Lessons Learned from Our First Season in a Community Garden

My midsummer work-in-progress. Photo by CGIOS

And that’s a wrap, literally. On the last Saturday of November, a few of us gardeners worked to finish preparing our plots for the winter. Some were discussing if it was too late to plant garlic. Others finished pulling up plants, raking out the soil, and laying down dried leaves, newspaper, and mulch as ground cover. Joe and I went the lazier route and covered our plots with black tarp. A fellow neighbor scoffed at our amateur solution to killing weeds and let us know it would benefit us to spread dry leaves out between the ground and the tarp to ensure that the soil stays rich for next season. Okay, so maybe it’s not totally a wrap, but we have done enough to meet the garden police’s deadline for winter prep. We will fill in the gaps later. Or not.

This was our first summer working in the community garden. Just over two years ago, as soon as I realized we were moving into the neighborhood, both Joe and I signed up for the community garden wait list. Just as our first lease was expiring, we each received notices that we had finally secured plots on the community garden. Renewing our apartment lease was a no-brainer.

It was a rough summer, but fun if you’re down with sweating through your clothes and raking and digging through symptoms of heat exhaustion, cool with inexplicable amounts of rain turning your wood chip paths into canals and soil into shoe-sucking mud, and chill with mosquitoes chewing through your pants. That entire description is euphemistic at best. As the elements became increasingly swampy towards the end of summer, we admittedly found reasons we couldn’t make it out to our plots.

All said and some done, we plan to do this again in 2019. Here’s what we learned!

Lesson 1: Don’t dig a hole unless you are ready to fill it.

One corner of Joe’s plot was inhabited by an enormous hibiscus bush, its dry branches a disingenuous representation of its being. The fact that it came threateningly close to the six-foot height limit made it a bit of problem with the garden rules. The fact that it took up a ton of space, both above ground and below, was the main issue. That it appeared completely dead made it superfluous. He spent hours and buckets of sweat digging the bush out with a pickax, only to learn that it had been sucking up the extra water in the soil. It had been, in fact, very much alive. The first time it rained after he removed the offensive twig cluster, the space left by the excavation turned into a soppy mess. He had to build a raised bed to fully recover the now empty corner as a functioning garden.

Lesson 2: It’s fun until the mosquitoes arrive.

Wearing pants and drenching legs and pants in bug spray are futile actions when protecting oneself from DC’s type A mosquitoes. Full stop.

Lesson 3: Don’t trust the compost.

According to garden rules, we are not allowed to put food scraps in the community garden compost. Fair enough. No need to attract rats and other critters. However, many of the gardeners seem impervious to other rules, such as not throwing wiregrass and other nefarious weeds into the compost. I used the garden compost all summer and spent hours upon hours raking and sifting the tiny threads of these weeds out of my soil. I’m considering investing in raised beds and weed-free soil from the store next season.

Lesson 4: Wolf Spiders Jump and They Like to Stay Where You Found Them

When this season started, I was pretty proud of the fact that I was seeing small spiders around my plot and it wasn’t bothering me one bit. If you’ve ever met me, you know this is no small accomplishment. I can’t exaggerate my spider phobia. But then I found a pregnant wolf spider. Or she found me. We clearly had a common interest in occupying the garden. There was a lot of loud yelping and deep breathing on my part, especially when she jumped at me as I unexpectedly and repeatedly unearthed her. I can’t speak for the spider, but my guess is she was doing her own version of anxiety reduction.

Lesson 5: The Art of Nurturing the Seeds

Seedlings by Joe. Photo by CGIOS

Joe spent months cultivating all kinds of plants from seeds in our apartment. He started peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, tomatillos, brussels sprouts, and more by making tiny seed pots out of old egg cartons. It was painstaking work, the kind of work I don’t have patience for, as I’m a controlled chaos kind of gal. Joe is slow and thoughtful and meticulous. I give him most of the credit for the successes in my garden because of his initial careful cultivation of most of my plants. I, on the other hand, threw a bunch of seeds in and saw little reward.

Lesson 6: The Tomatillos Though

Paper lanterns on a tomatillo plant. Photo by CGIOS.

Except for the TOMATILLOS: Little beautiful paper lanterns, artful round purple and green marble fruits, and one plant that put out more tomatillos than we could give away. It was a salsa-verde-on-everything kind of summer.

