with whole cherries, which leaves a little more flavor inside of the cherries rather than in the entire soup-- but then you have to eat it very cautiously, which isn't so nice. Incidentally, cherry pits have cyanide in them. So do apple seeds. So do millipedes. (One or two won't kill you, and it won't leach out into the soup. Cherry pits, that is.)Dump the cherries into a pot and add a slice of lemon (or a couple teaspoons of lemon juice) and two tablespoons of sugar. Simmer it for ten minutes or until the cherries are softened. Don't let it boil, and don't cook the cherries down-- that's too far.In a separate bowl, mix together two teaspoons of cornstarch and three tablespoons of sour cream. Make sure it's nice and smooth, with no starchy lumps. This is a thickener for the soup, but certainly not enough to make it taste like sour cream or anything like that. Take the pot off the burner and stir in the sour cream mixture. Don't worry if it looks all nasty like this.Put the pot back on low heat and stir it until the spots dissolve and it's a nice even pink color. Don't let it boil. The consistency will thicken ever so slightly, but this isn't going to be noticeable until you eat it, so don't worry if nothing seems to happen. After it's done, put it in the refrigerator to cool. This is a cold soup. It wouldn't taste so nice, hot.This soup is served with whipped cream. The soup itself isn't very sweet except for the flavor of the cherries, which means it's delicious, because who needs tons of sugar, anyway? It's such a lovely mauve color. Also, this picture doesn't fully capture how pretty it actually looks.

In Hungarian, this soup can be called cseresznyeleves (cheh-rehs-nyeh leh-vesh), or meggyleves (medy' leh-vesh) if sour cherries are used. Cold apple soup is good, too, and is made along the same general principle, but I'll write a post about that one, later. Enjoy!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hat Alteration and Re-Trimming

Last week at a thrift store, I found a perfectly miserable hat.It is made of a sort of stiff netting, with concentric rings of a straw-like material. The brim is bent out of shape, the crown has a dent, and it is surmounted by a fluffy pink feather boa. Once upon a time, it must've looked somewhat nice, though the feathers seem a little... much.Here's the hat sans feather boa.

Fortunately, I had a stiff wire hoop leftover from my lampshade hat (which is currently stalled in production while I think about how to finish it). It's just the right size to fit within the brim, and hold it straight. I had to paint it first, though; why is it that paint sticks with indelible cheerfulness to everything I don't want it to, and peels off everything else? I ended up having to cover it with masking tape and repaint it. Hopefully it won't be terribly visible. I also reshaped the crown with part of a frosted flakes box and duct tape, and covered it with some black crushed velour salvaged from an old dress.

The trim was a puzzlement. I decided to see what I could do with some of my leftovers, instead of spending on more things. A satiny ribbon from another old dress looked sharp when wound twice around the crown, and I looped and lumped some wired gauzy ribbon into pretty much the only bow I know how to make. The center of the bow needed to be covered up, but I didn't have any big decorative brooches that would match-- so I made a sort of flower by rolling and gathering strips of velour to match the rest of the crown.That's the front view. It's very light to wear, but it obviously fails to keep the sun off the wearer's face. Oh well.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Dewdrops on Roses

Now that school's out, I've been gardening early in the morning before the heat is too great for me (>79°F). In a few weeks, that time will probably change. I love being up early, as long as I don't have to talk.This is a miniature rose that I've had in my garden for a few years, with genuine dewdrops on it. I don't think there are too many things that feel cleaner than dew from roses. The blossom is only a little bigger than the circle I can make with thumb and forefinger, so it's not large. It has a very slight fragrance. The flowers are rather indecisive; last year they were more apricot colored, and this year it's pale pink. This is not the original shape the flowers were.Here is a different flower from the same little bush, with a statue of the Blessed Virgin in the background which was a present from my family for a certain recent academic accomplishment. This is the shape the flowers used to be-- see, it's more typical miniature-rose-shaped. The entire bush is a little less than knee-high. It blooms now, and again in October.This is a rambler rose that went wild. It would be covered in little clumps of these peppery-smelling blossoms, but the deer keep chewing most of them off.
My oriental lilies are blooming, too. I used to have them all in one clump, but then a deer beheaded them all in one fell swoop. Last year, I planted them all over the place as a defensive measure. So far, nothing has chewed them. They're so bright it almost hurts to look at them.Look at this! I always wondered how columbines got their names; I couldn't see anything birdlike about them. After some research, I found I just had to change my perspective a little. Here's a top view. Can you see three doves clustered together?The rose campion has been blooming for a couple weeks. I grew it from some seeds that friends gave me. The foliage is silvery grey-green and almost as soft as lamb's-ear, and the flowers are such a vibrant magenta that my camera can't seem to capture it. The seeds look like poppy seeds except more porous, and the pods are an interesting shape.The denizens of the garden are fun to observe. There are about a dozen five-lined skinks (Eumeces fasciatus) that skitter around hunting slugs and grubs and other nuisances. Males are taupe with a red head and faint stripes, females are black with yellow stripes, and juveniles of both sexes are black with yellow stripes and a brilliant blue tail. Here's a male sitting on the deck. He's at least eight inches long, which is apparently about as long as they get. I would love to play with them, but they're fragile little things, and they can drop their tails if they feel threatened-- so I just look at them, instead. Look at his handsome little red face.

