Sunday, May 22, 2011

Down on the Farm

The cottontails, robins, squirrels, and other backyard creatures I've spied since returning to Newton have added pleasure to my days. It's been especially nice to open the windows and hear birdsong while I work. But I still miss my toy poodle, Cosmo, who died almost ten months ago, and I yearn for closer contact with animals. I'm not ready to commit to another pet, but I knew where I could find a barnyard full of animals—Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Drumlin Farm is a wildlife sanctuary as well as a real working farm run by the Massachusetts Audobon Society. I remembered it well from the days when E. and I brought our children there to marvel at the animals, but it had been years since we'd visited. I wondered whether he and I would be the only adults unaccompanied by youngsters. I needn't have worried. There were lots of other adults enjoying the spring day, walking on the nature trails, and delighting in the antics of the farm critters. Lots of kids, too, both of the goat and human variety, which only added to the fun.

Thanks to Cosmo, I've become much more attuned to animals and the value of their lives. I recently read Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer. His description of modern factory farming of animals filled me with horror and shame, so much so that I'm now eating mostly vegetarian. Occasionally, I make an exception for wild fish, pastured chicken, or grass-fed beef. I'm not totally opposed to eating meat, but I believe that animals should have a life worth living before their ultimate death. Happily, at Drumlin Farm they live that kind of life. (Note: All of the photos below can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

Before we reached the actual farm complex, we visited "Bird Hill," home to injured birds given sanctuary by Drumlin Farm. Among them were a barred owl, a broad-winged hawk, a turkey vulture, and this pheasant, who seemed content enough, though I felt sad to see it confined to a cage, albeit a roomy outdoor one.

As we were leaving Bird Hill, we encountered a volunteer holding an American kestrel, which is a small falcon. This bird had not been injured but had been rescued as a baby and had imprinted to humans so could not be released into the wild. The handler assured me that it has enough space in its large cage across the road to experience some of the thrill of flight, though nothing like its wild cousins enjoy.

On to the farm! I found the chickens enchanting—curious, lively, playful. At Drumlin Farm, they have a pleasant outdoor enclosure which abuts a well-maintained indoor space. They can go back and forth at will. This healthy rooster did his rooster thing, strutting his stuff for everyone to see.

Our next stop was the pig area. The pig family was knee-deep in mud, the mother rooting away. Every time the piglets tried to nose in and join her, she shoved them away with her snout, which elicited high-pitched squeals. To my untrained eye, at least, it looked like pig heaven.

The sheep were nearby, doing what sheep do, eating grass and baaing. The one pictured is a natural-colored member of the Romney breed (I'll resist any political jokes). I like its black face, how neatly delineated it appears from the sheep's thick fleece.

The goats and sheep live in close proximity and share a big shed. In fact, you can see a sheep among the goats at the back of the group photographed below. I love how the kid clumsily climbs on the mature goat's back. And she doesn't seem to mind. She may or may not be its mother—a few moments earlier, the same kid was standing on the sheep's back!

There was lots more to see—cows, the resident pony, a vernal pool, an indoor-outdoor area housing rescued red foxes, opossums, and New England cottontails, and even an exhibit about bats, featuring hand-made bat houses. All in all, a great day down on the farm.

I can't resist posting the following YouTube video, taken by another visitor to Drumlin Farm, which captures the sheep noisily demanding their feeding. (To see the video in its correct aspect ratio, link to Who knew sheep could make such a racket? If you can't take the noise, skip to about the three-minute mark and you can watch the sheep react when their food finally arrives.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Last Sightings Before My Northern Migration

Earlier this week, I departed from Miami and returned to Newton, land of New England cottontails, wild turkeys, and red-tailed hawks. Since my arrival, I've spotted a Baltimore oriole, many mourning doves, several robins, and a couple of cardinals, in addition to numerous bunnies and a lone hawk. The turkeys have yet to make an appearance, but their droppings on my driveway make it clear they still live in the neighborhood.