Lesson 7: Rules Rules Rules

Understandably, our participation in the community garden comes with many rules. Being an avid rule follower, I feel like I spent most of my garden experience focused on creating a weed-free plot and periphery, instead of truly being able to enjoy the experience of actually learning how to grow plants. Joe had a much healthier and balanced relationship with his weeds. I do look forward to having a yard someday, with a garden I can manage by my own rules in order to truly enjoy the experience.

Lesson 8: The Beauty in the Beast

The birds are plentiful: gold finches, mocking birds, robins, great blue herons overhead…

Goldfinch. Photo by CGIOS.

We get front row seats to stellar sunsets.

It was something for Joe and me to do together, yet apart as we each had our own plot. And of course, there were moments when we each stepped in for the other with our individual strengths.

Lesson 9: Say Hello to Your Neighbors

I live by this. While I’m an introvert by nature, I love learning from other people and enjoy small talk that leads to surprise conversations. When I’m feeling up for it, I talk to everyone – in elevators, in ride shares, on buses and metro, in stores. In the garden, I met wonderful plot neighbors who gave helpful tips along the way. And it was just nice to feel like we are all in it together out there, sharing similar pains and frustrations and successes. It’s fun to see what others grow and the different personalities play out in the plot designs and types of preferred plants.

Our new friend Steve told us about the miracle of growing peanuts. I will write about that experience next season.

Getting Dirty to Keep Our Parks Clean

Viburnum in Glover-Archbold Park – Photo by CGIOS

The older I get, the more I feel I need excuses to put on wellies and jump in mud puddles. Why is that? And what’s a better excuse than signing up for a park clean up that also just happens to be on a rainy spring day?

Last April, I joined site leader Jerry’s group for the Rock Creek Conservancy’s Rock Creek Extreme Cleanup. Our task was to remove the trash from Glover-Archbold Park, a sub-unit of Rock Creek Park. For a map of all of Rock Creek Park and its finger parks, check here.

I made sure I wore comfortable clothes that I didn’t mind getting muddy in. And I honestly did fight myself a little getting out of the door. After all, rainy days are great for curling up at home with a book and a cat. At the end of the day, getting out was not a decision I regretted.

I arrived and paired up with another woman whose partner was at home with a broken ankle. Since the rest of the group seemed to arrive together from a college, it was lucky for us that we were each alone. Jerry handed us a large bag for garbage and one for recycling, gloves, instructions, and pointed us in the opposite direction of the big group. We were on our way.

We entered Glover-Archbold Park near New Mexico Avenue and Garfield Street. It was raining a little harder than I realized, but that added to the visual magic. Thanks to the rain’s broad brush over the earth, we were surrounded by new spring growth made bright green in contrast to the darkened tree bark.

What’s nice about volunteering in early spring is the beauty of the early growth mixed with the lack of poison ivy and bugs (if bugs aren’t your thing). My mother passed on her love of wildflowers to me, and DC is full of them. The very first things I noticed with delight were the prehistoric-looking Jack-in-the-pulpits everywhere! And there was a tree with beautiful cascading white blooms on one side trail that was a challenge to identify. After outsourcing the plant’s identification on Facebook, a friend who works in parks says he is 100% sure it’s viburnum. I returned the very next weekend, sun in tow, to snap pictures of both species.

Jack-in-the-pulpits – Photo by CGIOS

I was grateful for my clean up partner who had a much better sense of direction than I do. I was mostly teaching myself to use visual cues in the physical geography as breadcrumbs, but not very successfully.

We chatted some and learned about each other, and walked quietly and enjoyed the light rain while we collected trash on the network of trails. The park was mostly empty of people, probably from the weather. Their loss.

Most of the trash in this area of the park was located closer to the street entrances. That is where the hard work was concentrated. However, one of the more disturbing things for me (and here is your embedded PSA, people) was the number of doggie bags people leave in the park. The point of the bags is to pick up your pup’s poo and remove it with you. So leaving it in the bag in the woods seems even more egregious than just leaving the waste there to decompose. We picked up quite a ridiculous number of bags. And also found a few plastic Easter eggs with toys in them, clothing, and the always ubiquitous plastic water bottles.

