Ode to Mon Chat

IvanloungingI’m not really a cat person, but I am an Ivan person. We’ve been together about 12 years now, give or take one or two. (Don’t judge. I don’t count keeping track of time among my talents. It takes me about five minutes to figure out how old I am when people ask me. It was easiest when I was what my friend Carrie calls the butterfly age-33-which I haven’t been for a few years now.)

I’ve always felt that Ivan, by proximity, makes me a more interesting person. Having him around makes people want to visit me, and his talents are endless. His laser-like focus on building a rocketship from an assorted collection of forks, chapsticks, rubberbands, and bottlecaps is way more exciting than anything I’ve ever tried to put together. His Myspace page attracted all kinds of “kittens” and his editing skills far surpass mine. He taught me how to sit on things, instead of jumping to conclusions. Plus, people like him because he’s fluffy. I’m not that fluffy, even on my best days. And I’m not as chill as him. I have a lot to learn still about the art of calm. I just spent two weeks overcoming a concussion, and I’m about to go insane from all the sleeping. Ivan, who is now ill, is milking his sickness… for milk.

So yes, he’s sick. He has a high fever and is dragging himself around on a painful leg. While the vet and I are on it, he’s reminding me that he is mortal. I’ve jokingly said for a long time that there is no Stacie without Ivan. Yet I also brag that I am not one of those crazy pet people. I guess I never really saw him as a pet. He chose me, after all, I didn’t choose him.

But he is a pet and he will pass someday. Please send us positive thoughts in hopes that day is later than sooner. And milk. Ivan says to send milk, four twisty ties, three soda cans, a solar powered battery, and an ice cube… so he can finish his rocketship. Merci.


Seeking Refuge is Not Just for the Birds


Photo by Stefanie Pierpoint

Golden-crowned Kinglet, American Coot, Mute Swan, Northern Pintail, Ruddy Duck, Hooded Merganser, Greater Yellowlegs, Marsh Wren, Green-winged Teal, Ring-billed Gull, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Turkey Vulture, Dark-eyed Junco, Pectoral Sandpiper, Great Blue Heron, Red-winged Blackbird, Canada Goose, American Black Duck, American Robin, Mallard, Song Sparrow, Downy Woodpecker, Great Egret, and a pair of Bald Eagles were among the birds I saw on my first bird walk at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (Pennsylvania) this morning. A day described as “not bad for [my] first bird walk” by the white-haired gentleman who was friendly and eager to show me the identifying pictures in his bird book.

I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It took a lot of effort to get myself out of bed on such a cold, grey morning, but I arrived just in time to join the tour. I felt a little out of place with my not-so-super binoculars and obvious lack of bird knowledge that became apparent when the other tourists, including a very enthusiastic young man around the age of nine, began identifying birds and bird calls right out of the visitor center doors. These avian devotees intrigued me.

Photo by Stefanie Pierpoint

Photo by Stefanie Pierpoint

Throughout the tour, the others commented on how different birds made their landings in water and how some types of birds never sit still. While I have paid some attention to birds before, it was nice to hear others’ perspectives on these winged creatures. I really enjoyed listening to the comments and questions, such as “why are some female raptors larger than the males?” Our knowledgeable, patient, and enthusiastic guide led us on a fun and informative walk. I will be returning for more bird walks in the near future.

Post bird walk, I decided to continue on the woodsy paths and walkways around the refuge circling the Tinicum Marsh. It’s possible to walk the smaller loop in just under two hours or extend your stay by observing from many of the benches throughout the park. With the constant busyness of city life, this place is great for clearing thoughts or simply daydreaming.