One thing I have observed about skinks is that they often flick their "hands" against their flanks. I don't know why, or what this means, and I must find out. My only guess is that it has to do with their circulation-- but I have some more research to do. That's actually what he's doing, in that picture.
Here is a peculiar insect which was standing on a campion bud. It has lovely golden eyes and two stripedy antennae much longer than its body. I'm not sure what it might be-- it sort of reminds me of a katydid, but it's wingless, and rather the wrong shape.

I'll have more pictures, soon. The ice plant is just beginning to bloom, along with the feverfew, and in a couple more weeks the black-eyed susans and monarda will be starting to open.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Editing Process: Viewing One's Work Objectively

Once upon a time, I thought of starting a blog so that I could write about writing. Then I decided to write about other things, too. Here are some recent thoughts I've been mulling over, concerning the editing process. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to this issue; I'm sure I've left out some aspects of it.

Please note that I'm not "aiming" this at any individual in particular, so if it "speaks" to you, don't take it personally-- I've had discussions on this topic with several people. Also, keep in mind that it applies not only to writers but to any other kind of artist, and even to life in general. Please also note that I don't mean to imply that every writer necessarily struggles with this issue.

One of the most important things for the personal progress of any art is for the artist to reach a point where he can detach himself emotionally and personally from his work. This does not happen during the actual first-draft writing process, of course-- at that time, it's equally imperative that a writer be deeply immersed in his work. When it's time to edit, though, it's also time to separate his imaginary world from his identity.

It is imperative that a writer learns to look at his work objectively, and realize that it is not him. It may be a part of him, his prized possession, or even the most important work of his life-- but it is not him. Of course he has given it life, and feels through it, and even to an extent lives through it, but it is not him.

This detachment will not hurt his book, or the world inside it. If he clings too tightly to it, it will be unable to grow. If he does not release his art to the possibility of growth, it will only ever be a reflection of his own ego. Think about it-- if a writer is dead set against anyone saying anything against his book, he's essentially stating that it is finished: he doesn't want anything to change. Not only does he not want it to change, but in requesting an editor, he's not really looking for help in refining his manuscript; he's looking for someone to agree with him.

The writer has to understand that if someone comments, "This part wasn't clear to me, and I really don't find Annie a very engaging character," it does not mean that he personally is confusing and boring. Just Annie, and that one part in the book. He might think that that passage was perfectly clear, and Annie might be his ideal woman-- but what can it hurt, to step back, take a deep breath, and double-check?

Now, it is natural for the writer to still feel attached to his book, during the editing process. There's nothing monstrous about becoming a little discouraged with the amount of work that needs doing, nervous that something important might be lost, or sad that the life seems at times to have gone out of the project. Don't worry. It's not dead; it's resting.

Notice that this does not mean desensitizing oneself. Ceasing to care what happens to a writing project is the wrong approach to helping it grow. Remain connected, but remember that this time the journey is not a voyage of discovery, but one in which a path is cut so that others can follow. Every writer will find something to change or fix to make the way clearer.

If a writer asks for someone's help and ends up either lashing out at them, defending every little thing, or crumpling into his shell like a wounded barnacle, he's not going to get very far-- and besides missing out on what might be valuable opinions, he'll run the risk of deeply confusing or even hurting the person who was only trying to help him. This certainly doesn't mean he has to knuckle under and submit to every piece of advice, or even agree with the critiques. The writer will always know his work best. It is often possible that, despite the very best of their intentions, some people may have valid reasons for not being able to understand his work in order to edit it, though they may enjoy reading it or really want a part of that world.