I know from my volunteering experiences over the years that people show up for a variety of reasons. I’m an introvert and love people but also love just plain hard solitary work. So I go for the joy of being outside and helping the environment, and the therapy that is ripping vines from trees and hiking into challenging crevices for a piece of trash. For me, there’s nothing like the feeling of taking a warm shower after getting really dirty and working hard. A lot of people volunteer for team building and for socializing and, yes, because this is DC, even networking. If you met your partner for life while volunteering, I’d love to hear about that! Tell us why you volunteer in the comments.

The Rock Creek Conservancy works to protect Rock Creek and its parks throughout Washington, DC and Maryland (including Rock Creek Park). Like in any system, the condition of one part can affect another part. The health of Rock Creek, for example, affects the health of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay (the bay closest to my heart). Join the efforts to protect these parks as a natural oasis for all to enjoy. For forthcoming information about the next Extreme Clean Up and other volunteer opportunities, keep an eye on this page.

The Rock Creek Conservancy volunteer experiences are well-planned, with site leaders who bring supplies and communicate about the event with participants. All you need to do is dress for the weather and the woods (and if you must, bring a business card or two). But most importantly, get out there and have fun!

5 Ways to Explore Nature in DC Without Owning a Car

Rock Creek Park. Photo by CGIOS

My beloved 1999 Honda Civic is going to be with me forever. It was my first car purchase and I hope my only car purchase in my lifetime. My mechanic, who says he loves the car as much as I do, takes great care of my elderly chariot. Yet I sometimes entertain the idea of not having a car.

While I don’t particularly enjoy driving, it is super convenient for getting my cat around, visiting family and hiking areas outside of the city, dragging my bike to the barrier islands, and tackling larger grocery runs. Walking the groceries home means deciding if the cat litter or the milk is the more urgent purchase. Plus there just really is no safe way to balance egg cartons in a bag. The car is also useful when I’m running late, and I’m usually always running 5 minutes late. Maybe I could do without and maybe not.

Since DC is full of transient residents, many of them don’t have cars. My friend Malaka asked me how to experience nature around the city without a car and no more than $25 in car share rides. Access to some of these destinations by a bike or bikeshare is allowed in her parameters.

I know I have my preferred places, some of them more worn in than others. So I decided to crowd source favorite nature locations from my Facebook friends and they delivered. Here are some of their answers and how to get there without a car. Don’t forget your binoculars and snacks!

Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

I can’t state enough how magical this park is. If you can’t afford a rocket ride to a new planet, this place is the very next best thing. June and July are great months to visit, though the aquatic gardens are relaxing any time of the year. Read my past post on their otherworldliness.

Their website offers multiple tips to get there. For those without a car, you can pick up a bike share and drop off at 4899 Minnesota Ave, NE, near the Deanwood Metro stop. If on foot, take the Orange line metro towards New Carrollton and exit at the Deanwood stop. Exit via Lower Polk Street, use the pedestrian bridge to cross Kenilworth Ave, turn left on Douglas Street and right on Anacostia Avenue. The entrance will be on your left.

Hours: Daily except some holidays, 8am-4pm
Address: 1550 Anacostia Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20019

Lake Artemesia

“It’s definitely a hidden gem in PG County” – Elisabeth. This park, highly recommended by a friend, is now on my to-walk list. To get to the lake, take the Green Line towards Greenbelt and exit at College Park station. It is about a half hour walk around the College Park airport to the lake, so wear comfy shoes!

Hours: Sunrise to sunset, daily
Address: Berwyn Rd & 55th Ave, Berwyn Heights, MD

Rock Creek Park

Every time I step into the woods here, I am amazed at how the city disappears. The loop that starts at the Nature Center off of Military Road and Oregon can be accessed by several different points of the city. The trails are beautiful and full of little surprises (rocky dry beds, sparkling clear streams, brief steep hillsides, an abundance of wildflowers from early spring to late fall). Often, it’s quieter on the paths that run off of the main drags. Glimpse deer, chipmunks, woodpeckers, barred owls, peregrine falcons, and fox. Grab your hiking poles and boots, though you may look over prepared compared to the joggers and coffee-carrying city couples who also use these trails.