Photo by Stefanie Pierpoint

This was my fourth time walking the entire refuge. As usual, I was intrigued by the way the refuge changes colors and shapes with the seasons. It is so peaceful and beautiful to see the differences in the trees and marshes. On occasion, I might come across a turtle, some deer, a groundhog or other mammal, reptile, amphibian or insect that adds to the experience. I particularly love how the trees, vines and bushes are so entangled with each other that it almost seems playful instead of a struggle for space. The sun seems to make a conscious decision as to where to place its light to allow for the most dramatic effects, especially in the marsh grasses and among the trees which arch over the path as if protecting us visitors from the rest of the world, or at least the airplanes taking off from the Philadelphia Airport just next door. Yes, this wonderful refuge is placed right next to a major highway and airport, but don’t let that fool you. Once inside, it is easy to disregard the sounds of planes taking off and cars rushing by as there is so much to focus on. The whistling and chirping songs guiding me down the path tell me that the birds do not seem to mind at all.


Photo by Stefanie Pierpoint

Just as I was finishing up my walk, a wide-eyed old man on his bicycle, dog sitting on the handlebars, came flying down the path singing about finding his true love louder than any bird or airplane. As his dog decided to join in, I decided this man has won the award for loudest songbird of the day.

Farmer for a Day

dc central

Photo by CGIOS

I learned a new word (glean) while volunteering for DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) this month.

Once a year, my job allows us to take a day of service. Since we’ve had a pretty fall and I was getting tired of being cooped up in my office, I decided to get out to a farm.

I have volunteered in DCCK’s kitchen to prepare food before. It’s a great, fun experience. I recommend signing up if you’ve never volunteered there! But be aware, it’s a popular spot for DC volunteers so don’t wait until the last minute to go. Here’s the signup page. DCCK is unique in that volunteers work side-by-side with chefs in a culinary job training program. Meals are prepared from recycled foods and distributed to schools, agencies, and communities. Their goal is to combat hunger and promote health.

While looking at their volunteer page, I noticed the word “gleaning” and decided that was exactly what I was looking to do. DCCK works with farmers in the area to glean produce for use in their kitchen.

On the morning of my service day, I woke up early, packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a pear and M&Ms (I have a chocolate addiction), and drove 90 minutes out to a small organic farm on the shore. Homestead Farms, Inc is a fairly young farm in Millington, MD. Owned and run by Alison and Luke, the farm is now certified organic and offers CSA shares. Since Homestead was getting ready to move some greenhouses onto crop space, they volunteered fields of vegetables for DCCK’s use. Alison was a fantastic host, super friendly and eager to help out.

The morning started off quiet and peaceful. It was just three of us volunteers picking in the field until a group of middle schoolers showed up. They were extremely energetic, and one of them was definitely named Matthew. He must be the class clown. We heard his name a lot.

They happily and noisily picked the veggies and enjoyed repeating over and over the names of some of the stranger ones.

About one hour and an estimated 600 pounds of veggies later, the teachers told the kids to just go run. I think they were trying to tire them out for the long bus ride back to DC. But something odd happened. They didn’t run. Instead, the students stopped in the carrot rows, pulling and eating the organic carrots from the ground and marveling at how great they tasted. They couldn’t get enough. I was amazed to see kids so excited about something so healthy. As a general culture, we don’t give children enough credit. And hopefully by exposing these kids to farm life and fresh vegetables, they will make better choices when they get older.

Something else we considered while out in the field is what makes vegetables and fruits fit for consumption. Alison pointed out that it’s hard to sell their crops to regular grocery stores because the crops don’t look perfect (gasp! The leafy greens have holes in them.). DC Central Kitchen was more than happy to take these not visibly perfect vegetables to make perfect meals for the hungry and for all of us. It certainly made me look at the produce section a little differently the next time I entered Safeway. We ignore or throw out perfectly good crops because of insignificant blemishes. If we were hungry, or starving, I bet we’d feel and behave differently. Does your body really care what that head of lettuce looked like before it was consumed? Nope. It cares that it got the nutrients it needed for health and survival.

In the spirit of November and Thanksgiving, I am grateful to have had this opportunity to help with the gleaning, experience a beautiful fall morning outside, meet awesome people doing amazing work, and appreciate where food comes from just a little more.

A black widow called. She wants her turnip back.

