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The Lilac Law

Lilacs bloom according to this algorithm:

1) Sum the squared mean daily temperatures (in Celsius) since the last frost.

2) Use an average of the past few years’ daily temperatures to predict the date when this sum will reach 4264.

Despite my distaste in math, I find this fascinating—not just that this law was figured out in the 19th century, but that it was figured out at all. But then phenology goes back centuries.

Phenology* is the study of natural cycles—how one influences the other, and how we can take cues from what happens. The first beech leaves that unfurl, the first flight of the swallowtail butterfly—every genesis reflects the fragile interconnectedness of soil, air, sunlight, temperature, and dozens of other natural factors.

Long before spreadsheets and calculators, growers created their own data by carefully watching and waiting for nature’s cues to sow their precious seeds. It was a question of survival, a much more in-your-face reality back then. With no Shop-Rite, and your nearest neighbor often miles away, carelessness meant rolling the dice on starvation.

Some of their data include:

When lilacs are in leaf, sow beets, cabbage and broccoli.

When lilacs are in full bloom, sow beans and squash.

When apple blossom petals fall, sow corn.

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Apple blossom.

Or, as Laura Ingalls Wilder writes in Farmer Boy (a biography about her husband Almanzo’s growing-up years on an New York farm in the mid-1800s), when the leaves on the ash tree are as big as a squirrel’s ears, sow corn.**

In the same book, little Almanzo eagerly awaits ‘the dark of the moon’ (new moon) in May so he can sow pumpkins.

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Another one. When you see these…

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(Bearded irises)

…set out transplants of these.

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(Melons. Clearly.)

I read that even Martha Stewart traditionally plants peas on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father swore by ‘Plant turnips on the 25th of July, wet or dry.’

(Compelling story: He also went goose hunting one fall day in the 1880s while he and the family were living in Dakota Territory, and, utterly dumbfounded, returned home with nothing. It wasn’t because he was a lousy shot; it was because the birds were flying high above the clouds—he could hear them—but not one came down low enough to shoot. They were getting out of Dodge, and at breakneck speed. In fact, he said the entire prairie was still; every living thing was hidden away. Another day that same fall he said he’d never seen muskrats’ dens built so thickly. He got his family out of their rickety little claim shanty and into a sturdy house in town in a heartbeat. Can you finish this story—have you read The Long Winter? Blizzards slammed the mid west for virtually seven months.)

Do you sow, or act, according to any of these ancient rules? What successes or failures have you had?

Do you swear by any other cues?

Has the fairly recent wacky weather (here in NJ we had snow Halloween 2011, and snowdrops came up right after Christmas that year) affected what you’ve done?

Does anyone work with Project BudBurst, the environmental group that asks people from all over to record when plants start sprouting in the spring?

*Not to be mistaken with ‘phrenology’, a study based on determining one’s character by analyzing the bumps on one’s head. (I’ve had two concussions. For me, the smart money’s on ‘a touch clumsy’.)

**About 1/2″ in diameter. Don’t go chasing us to compare. –A PSA from the Squirrels Are Faster Than You Commission

wrongplanet.net/postt63638.html

budburst.org/

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Last week I stopped into my favorite little grocery store and put my soon-to-be purchases on the conveyor belt.

‘Milk and cookies,’ grinned the cashier, young enough that he probably has them at snack time every day.

‘It’s been a long day. I’m an emotional eater,’ I replied.

He looked down and saw that I had opted for the package of three chocolate chip cookies instead of the single, then looked over at the two cartons of milk, then glanced up at me questioningly.

‘And I’m an over-achiever.’

I know and you know there are definitely less fattening* ways to assuage a bad day than to snack it away. But unless you have bad days every day or even every Thursday, I think it’s a perfectly reasonable way to feel a little better if it works for you. And it does for me.

Some good friends and I were talking about this notion the other night. They had just endured a grueling, heartbreaking couple of hours caring for a neighbor who has a debilitating illness, and our plans to go out for a pre-birthday** pizza dinner that same night were especially welcome. Our night out allowed them the opportunity to 1) celebrate my birthday with me 2) eat, because they usually eat dinner far earlier and were ravenous 3) blow the grime off the whole sad experience by going to a new place and trying some really wonderful housemade pizza***. We ate, and drank, and brooded a little, and laughed a lot. And while it wasn’t a silver bullet that fixed everything, it relaxed them.

I believe each of us needs to have a working plan, a list of proven ways, to reboot for when horror strikes. Because it’s going to. As long as the ways you reboot don’t hurt anybody, do them.**** Yours might be buying a new pair of chandelier earrings, dunking your feet in the pond at the end of your street, or a long car drive to nowhere in particular. Me, I reset by watching British movies of any stripe, texting my best friends and asking them to send me off-color jokes, and eating dark chocolate. Sometimes I go the whole hog and get the chocolate surrounded by a cookie. Then I pour a cold one.

This is peace to me—a very simple, inexpensive way to smooth the uncomfortable wrinkles that get jammed into my day from time to time.

For more years than I care to count I white-knuckled my way through my life, trying to work through stuff that was going wrong at the moment while also—I’m now bewildered by this—trying to prevent bad stuff that MIGHT come down the pike. Here’s what I learned: It’s not worth it. You could have spreadsheets dedicated to protecting yourself, each member of the household, your belongings, your favorite pop star and the place where she gets her highlights done…but stuff is going to go wrong anyway.

Having a coping plan that works for you is what matters. Recovery is what matters. This kind of preparation is okay—not just okay, but vital. It liberates you beyond belief so you can just live your life, and live it big.

Scribble down some ideas for yourself right now and stick it in your wallet. I humbly suggest you start with this post’s namesake. They won’t fail you.

c

*The milk was *1%*! Cut me that much slack.

** It was 10/18. Presents and special treatment are still being entertained.

***Porta, Asbury Park, the baddest new pizza place at the Jersey Shore.

****And don’t you feel guilty for a millisecond, or you’ll have me to answer to.

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