For a longer hike, bike share to Connecticut and Albemarle and hike in through the trail head to Soap Stone Valley Park. For shorter versions, cab or ride share or bike (no bikeshare available) to The Nature Center off of Military and Oregon.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset, daily
Address: Visitor’s Center Starting Point- 5200 Glover Rd NW, Washington, DC 20015

Dumbarton Oaks Parks Conservancy

While I have only had a picnic on the grounds, this place is highly recommended by several people. In fact, it’s such a special place that my pilates instructor and friend Clare is leading monthly forest therapy walks there. A portion of the suggested proceeds go to Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy. Learn more about the benefits of Forest Bathing in this NPR article.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset, daily
Address: Most used entrance is via a short stroll down Lovers’ Lane, located approximately 200 feet east of R Street and 31st Street NW. (View website for additional ways to enter the park.)

Theodore Roosevelt Island

This park was the clear winner for most recommended. I like this little island, and mostly go there when I want to go for a hike that feels outside of the city, but don’t have much time to travel. This is a great little place to contemplate big decisions.

You can access the island by walking 10-15 minutes from the Rosalyn metro station or by bike (you will have to lock your bike at the racks near the footbridge).

Hours: Open year-round, 6am-10pm
Address: Potomac River near the Key Bridge

There are so many other areas of DC to cover in future posts, but please don’t let that stop you from adding your favorite outdoor spots in DC, ones that you can get to from inside the city without a car, in the comments!

What DC Coyotes Eat for Dinner

Coyote. Photo by jamescumming / 123RF Stock Photo

On my way home from a long work day, with the hours getting darker, the humid air still hung itself like a damp coat over the end of September.

As I walked towards the woods at the end of my street, I took in the darkness and wondered why no one on our ever-dissatisfied listserve has complained about the lack of street lights.

Ahead of me, I could barely make out the silhouette of a woman walking her two small dogs and hoped she could see my own outline so I didn’t surprise her. But something else was about. Just as we met up, we both heard the howl at the same time and her two dogs started barking. “Did you hear that?” “Uh, yes.” “Coyote. My husband told me he’s been seeing them around.”

For newcomers to DC who may think that the most exotic creatures we have here are interns, coyotes have lived in this city since 2004, according to the National Park Service FAQ page about the elusive creatures. Read Jacob Fenston’s article for WAMU, “Why Does A City As Dense As D.C. Have So Much Wildlife?,” to learn how our regional park corridors provide habitats and access to our backyards for our furrier neighbors.

I like telling people that there are coyotes in Washington. Maybe talking about coyotes could help remove the myth that DC is all stuffed suits and type A women wearing Ann T. You already know I’m here for the parks.

Not counting the occasional tropical bird that gets blown off course and ends up in New England or pet pythons released in Florida plumbing, there must be animals living in other cities and places that only appear to be interlopers.

Some friends of mine who moved from Capitol Hill to a cabin in rural Kentucky told me my favorite story of surprising residents. The Southern Devil Scorpions live in rural Kentucky. In the woods. And your shoes. These scorpions do sting but aren’t interested in people and not dangerous.

Please let me know in the comments what animals and insects you are most surprised to see where you live or have visited. Now back to the coyotes in DC.

How likely are you to see one?

The answer to this is you might see one while in and around Rock Creek Park and some of the adjacent neighborhoods, but it isn’t likely. The population appears to be small, and coyotes are most active in the evenings and at night.

And I know the burning question that is on our minds is: What do coyotes eat for dinner?

Coyotes eat dead things, vegetation, and small critters in the park. You’re safe, but keep an eye on your pets. It’s best if taking your animals on hikes through the park or near the park, that you keep them leashed. It’s the law anyways, though I witness it often ignored especially in the parks. (And normally I wouldn’t care because I love your animals as much as you do, except that someone’s very lovely, playful Goldie once yanked me off my fast-moving bike by my ankle. I’ve since forgiven the pup but not his people.)

Fake news alert: Coyote wolf hybrids do not exist in Rock Creek Park. It takes two to tangle and without a wolf population, well, you just get more coyotes.

If you see a coyote: According to the National Park Service, notify Resource Management Specialist Ken Ferebee at 202-895-6221. Let Ken know the date, time and location you saw the animal.

Barred Owl in My Backyard

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Barred owl. Copyright : Lynn Bystrom, 123rf.com

I’m always on the alert for animals, even in the city. I spend a large part of my day proofreading and apply that same Where’s Waldo scan to every tree I walk past.