By Shenrich91 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Shenrich91 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I had originally planned to talk about the positive experience I had at an organic farm gleaning vegetables for DC Central Kitchen. Instead, I was inspired to write about the black widow spider because of all the questions I’ve been asked about the one I encountered at the farm. (I will get back to writing about the gleaning experience later because it’s important.) But first, let me put on my cape and save some hypothetical lives.

It was a chilly, rainy, fall morning on a farm out on the Eastern Shore. Armed with yellow rubber kitchen gloves, I began yanking up turnips from their neat little rows. Only ten minutes into the work, I found the nest. This turnip was different than the others. The ground released it easily. My first clue. Clue two: It was hollow.  Clue three: There was a bundle of white threads in the ground where the turnip had been. So where was the spider?

I then looked at the other end of the turnip in my hand and there she was. Perfectly identifiable. A sleepy black widow. The good thing about these venomous spiders is that they aren’t particularly aggressive. They don’t try to run, and they won’t bite unless they feel attacked. As National Geographic puts it, they “bite only in self-defense, such as when someone accidentally sits on them.” So try not to sit on one.

I stooped there for a minute trying to figure out what to do. On the one hand, I’m not particularly fond of any spider and here I was hanging out with a poisonous one. So I should probably kill it. On the other hand, spiders are just soooo good for the environment. I let someone else decide since I was too paralyzed by my fear to make a decision. (She squashed it with her boot. It was the right thing to do.)

The woman helping me pick turnips had no idea what we were looking at. She commented that I was a spider guru, implying I had an extensive knowledge of these things. The truth is the widow is the first and only spider I learned to identify by name as a child. I was surprised that she had no idea what it was. “Is it poisonous? If someone got bit by one, should they call their doctor?” Um, yes. The bite can make any human sick, and although rare, can be fatal to young children, the elderly, or anyone with weakened immune systems.

When I pointed out the spider to the farm head, she said casually that the pickers had been seeing many of them around the farm this year. I decided to see if the increased numbers were unique to that farm. Black widow populations have shown several booms across the U.S. in recent years. Kansas reported an increase in 2013 and New York City in 2012. Scientists attribute the larger populations to milder winters and warmer summers. Another thing to look forward to with a warmer planet.

Some general things to know:

1. The female spiders are medium to smallish and are black with a red hourglass on the back (see pic). The males, which don’t have the vicious bite the females do, are brown.

2. They like dark places outside like woodpiles, patio furniture, and clutter lying around the yard. I heard of a woman getting bit once by one hiding in a cemetery vase. Careful where you put your digits.

3. When it gets cold outside, they may seek shelter indoors in attics, basements, garages, etc. We had one camping in our heater once.

4. When gardening or working around the yard or in dark spaces, wear gloves and pay attention. If you keep shoes in the garage, shine a flashlight in them before putting them on your feet.

5. If you get bit by a black widow or any spider, try to save the spider in a jar. Its identity will help you get the right treatment.

Find information on what to do if you or someone you know gets bit by a black widow spider. Whether or not you fall into one of the categories I mentioned above, it’s always best to be safe and seek medical attention immediately. Let the doctor decide if you need treatment.

Okay, time to remove this cape and shower the creepy crawlies off me.

Shopping for Meaning on a Budget of Words

Bruges houses

Little houses with fireplaces in Bruges, where Dutch is the main language used.

I consider myself bilingual. I speak enough Spanish to navigate most conversations– except maybe ones about law, biotechnology, or porcupines–with native speakers. If I found myself in a situation where people only spoke Spanish, I’d be fine and even make friends. And up until last week, I’ve always traveled to places where people speak either English or Spanish.

Last week, I went to Belgium with little advanced notice. Most people in Belgium speak Dutch or French and sometimes English. I’m not a fan of not knowing the language of the place I’m visiting, but to be fair to me, two weeks was not a lot of time to learn much French.