Spring rains have turned my lawn a lush green and my perennials will eventually attract gold scores of goldfinches and butterflies. There's much to enjoy here in the way of wildlife.

Still, I found it hard to part from my aerie overlooking Biscayne Bay. Every walk along the Bay holds the tantalizing possibility of encountering something unexpected. During my last few days in Miami, I spent extra time scanning the clear waters in the hope of seeing a spotted eagle ray or perhaps an unusual crab or some exotic tropical fish. My efforts were rewarded when I spied a small, round stingray I'd never seen before. And for once, I had my iPhone camera handy.

It took some detective work on the Internet before I made a positive identification—a yellow stingray. These rays have periscope eyes, giving them a 360-degree panoramic view of their surroundings. So, I'm pretty sure that while I was watching it, the yellow stingray was watching me back.

A few moments later, I noticed a gorgeous southern stingray cruising just above the seagrass. I've seen southern stingrays before, but never such a beautiful specimen and never when I had a camera on hand. Notice the delicate blue along the edges of the ray's wings and tail.

The real surprise of my day came as I ended my walk and crossed the parking lot toward my apartment building—I found one of my two Muscovy ducks happily slurping water from a drainage grate. I hadn't seen either of them for days and had even wondered whether they'd migrated north.

The duck looked up briefly when I greeted it.

Then it ruffled its feathers and resumed drinking, as the photos below show.

I felt delighted to see my feathered friend and a great sense of closure at its return only two days before my migration north.

Now that I've settled into my Newton abode, I look forward to taking a walk to nearby Chandler Pond. I'm hoping to greet the ducks there, as well as the geese, cormorants, red-winged blackbirds, turtles, and maybe a couple of swans.

Click on the photographs to enlarge them. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Remembering Richard

I was going to try for a little humor today, to lighten things up after yesterday's worried sunscreen screed. But there's nothing funny about Osama bin Laden, nothing humorous about his life or his death. And there's still only sadness when I think about those who died on 9/11, including one among them whom I knew, Richard Ross.

Richard was a genial man, a gentle person with an affectionate style. He had a wife, two daughters, and a son. One of his daughers, Alison, was diagnosed with a brain tumor as a young child. The family was given a dire prognosis, but Richard refused to accept it. He assembled a team of neurologists who ultimately saved Alison's life through a combination of surgery and radiation. She's now a beautiful, healthy young woman.

Not only did Richard nurse his daughter back to health. He became passionate about helping others diagnosed with brain tumors. With a friend, he founded the Brain Tumor Society, which in 2008 merged with the National Brain Tumor Foundation to form the National Brain Tumor Society. Before the merger, the Brain Tumor Society raised over 13 million dollars for brain tumor research. Click on the following link to watch an NECN feature documenting Alison's story and Richard's role in her life and in the founding of the Brain Tumor Society—Legacy of 9/11 victim survives with Brain Tumor Society.

E. and I met Richard through the YPO, a business organization that sponsors educational and social events. Richard loved the YPO and its related organization, the '49ers, and was a regular attendee at their gatherings along with his wife, Judi Rotenberg. So, it came to pass that I last saw Richard on the evening of September 10th, 2001 at a '49er event held at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

After a fascinating lecture and tour of the building, the group gathered for a cocktail reception. Before we left, E. and I stopped to chat with Richard. He mentioned that he had planned to fly to Los Angeles that morning, but had postponed his trip so he could attend the event with Judi. As we parted, Richard kissed my cheek and said "Goodbye, dear." The next morning, he boarded American Airlines Flight 11, bound for Los Angeles. The plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.