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Black and white warbler. Copyright : Marie-Ann Daloia, 123rf.com

Just two weeks ago, I noticed a small black and white bird on the tree that separates my office window from a view of Freedom Plaza and discovered it was a black and white warbler. I have never seen one before, so this was exciting. It moved quickly and the window washers hadn’t been around in a little while, resulting in blurry attempts to capture an image of the little guy. Thankfully, real photographers exist so you can see a picture.

In all my enthusiasm, unfortunately, sometimes I’m the woman who cried bird. While scanning highways and forests, I’ve been known to get excited over nothing. I mistook many white plastic bags high up in trees for snowy owls during the great snowy owl visit a couple of years ago.

But what happened last night was unmistakable. Around 1:30 am (Happy Autumn, everyone!), I was woken up by the clear “who cooks, who cooks for you all” call. At first I just laid there wondering if I had dreamed it. Or maybe some taxi driver who really loves birds got carried away choosing a horn sound for his car. Sure enough, after several seconds I heard the call again, loud and close, from somewhere out back by the trees that line the alley. I couldn’t see anything in the dark from my window, and the neighbor’s house light made any chance of spotting silhouettes impossible.

Then, as I was fumbling for my phone to try to get a recording, I heard squawking and considered there might be two of them. And then they were gone. While I wasn’t able to get a good recording, you can hear the same sounds I heard in the first two recordings on The Cornell Lab of Ornithology site.

My backyard wilderness. Photo by CGIOS

Owls are around. Apparently, they’re known for victimizing joggers in Rock Creek Park. A few years ago, a woman posted on our community listserv that she heard a bunch of commotion at her door and opened it to find a saw-whet owl staring at her. I’m not as jealous as I used to be, now with the barred owl experience, but I’d still really love to see a saw-whet owl sometime. It’s more unusual to hear or see any owl in your backyard, the further away from Rock Creek Park you are.

This morning, while I took a quick stroll through the alley to look for any visual signs of the visitor (owl pellets or tree tracks), I was happy to greet our backyard resident rabbit who is still alive and hopping. Keep on, little buddy. It’s wild out there.

Black Bears Don’t Growl

High Laurel Inn, photo by CGIOS

High Laurel Inn, photo by CGIOS

Did you know that black bears don’t growl? Me neither!

Last fall, Joe and I went for a hike in Shenandoah. We chose a spot that was pretty far off the beaten path, because we had been lamenting how crowded trails are close to DC. Weekends on the trail are starting to feel like spring break. Don’t misunderstand. I’m grateful more and more people are appreciating the outdoors, but truly escaping into the wilderness is becoming harder to do. If you have tried to visit the madness that is Sugarloaf Mountain on the weekends in the last year or so, you have an idea of what I mean.

Timing our trip with colorful fall foliage, we headed out to High Laurel Inn in Grottoes, Virginia. The room was nice and quiet, set onto a hill facing the woods. The owners are story tellers in the best way and cook up a delicious breakfast. We got our first taste of what to expect in the wilderness from the owners, who told us all about the numerous rattlesnakes, copperheads, and bears in the area. We were excited and also beginning to feel a bit nervous.

Joe spent a lot of time on the internet looking up what to do for snake bites. First, nothing works. Not tourniquets, not sucking out the venom, not carving a hole in someone’s leg. Oh, and your cell phone will also probably not work. So the victim’s only option is to not move and wait for her partner to hike back to civilization while she gets eaten by bears. Life is a moot point if you get bitten by a poisonous snake in the middle of nowhere. Evidently. (If you’re an expert on poisonous snake bites or have survived one, please give us the “how to” in the comments.)

photo by CGIOS

photo by CGIOS

In the morning, after a gigantic breakfast from our hosts, we packed our lunches, filled water bottles, and headed out. The nice thing about High Laurel Inn is that it sits just steps from the start of the trails. We began at the park boundary near the foot of the mountain, hiked up Paine Run to the Trayfoot Mountain Overlook, across the AT to the Blackrock Summit, and then back down to where we started via the Trayfoot Mountain trail. This is the longest I’ve hiked, which some might laugh at, but it’s a pretty big deal to someone with chronic compartment syndrome (another story for another time).

On the way over to the starting line, we saw a skinned something or other (maybe coyote) hanging from a tree by the road. If anyone has any idea why someone would do that, please comment below. It makes for an eerie start. Maybe a half mile in, I realized I had left my water bottle at the room, but we decided to keep going with just one bottle. In hindsight, not a good idea at all.