If a writer is still so absorbed in his story that he can't bear any contrary opinions, he might need to rethink his goals. Sometimes all that is needed is time away from the story, perhaps working on a different one for a while, or an unrelated activity altogether. If he is simultaneously unable to bear criticism but has a publishing schedule worked out for himself, trouble can be expected. This can be especially hard when writing has become a form of escapism, the only thing in life that seems to be going well. That's no time to edit.

I often have to reassure commenters that I won't find their critiques personally insulting. Actually, most people who are familiar with me as a writer know that I'm constantly poking fun at my own work. I take it very seriously, but not so personally that I can be shattered. I've had to learn to be patient with myself, and with my work; I know it's worth it, in the end. On the flip side, I have to remember that not everyone automatically realizes the degree of detachment that is necessary, and that some are still learning it. I've forgotten this several times, much to my shame.

The deep and necessary personal connection to a story-world is also why I'm reluctant to give detailed feedback on unfinished first drafts. They're too fragile, too mutable, for me to take into my own hands. I don't want my editing to cause someone to continuously restart their book, to discourage them from at least getting one full draft written, or to overload their creative circuits with technical details. I do make exceptions for people who have stopped writing a draft for various reasons and want to begin again.

You discovered a gem-- now, to show it at its very best, you have to summon the calmness, focus, and strength of mind to cut it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Garden

My garden has been blooming away steadily. We've gotten a lot of rain this spring, so everything is quite verdant. One of these days I need to fertilize the flowerbed, but I have to get some more weeds pulled, first. Here are a few pictures of what's been blooming, these past few weeks.This is a 'Lady Banks' rose. It's a thornless climber, and escaped from the garden a while back. It's currently up in a tree. The flowers are fragrant, and grow on long flexible branches that fling out from the main stem and drape themselves in picturesque curtains like something out of a fairy-tale.A neighbor gave me some periwinkle cuttings a while back, and the past couple years they've started to look really nice. Some are solid glossy green, and others are variegated, but the flowers on both are the same noncommittal jellybean purple. They're a hardy groundcover, but completely noninvasive-- the roots are shallow and nontenuous.Now for my actual flowerbed. A few years back, I was given some seeds for a columbine, and couldn't remember what I did with them. Apparently I planted them at some point, because it bloomed for the first time last year and is looking nice, now. I haven't found out what cultivar it is-- it's a single, almost black. Quite striking.Against all odds, my cranesbill plant has survived and is reaching a hearty size. It has had many near-death experiences, including being hacked off its parent plant and struggling for years to display two tiny little leaves like a pair of pleading hands. Once something else was planted on top of it, and it's been stepped on quite a few times. Now it's finally big enough to see. The pink flowers are dainty and crepe-like, almost like a primrose's but much longer-lasting, and the foliage turns crimson in the fall.My coreopsis is back. Seven years or so ago, we got a single coreopsis 'Nana' plant. It kept growing and growing, and when I divided it, each plantlet reached the size the whole thing had originally been by the end of the summer. My entire garden, at that time, was blazing orange from the coreopsis, and pale purple from a few other things I had. It was hideous. Finally, two summers ago, all the coreopsis died of brown spots, and last year my garden was all cool and pleasant colors. And this year-- the coreopsis is back; it had reseeded itself. There are only a couple little plants here and there, but by next year I might be ready to give some away, again.This burgundy bearded iris bloomed for the first time, this year. There's also a similar apricot-colored one, but it didn't bloom this year.This pale purple iris bloomed for the first time this year, too. I have a solid dark purple one, but it hasn't bloomed in a while.This white iris bloomed for the first time last year, and began blooming Holy Week of this year, but then it got all beaten down and bedraggled in the rain. This picture can't come close to showing how spotlessly white the petals are.These dwarf bearded irises are only about knee-high.I love everything about irises except their short bloom time. They smell wonderful, and are nice to touch (I have a need to touch flowers), and their varying textures make them look like silk and velvet.Here is my Spanish lavender plant! I love the way the flowers look-- I've heard them described as pineapples with bows on top. It doesn't smell the way English and French lavenders do; it's definitely a lavenderish smell, but it's actually closer to the culinary pine smell of rosemary. It's a fun plant to touch, because it's so soft and benevolent-looking. I'd tried to plant regular lavender before, but it rotted within a couple weeks, and I once had a Spanish lavender plant, too, but like almost everything else in my dorm room it died a long, drawn-out death. I did some research and found that it likes sandy soil, so I put this one in a pot with about three parts sand and two parts topsoil. See, all soil would be too rich and the plant would rot. So far it seems to be doing quite well, other than needing extra water because the sand drains it all out.The gigantic chives are blooming, too. These make really nice cut flowers, and keep their color when dried. They would also look pretty in a salad.