This was the first time I’ve felt what it might be like to be mute. I was at a loss for words. Despite being an introvert, I can also be a Chatty Cathy. Walking around in Brussels, I carried very few tools in my language box to create meaning. My budget of French words consists of days of the week, numbers 1 through ten, random phrases like “Je suis tres fatigue,” “Je suis un poisson,” and “s’il vous plait.” None of these gets me a glass of white wine. And I’ve been jokingly pronouncing “merci beaucoup” as “mercy buckets” for so long now, well, God help me. And I have no bank of Dutch words that I know of.

I caught myself using every bit of language I know, including scraps of American Sign. Is it obnoxious to ask someone who most likely speaks French or Dutch if they speak Spanish after they deny knowing English?

The reality was I enjoyed being stuck in my head. It calmed me down. When I did use my words, they felt more powerful. I was eager and enthusiastic to get the chance to use what I did know. And everything was more challenging.

One afternoon, while headed back to my apartment, I wandered off the map I was carrying. I knew I was near home but just couldn’t find it, nor could I find my way back onto the map. I literally walked a hole in my shoes as I circled my neighborhood for an hour and a half, determined to find the place on my own. I finally found a woman who spoke some English. After I gave her the street name I needed, she proceeded to write a page of directions that included a transfer on the metro line. Frustrated, I complained, “I just know I’m within walking distance.” She patted me on the back, told me to head to the train station, and wished me luck. Maybe those were all the words she had in her bank of English. Upset, I walked on two more blocks and found my street. Good thing I didn’t get on that train.

In hindsight, not knowing the languages and being able to ask for directions afforded me a chance to see the art nouveau buildings in the Saint Gilles neighborhood while walking off all of the chocolate I had eaten the two days before.

Museum of Musical Instruments

View of Brussels from the cafe at the top of the Musée des instruments de musique.

A couple of days later, I wandered into a place where one can happily exist with no words at all: The Museum of Musical Instruments. (If you ever find yourself in Brussels, it’s a must see.) The museum is housed in a beautiful art nouveau building with ornate iron designs at the top. The first few floors contain glass cases of the most unique and normal instruments from all over the world and throughout time. When you enter, you are provided with headphones and a little digital box. As you wander near the instruments in the rooms, the music changes so you can hear what the instruments sound like. No one was speaking and everyone seemed happy and amazed. Music is of course a universal language, transmitting meaning and feelings no matter what language of words you speak. I will go back.

But for now, I’m practicing new French phrases just in case I need French again in the future. Je voudrais un bon vin blanc.

The Pandorus Sphinx Moth Pays a Visit

sphinx moth

photo by CGIOS

This pandorus sphinx moth, over 3 inches in wingspan, is a beast. Its green wings look like leaves. Hopefully a bird won’t pluck him off the window before I get home from work. This is the first time I’ve seen one of these unreal looking creatures. Cheers to backyard biodiversity, which is greater than you’d imagine in the middle of a city.

The Hornworm’s Worst Nightmare


Wasp Larvae on a Tomato Hornworm, photo by CGIOS

Bet you don’t wish you were a tomato hornworm. Sometimes it’s hard not to be jealous of the creatures around us and their unique talents and tastes. I particularly envy swallows for their soft, repetitive flights and cats for their innate sense of play.

I would envy the hornworm for feasting on one of the garden’s most delectable summer treats: the tomato.

But then I witnessed the start of this hornworm’s cruel demise. See those little white tic tacs on its body in the photo? They are wasp larvae exercizing their right to the life cycle.

If you find a hornworm covered in larvae, leave it be. It will not harm your plant under the extreme duress of being eaten alive.

Let nature take its course and be grateful you’re human.


Bring on the Butterflies!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, photo by CGIOS

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, photo by CGIOS

Please excuse my enthusiasm.

I had my first experience with a butterfly bush several weeks ago while visiting my cousin and his wife. As I walked up the driveway, I witnessed this magically tranquil moment of Melissa sitting on the porch reading while dozens of tiger swallowtails floated around her. They weren’t actually attracted to her, but to the brilliant purple and pink blooms of the butterfly bushes she had planted at the edge of the porch.