Paine Run at the AT, photo by CGIOS

Paine Run at the AT, photo by CGIOS

The hike up Paine Run was uneventful. Yet there were reminders everywhere, in the form of fresh bear scat, that we were out of our element. We only passed two people before reaching the top. We sat at the Trayfoot Mountain Overlook and enjoyed lunch and the break after our climb. I was starting to relax and enjoy being outside.

I LOVE hiking. This time I was nervous about being so far from anyone who could help us if we got in trouble, and I missed my water bottle and cell phone service. The most populated parts of our hike occurred near the top of the mountain by Skyline Drive, which is not unusual. Bill Bryson talks about how most of us like the idea of woods, but don’t stray too far into them in A Walk in the Woods. (Side note: It took me way too long to read this humorous book about hiking the Appalachian Trail.)

Blackrook Summit, photo by CGIOS

Blackrock Summit, photo by CGIOS

At the top, a clear sign announced the presence of copperheads on Blackrock Summit. Yet what were the chances we would actually see one? We chatted with a family who had just happily crawled on the rocks, and I have been hiking on rocks on the AT my whole life without ever seeing a copperhead.

The view at the overlook was breathtaking. I was slightly ahead of Joe and walking through the rocks when I turned around to see him bent over face to snout with a small copperhead. Those things are hard to see! The understated creature wasn’t interested in moving away from Joe. I told him what he was looking at and asked him to back away. We both suddenly realized that in order to keep going forward on our journey, we still had to hike by an indeterminable amount of rocks. I was paralyzed with fear. We could go back past the copperhead and back the way we had come, which was pretty but not the most interesting hike. Or we could keep going forward and hope that we would pass through the rocks quickly. We moved forward with sticks, poking ahead of us as we tested for slithering beings. Just as we entered the woods again, we came upon a group of hikers that included a guy who was way too enthusiastic about us seeing a snake. But. it. was. poisonous. His buddy behind him got the message.

Monarchs on their way south, photo by CGIOS

Monarchs on their way south, photo by CGIOS

And then that was it, almost. We didn’t see another human for the rest of the trail. Miles and miles of wilderness trekked by two nervous nellies. About two miles from the end of the hike, we heard a growl. A low, mean, get the nuts out of my territory growl. Joe’s instinct was to stop and push me back the way we had come. But at this point our choices were to move forward towards the growl and finish the two miles left or go back eight miles past the rocks and snakes and all the hidden bears that ignored us the first time. Not to mention we lacked water.

One way or another, we had both had it with our fear and either a bear or the end of the trail was going to put us out of our misery. Whichever came first.

photo by CGIOS

Hickory Tussock caterpillar, don’t touch, photo by CGIOS

So you know we survived because I’m writing this post. We have no idea what made the growling sound. I did learn after the hike that black bears don’t actually growl. They make all kinds of other sounds, but they don’t growl like in the movies. My aunt who spends a lot of the year in the Alaskan rainforest confirmed that a growl is in the ear of the beholder and that we may have certainly heard a bear. After recently reading A Walk in the Woods, I’m wondering if we heard the elusive mountain lion. Or maybe it was just two big old trees rubbing together in the wind.

I felt a shift in my hiking mood during this outting. While absolutely nothing happened to us, I am suddenly aware of the could haves. I now ask everyone who goes hiking if they’ve seen a bear or a snake. I’m collecting survival stories. We weren’t exactly prepared for our hike, given its remoteness. Our future hikes in more populated areas will help me relax back into my love for nature and escaping to the wilderness. Sugarloaf anyone?

View from High Laurel Inn, photo by CGIOS

View from High Laurel Inn, photo by CGIOS

All this said, for those that like adventure and prefer remoteness, the Trayfoot Mountain hike is beautiful. And I highly recommend High Laurel Inn for a nice weekend getaway. In the end, the best view we saw all day was from their front porch.

 

When Push Comes to Shark

shark_JenandDave

Photo by Jen Pekkinen and Dave Kaye.

Although I’ve actually never tried, I’m pretty sure I could sprint on water if push comes to shark, er, shove. My fear of sharks is bigger than your fear of anything. Just to give you an idea of what I’m dealing with.

The kicker is that I absolutely love being in the water. Swimming is as close to meditation as I get, snorkeling is my happy place, Sylvia Earle is one of my heroes (learn about her Mission Blue Alliance), and I feel most at home standing next to bodies of water. Also, there is nothing better than exploring tidal pools for the unimaginable.