This is pretty much everything that's blooming, right now; I'll make a separate post for the rhododendrons and azaleas, since we have so many kinds. ^_^

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ah, Holy Jesus!

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended,
That man to judge Thee hast in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by Thine own rejected,
O most afflicted!

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee!
'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied Thee:
I crucified Thee.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered,
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered.
For man's atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
God intercedeth.

For me, kind Jesus, was Thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and Thy life's oblation;
Thy death of anguish and Thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee,
I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee,
Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

Text: Johann Heermann, 1585-1647; trans. by Robert S. Bridges, 1844-1930
Music: Johann Cruger, 1598-1662
Tune: HERZLIEBSTER JESU, Meter: 11 11 11.5

This is my favorite hymn for Passiontide. The tune is solemn and reverent, and the words are brutally honest. The second verse is so powerful that sometimes it's difficult for me to sing. The fact is, Christ died because of my sins, and because of yours-- there's no point in hedging around it, and there's only glorious gain in acknowledging it.

Please pray for me and all other church musicians as we begin celebrating the Triduum tomorrow! My prayers are with you all.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Captain Nemo

When I was applying for colleges, I had to write an essay about a fictional character who greatly influenced my life. I ended up submitting a very tame essay about Combeferre from Les Miserables, a young revolutionary who fights for what he believes in, but whose real tendencies are scholarly, preferring "illumination rather than conflagration."

That's not who I wanted to write about.

The single fictional character who probably influenced me most, growing up, was Captain Nemo, from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Charles Dickens' characters influenced me as a collective whole and probably tie with Captain Nemo. The Captain represented to me, half humorously and half seriously, the sort of fantasy life that I would live, if my imaginations came true. Captain Nemo was a master at all the things that I was passionate about, then (and still am). He was aloof, elusive, anti-social and anti-society, and lived in his submarine, the Nautilus, out of reach of the world. The Nautilus had a sumptuous library, a pipe organ, and a museum of great works of art, along with the most extensive mollusk collection in the history of the world.

I liked the way that Captain Nemo could be good at things that many people nowadays don't realize can fit together naturally-- such as languages and science. Back then I didn't know of the term renaissance man, but I recognized the type, and it made perfect sense to me, especially when being confronted with the academic "choice" between music and the sciences.

I'm a taciturn book-lover, I've been avidly, though intermittently, collecting mollusks for 11 years, and I'm a pipe organist. Three things inspired me to learn to play the pipe organ. The first was visiting my grandparents' parish, which had a choir loft with a pipe organ. One Sunday after Mass, my grandfather took me up to see the organ, and the organist showed me the stops. I was younger than five, at the time, and I thought it would be much more interesting to be upstairs and fool around with little knobs than to sit still with the rest of the congregation. The second inspiration was the dedication concert of the electronic organ that was installed at my old parish; I was six at the time, and I don't think I sat through more than twenty minutes of the ordeal, but I was immensely impressed at the grandiose noise that the thing made, and the way it could fill up the entire space.

The third inspiration was, of course, Captain Nemo. The emotional climax of the book (and the Disney movie) involves Captain Nemo playing his pipe organ chaotically, expressing the tortured anguish of his soul dissonantly with all the stops pulled out. I knew I wanted to learn how to do that; not long after I saw the movie, I began taking lessons. I have always enjoyed rampaging around on the instrument, but through the marvelous patience of my organ teacher, I finally settled down midway through highschool enough to learn church music and nice peaceful songs, so that I would actually be good for something. Captain Nemo influenced me, not because he was someone I wanted to emulate or become, but because he was an example of how one person could encompass the vast spectrum of interests that I was told was unnatural.

Well, my life has changed since then. I'm not majoring in biology and sacred music anymore. I'm studying English, and I know God doesn't want me to run and hide at the bottom of the ocean (though it continues to be a temptation). The saints are my true heroes, as they've always been. Also, some friends stole my submarine. I still identify with the Captain in many ways, though, and humorously consider him an alter ego of sorts.

Oh-- by the way, I'm not a psychopath.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

My Mollusks

I have been collecting marine mollusks since I was about nine. I'd always had a few around, as curiosities and from trips to the beach, but when I was nine, it dawned on me one day that all of them had names. For some reason, this fact kindled within me an insatiable curiosity to know as much as I could about mollusks, and I began collecting them avidly.