There's a phrase in Judaism, tikkun olam—repairing the world. Richard worked to create a better world, in his personal life and in the wider society. Bin Laden aimed to tear that world down. Today, I choose to celebrate and emulate the life of Richard and others like him. Let's hope the world chooses to do the same.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

To Screen or Not to Screen

That was my question this morning. I was about to set out on my favorite walk along Biscayne Bay, where palms and other foliage provide only intermittent shade. After some deliberation, I elected to wear a sleeveless top and (gasp!) no sunscreen on my arms or on the back and front of my neck. On my face, I applied a 25 SPF sunblock (Clinique City Block), but only across my sensitive cheeks and nose. Hardly the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy, and yet...

Whether 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of a tropical sun or to take arms against the threat of sunburn with chemical emollients—that's a decision dermatologists and others would have us believe is indeed a matter of life and death. Dermatologists maintain that exposure to the sun, even a single sunburn, can lead to melanoma, a life-threatening cancer. I take this concern seriously. Yet to protect myself from the sun's rays, I wind up slathering on a plethora of chemicals with dreadful-sounding names—homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, avobenzone, octocrylene, oxybenzone.

These chemicals are absorbed into my body through my skin, possibly causing ill effects. Oxybenzone, for example, disrupts hormonal activity. Having had breast cancer that was estrogen and progesterone receptor positive, I'm not sure I like that idea. The "natural" sunblocks, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are less likely to be absorbed, but even they can enter the body through minute cracks in the skin. None of this sounds appealing. Yet, too much sun exposure also seems like a bad idea.

To digress—I well remember when margarine became all the rage during the sixties and seventies, fueled by fear of cholesterol. Back then, when I read the list of chemicals among its ingredients, I couldn't believe margarine was better for my health than plain old butter. So I stayed with butter, but used it in moderation. Lo and behold, evidence eventually emerged that margarine of the type sold during that earlier period contained carcinogens plus hydrogenated trans fats that may have been as bad for heart health as the animal fat in regular butter.

So, what does this have to do with sunscreen? For years, dermatologists and sunscreen manufacturers have assured us of the safety of sunscreens. But perhaps time and studies will reveal that the very chemicals meant to prevent harm from sun exposure are worse than the exposure itself. Nowadays, all-natural butter substitutes are available that contain none of the chemicals or trans fats that made them such a bad choice in the past. Is there an analogy in the sunscreen world, something to protect us from the sun that won't ultimately do more harm than good?

Some people advocate the "natural" sun blocks, those which use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, as a safer choice. Newer formulations make them less greasy, thick, and white when applied. But they can still be pretty gooey, especially if you're putting them all over your body. The better choice may be good old-fashioned clothing—long sleeves, hats, long pants. For most activities, clothing made with SPF fabrics would be overkill. Some of the garments actually have sunscreens embedded in their fabrics, defeating the idea of using clothes instead of chemical sunscreens.

Of course, long sleeves and long pants can be awfully uncomfortable on a hot day. Plus, I'd look pretty odd in such a getup on the beach or, for that matter, anywhere in let-it-all-hang-out Miami. And then there's the issue of vitamin D. It's been recognized in recent years that many of us weren't getting enough vitamin D. Fortified food couldn't supply what we weren't getting from the sun and sunscreens were blocking our ability to utilize the sun for this essential vitamin. Supplements are one answer and I now take them daily. But some doctors (usually not dermatologists) argue that a small amount of sun exposure every day is actually good for us. Hence, my unprotected walk in the Florida sun might have done more than give my skin a healthy-looking glow—it might even have improved my health.

So, how do I reach a compromise I can live with, both in the figurative and literal sense? Since I've already taken Shakespeare totally out of context, let me end with a line from Cymbeline—" Fear no more the heat o' the sun. . ." I'll try to take that advice, but worrier that I am, I'll hedge my bets—sunscreen at the beach or when taking a long walk, long-sleeved shirts when it's not unbearable, and a preference for the shadiest spot on my terrace.

After a day of body surfing in  Manzanillo, Mexico, 1965—hard to see in the photo, but it was the worst sunburn of my life.