As children, my sister and I used to swipe our nets along the bellies of floating piers to see what lived just out of our sight. At night, we leaned over the edges with flashlights to peek around. We witnessed tiny crabs, iridescent grass shrimp, sleek gar fish, coy anemones, abundant seaweed, creepy eels, and phosphorescent jelly fish. Thankfully, we never saw sharks.

While snorkeling I prefer to stay close to shore, for a quick escape to land just in case. I’m not embarrassed about snorkeling in two feet of water with my mask and fins, eyeballing schools of tiny silver fish and clumsy hermit crabs who are usually passed up for the much hipper reef inhabitants.

A starfish I found in a tidal pool in Nicaragua.

A starfish I found in a tidal pool in Nicaragua. Photo by CGIOS

My friends just got back from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Galapagos Islands, via National Geographic. I happily swiped through their Facebook photos liking every single one, until I saw the photo of a shark. They recounted seeing several sharks while snorkeling, and it was NO BIG DEAL. Jen reassured me these reef sharks were not carnivorous sharks. So they eat plants, I said, got it. They don’t really eat plants. She was over-reassuring me that I would not be a meal. The whitetip reef sharks snack on other fishes and crustaceans, and prefer not to chomp on humans. Unfortunately, they still LOOK like sharks. There are 30 species of sharks off the Galapagos Islands, making the location a great place to get to know these terrifying and awesome hosts.

My goal is to eventually learn how to scuba dive (and generally be more comfortable in the water), but that pesky little fear of sharks is in the way. The Nat Geo trip sounds like it could be a productive start to overcoming my fears, but also expensive.

Another way I’m working on my fear is by getting to know more about sharks. I’m now one of @MaryLeeShark‘s 70,000+ followers on Twitter. Mary Lee is a great white that @OCEARCH has been tracking and studying. The personification thing does wonders for phobias, although I still hope she will ping nowhere near Chincoteague, VA in late June. While I think I could eventually swim next to a reef shark, I’m definitely okay with never meeting a great white in person. Thank goodness for social media.

If you love the beach but are nervous about swimming where you can’t see your feet, this list from the Florida Museum of Natural History shows just how unlikely you are to be attacked by a shark anywhere in the world. If we think about the number of people in the water swimming, snorkeling, and diving at any given summer moment, and compare with the number of attacks on this list, we can all feel a little calmer. Not that I’m going to dangle my toes in the water in Chincoteague if Mary Lee is pinging anywhere near the Delmarva Peninsula. The Atlantic Ocean isn’t big enough for the both of us.

Let’s Indulge in Some Green Shaming, Shall We?

Photo by CGIOS

No, this is not a post about leprechauns. Instead, I’m going to call myself (and you) out on a few things while also sounding like a tree-hugging hippie. Here I go.

It’s spring. What a great time to go a little greener. Come on, all of the plants are doing it. We all know we pollute. Whether you want to delve into the science of global warming or not, whether you need stats or not, if you think about your everyday actions, there is no doubt about it: you pollute our beautiful planet. This gigantic, scary, marvelous gift to us.

Every winter, Joe and I take a trip somewhere warm and Spanish-speaking. This trip serves several purposes: practicing Spanish, making new friends, seeing new places, reflecting on what is and isn’t working for us in our normal day-to-day, and remembering to appreciate our time and what we do have.

One of those things is our planet.

On our last two trips to beautiful places, the lack of infrastructure raised the visibility of our waste, our collective human waste. It occurred to me that in the U.S. we are better able to hide our trash, but that doesn’t mean that trash just disappears. With the veil of infrastructure, it is easy to ignore the small things we could be doing to lessen the impact of our waste. But now that the waste is piling up and melding with our environment, it will be harder to ignore. Did you hear the latest about the plastiglomerates in Hawaii?

Here are some tasks I invite you to consider, oh, after I get done with green-shaming myself.

It’s a mighty green shame that I often take home food from dinners and lunches wrapped in plastic containers and bags and often accompanied by plastic-wrapped plastic utensils. I’ve also used body and face wash with microbeads. I’m terrible with the coffee cups, buy coffee twice a day in disposable cups. At work, I opt for plastic utensils for my in-house lunch meals and paper cups for water. I shave with disposable razors. Since I eat mostly whole foods (a step in the right direction), I often have lots of food scrap wastes that I throw directly in the trashcan (oh but four steps back). Sometimes I use more paper towels, toilet paper, and napkins than I actually need, and I leave the water running when I brush my teeth. I’m not perfect, but I have already started to do better.