When I started out, I would line my shells up inside cardboard boxes and trays, with labels glued beside them. Today, I have the tiny ones stored inside little spice jars, tooth-floss containers, computer cartridge boxes, and film cannisters (remember those things?), and most of the larger ones wrapped in quilt batting and packed away. My smallest is a few millimeters long, and the largest is bigger than my head. Someday I would love to keep the largest ones in a curio cabinet, or the entire lot in a cabinet of drawers, like museums have. I also developed a slightly better labeling system, and a catalogue somewhere on my hard-drive.

Since I prefer finding them to buying them, and don't visit the Atlantic Ocean regularly, I only have about two hundred different species (but probably over a thousand specimens). I have found specimens of a majority of the species native to the coast of North Carolina.

Several years ago when I got a camera, I decided to take pictures of my entire collection. I'm going to have to redo some of them, one of these days, now that I'm more used to how the camera works. Here are a few of the pictures (links to the album at the end of this post). I could talk for hours about my collection, and mollusks in general, so it's going to take a great deal of effort to keep this pleasantly brief.

Cyrtopleura costata (Linnaeus, 1752)
10.2 cm
Anastasia Island, FL (also native to NC)
29 December 2004
The common name of this shell is pretty obvious. These aren't matching valves. They are some of my most fragile shells. I've read that if you dig up a live one, it will clench itself together in fright and shatter. I wonder if that's so.Martesia cuneiformis (Say, 1822)
Wedge-shaped Piddock
Topsail Island, NC
December 1999
This one, in the same family as the angel wing, fascinates me, because I had it for years and never knew it. I had brought home a tiny piece of driftwood from the beach, and one day noticed a bit of something embedded in it. I quickly realized it was the shell of a little clam, and spent several hours carefully excavating it with a pin and a pair of tweezers. For this picture, I slid it back into the cavity so you could see. It's a boring-clam, the same relative shape and size as a pistachio. Hordes of these things can wreak havoc on docks, piers, ships, and anything else wooden that's in the water-- pretty much the maritime equivalent of termites. They chew with their tiny mouth-parts. Isn't that fascinating?Atrina rigida (Lightfoot, 1786)
Stiff Pen Shell
17.2 cm
Southport, NC
27 May 2003
I have both valves of this shell, but here's the inside of just one. Isn't that lovely? The little circles are the leftover bits of barnacles which encrusted it. This is a very brittle shell. It anchors itself to something in its habitat with "roots" known as byssal threads. The threads of some species can be collected and woven into a very fine silky gold cloth. Some suggest that the golden fleece of Greek mythology might have actually been a cloth of byssal threads.Diodora cayennensis (Lamarck, 1822)
Cayenne Keyhole Limpet
Emerald Island, NC
Keyhole limpets suction themselves to hard surfaces and creep about eating algae and detritus. All keyhole limpets have a little hole like that in the top, unlike true limpets which are just cones with no holes (saith the Peterson Field Guide).Oliva sayana Ravenel, 1834
Lettered Olive
4 cm
Fort Macon, NC
27 December 2001
These are fairly common in NC, but this is the only specimen I've ever found on which the markings and coloring are of such high quality. The inside is a delicate lavender color, and the outside is clearly marked with the "letters" that give this shell its common name. Usually, olives are discolored pink, white, or black.Epitonium krebsii (Mörch, 1874)
Krebs' Wentletrap
.3 cm
Anastasia Island, FL
29 December 2004
This is one of my tiniest shells, only three millimeters long. This picture was zoomed in so you could see the delicate details on it. Wentletraps are some of my favorites; the funny name is actually derived from the Dutch word for "staircase," if I understand correctly, on account of its ribbed spiral shape (had to double-check that on Wiki; it's been a while). It reminds me of a donut of some sort; there's another wentletrap native to the Atlantic that really looks like something to eat.Here are links to the albums. Let me know if they don't work.
Gastropod Album I
Gastropod Album II
Bivalve Album I
Bivalve Album II
Oh! I didn't mention, for anyone who didn't guess already, that gastropods are essentially snails ("stomach-foot") and can also be known as univalves, and bivalves are essentially clams ("two parts") and can also be know as pelcyopods ("ax-foot"). I have a list of good field guides and things like that, if anyone is interested, and I love identifying shells, for anyone who's curious about one. It would be amazing to be curator of a museum's mollusk collection.

I have several other collections (including Upper Devonian fossils), but not as extensive as this one-- but that's for another time. ^_^