My run-ins with the shrub have not been unlike the experience of hearing a new word and then suddenly hearing it ALL the time and wondering what rock you’ve been hiding under. After leaving my cousin’s house, I stopped in Ellicott City. At the edge of the parking lot, I saw butterflies everywhere. And yep, huge purple butterfly bushes. When I arrived back in DC and pulled into the alley, I noticed that my neighbor also had butterfly bushes planted. On my hike up Maryland Heights in Harpers Ferry, I noticed butterfly bushes at the very top. Zebra swallowtails were desperately trying to get the last of the nectar on these almost dead blooms. A note about zebra swallowtails: They hang out where paw paw trees (my favorite tree) grow. Their caterpillars eat the leaves. There are oodles of paw paws on the Billy Goat Trail.

Zebra Swallowtail on the Maryland Heights Trail, photo by CGIOS

Zebra Swallowtail on the Maryland Heights Trail, photo by CGIOS

The butterflies… In an effort to provide food for these well-dressed pollinators, I bought my own butterfly bush and planted it in the backyard in full sun. Find more information on how to grow and care for this hearty plant here. As for my luck/skill, so far so bad. The blooms are completely gone. I had hope when a few blooms opened last week. I tried to coax a swallowtail bouncing around the alley over to my humble food source. It floated over it but was clearly not interested. Maybe the plant is just suffering from the transition from pot to ground and will recover shortly.

I’m remaining optimistic and daydreaming about reading on the patio with dozens of swallowtails floating around me.

Cooking with Idioms


Chocolate Ganache Tart & Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies, photo by CGIOS

When life hands you gargoyles, make snickerdoodles. Okay, so that’s not really how that saying goes, but sometimes it feels just that way. I will admit, much to my own dismay, that on occasion I spiral down. And I admit that asking for help, or rather support, has always been difficult for me, so I don’t usually. What works best is taking the focus off of myself and finding a way to meditate by participating in and focusing on a process of some sort.

Luckily, I enjoy cooking. When in the kitchen with a glass of wine (my glass is half full if it’s white and half empty if it’s red), scratch ingredients, and music playing, I find my voice both literally while singing along and metaphorically through the scientific process of creating food.

The problem is I cook more than I can chew. I’m not a big eater and I never have been, except when it comes to the guilty pleasure that is ice cream of course. Usually, my eyes are MUCH bigger than my stomach.

So why do I like cooking so much if I don’t always eat the food? I love giving food away to people who enjoy eating. Feeding people makes me feel good about the world, especially when I’m giving them food that starts from the basics. I recognize the energy and love I put into the process, no matter how bad the final dish turns out, and I know the ingredients are real. There’s no list of 20 unpronounceable mystery ingredients stickered to the package. If people eat the food and smile, even better if they ask for the recipe, then it’s a good day.

Birds of a feather…. My friend Jen is a master of food as gifts. She made brilliant marshmallows, a jar of make-it-yourself soup, and caramels as holiday gifts three years in a row.


Thai Pistachio Muffins, photo by CGIOS

Some tips when gifting food:

1. Mix it up. People can get tired of baked goods every Monday. (Hard to believe, but there is too much of a good thing.) Try muffins, cookies, berries (sometimes less is more as I learned when I brought in freshly picked blackberries to the office), stuffed pears, etc. Be creative.

2. Careful with the allergies. Make sure you know if anyone is allergic to anything and always label foods. My inclination is to not give away food if I’m not sure. I don’t want to put someone’s life in danger.

3. Feed people with food you make and gather. The goal is not to unload that extra box of Girl Scout cookies you didn’t really want, two-month old Halloween candy, or a relative’s holiday cookies on the resident office goat (you know who you are).

4. Cook for soup kitchens, for busy friends and family (a death in the family or a new baby are appropriate occasions to help out), for gifts, celebrations, game nights, etc.

5. Have fun! Occasionally the grass IS greener on the other side, so get to that greener side with a spatula in hand and a sense of adventure. After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking the eggs.

stuffed pears

Stuffed Pears, photo by CGIOS