Here are some things you and I can do and consider:

1. Choose bathing products that do not contain microbeads. If you aren’t sure which microbeads are safe for the environment, opt to use a washcloth for exfoliation instead.

2. Say no to that extra bag when you take food out. Even better? Bring your own take-out container. You might get a strange look, but no one will say no to you using it.

3. Keep a set of non disposable dishware and utensils and cups at work, so you don’t result to plastic.

4. Consider using cloth napkins and cloth towels, instead of paper. It isn’t too hard to add these to your laundry.

5. Carry bags in the trunk of your car for groceries and keep a foldable bag with you in your purse for impulsive or last-minute shopping.

6. DON’T FLUSH YOUR WET WIPES OF ANY TYPE DOWN THE TOILET!

7. Consider cooking whole foods to lessen the packaging you are picking up at the grocery store (and because it’s healthier).

8. Carry a water bottle and a coffee mug with you if you drink water and coffee often.

9. Be conscientious when using paper products and running water. Ask, “Do I need all this?” If not, then don’t use it.

10. Washington, DC has lots of compost options that aren’t too expensive. If you don’t have a yard to do personal composting in, consider a composting company. Ex: Compost Cab and Fat Worm Compost

Please feel free to add to the list below the post!

If you wanna go green crazy, I also recommend reading Living Green by Greg Horn. I know we all have reasons (family, too busy with work, not convenient, etc) for not taking extra steps, but the truth is these aren’t extra steps, just different steps. And with practice, they become habit.

Alien Flowers Invade Washington

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Photo by CGIOS

I thought about calling this post “The Day My Boyfriend Threw My Ice Cream in the Trash Can and Then Tried to Distract Me With Hats,” because once your boyfriend tosses your ice cream, it’s hard to remember what else happened that day. (I will get to the alien flowers in a second.)

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Photo by CGIOS

The scene unfolds on an Annapolis sidewalk. Joe and I are eating ice cream and listening to Vasili Frankos play his viola. (You may have heard this talented guy at various metro stops in DC.) Mistakenly thinking I was finished eating, Joe throws the cup in the trash can. About 10 seconds of staring at each other in silence followed, but boy our thoughts were loud. Mine jumped from “Is this a deal-breaker?” to a more rational “Maybe there’s a way to get it out of the trash can.” I think for a split second he considered retrieving the cup of melted chocolate as well, because he looked at the can almost desperately. Then he looked back at me. I asked the obvious, “Did you just throw my ice cream away?” He brilliantly replied,”Oh look! Hats!”, grabbed my hand, and lead me into the hat store across the street to find distraction. Good for everyone involved that my sense of humor trumps my ice cream addiction.

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Photo by CGIOS

Now back to the flowers. That morning we ventured to Kenilworth Gardens to explore the aquatic flowerbeds in Northeast DC. Despite numerous recommendations from friends, I was not prepared for the sight. The park is filled with alien space flowers almost or as tall as we are. By alien space flowers, I mean lotus plants. They’re HUGE. And stunning. The sunlight seems to emanate from the plants themselves instead of the sky. Everything glows brightly. And the enormous geometry of the strange shapes of the plants take my imagination to places like the Amazon Rainforest or Africa. I was expecting ponds and ponds of lily pads, not that there is anything wrong with lily pads.

Plan to arrive earlier in the day. Once the air reaches a certain temperature, the flowers close up. I sprinkled a few photos in this post to pique your curiosity, but of course the live version is better.

Many cultures and religions have assigned meaning to the lotus flower, and meanings change depending on the color of the blooms. For example, in Buddhism, the white flower “refers to purity of the mind and the spirit.” Click on this link for more symbolism.

Walking up to the gardens, Joe asked, “Where have you taken me?”  They’re breathtaking. Go. See. Them.

While you are on that side of town, here are some other things to do:

  • Drive about 30 minutes or so to Annapolis for an afternoon stroll or boat ride.
  • Visit the National Arboretum and have a picnic.
  • Stop by Union Market for lunch, a new chef’s knife, and definitely ice cream.