By flabby prose, I mean prose that includes unnecessary words. Besides improving the quality of one’s prose, cutting out excess words can help keep the word count down when there are page or word limits.
Stop Mentioning the POV Character’s Senses
Yes, sensory images are rich and desirable. What’s unnecessary is citing the character’s senses.
~She heard squirrels scampering up her tree. ~He smelled the tantalizing scent of acorns. ~They saw flying squirrels swooping overhead.
~Squirrels scampered up the tree outside. ~The scent of acorns filled the breeze. ~Flying squirrels swooped among branches overhead.
If the character describes a squirrel stealing a banana, the reader knows that character sees it and needn’t be told that he sees it. Ditto for other sensory systems. If they are mentioned, make it a conscious decision for a writerly reason.
Don’t forget the other senses! In addition to the five we all learned about in school, scientists classify up to 21 neurological senses. The body’s awareness of its place in relation to surroundings (proprioception) is invaluable to any character in tight spaces or moving quickly. Feelings of hunger or lack of air are classified as chemical senses, very useful to characters undergoing any kind of physical deprivation.
Consider also balance, gravity, pain, temperature, air pressure, the passage of time, itching, muscle tension, or even the perception of magnetic fields. There is an entirely separate set of nerves to detect stretching in the lungs, stomach, bladder, and blood vessels. Just think what a character could do when paying attention to that!
Stop Telling What a Character Notices, Remembers, Etc.
If a character recounts something from the past, it’s clear s/he remembers it. When a squirrel was a hairless kit, his mother taught him how to steal from bird feeders. He doesn’t have to tell his friends that he remembers being a kit.
Your reader doesn’t have to be told that the POV character noticed the squirrel hanging off the bird feeder again. It’s probably an event that happens every time the bird feeder is filled.
This is similar to how one handles what a character sees, hears, feels, smells, or tastes: it’s typically obvious in the rest of the sentence.
Beware Is, Are, Was, and Were
By and large, these verbs should be replaced by something stronger and less passive. “Fatigue weighs her down” is much stronger than “She is fatigued.”
Reconsider -ing Verbs
Is, are, was, and were often precede an -ing verb. For example, ”is walking” or “was walking” might better be replaced with “walks” or “walked.”
Question Every Adverb and Adjective
Some writing teacher or other once told me that an adverb modifying a verb is often hiding a stronger verb. For example, consider replacing “walked fast” with “rushed” or “hurried” or “scurried” or whatever fits the context.
Saying something is very tall or very beautiful is vague, triggering different images for different readers. Specify “over seven feet tall,” for example, or say what is beautiful about the person, object, scenery, etc.
And for goodness sake, don’t modify things that shouldn’t be modified, that are already specific. There is no such thing as ”very unique.” Unique means one-of-a-kind. If it isn’t truly unique, switch to “very rare”—and then consider whether the “very” is really needed! A second and a glance are, by definition fast/brief. Enough said.
Probably everyone knows that the most frequent, useful, and unobtrusive attribution is “s/he said.” True, when multiple people interact in a scene, the writer needs to identify whether it’s Joan, John, Susan, or Sam speaking. But when there are only two people in a scene, identifying/attributing every change of speaker gets clunky. Use sparingly.
If you’re unsure about whether it sounds clunky, try reading it aloud.
Wind interacts with water much the way it interacts with land. Local breezes are of most significance to athletes such as golfers, tennis players, sailors, and football players—anyone whose goal requires a precise interaction between object and wind, even a light one.
Waterspouts are largely comparable to dust devils on land. They fall into two categories: fair weather waterspouts and tornadic waterspouts.
Fair weather waterspouts are generally not associated with thunderstorms. A waterspout develops on the surface of the water and works its way upward. Fair weather waterspouts form in light wind conditions, so they normally move very little. Typically, fair weather waterspouts dissipate rapidly when they make landfall, and rarely penetrate far inland.
Tornadic waterspouts develop downward in a thunderstorm, and form over water—or (less often) move from land to water. Except for their development, they have the same characteristics as land tornados. They are associated with severe thunderstorms, and are often accompanied by high winds and seas, large hail, and frequent dangerous lightning.
A steam devil is a small, weak whirlwind over water (or sometimes wet land) that has drawn fog into the vortex, which makes it visible.
Steam devils form over large lakes and oceans during cold air outbreaks while the water is still relatively warm, and can be an important mechanism in vertically transporting moisture. They are a component of sea smoke.
Smaller steam devils and steam whirls can form over geyser basins even in warm weather because of the very high water temperatures. Hot springs in Yellowstone Park produce them on a daily basis, though they tend to be rare in nature.
Steam devils and steam whirls look very ethereal and frequently give rise to stories of ghosts and spirits. Because some of these geysers and temperature changes are regular and some are not, characters living by or traveling through areas “haunted” by steam devils could be seen as cursed, magical, outcast, guarded, etc. by nearby communities.
Tornadoes and Invisible Tornadoes
A tornado is a narrow, violently rotating column of air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground. We’ve all seen tornados, at least on the news or in movies. As if they weren’t dangerous enough, tornadoes can sometimes be invisible if they don’t pick up any water or debris while spinning around.
Tornadoes can be among the most violent phenomena of all atmospheric storms we experience. The National Weather Service categorizes tornadoes by a number rating, from zero to five, based on the twister’s inflicted damage according to the Enhanced Fujita Scale.
As a narrative tool, tornadoes offer immediate, often unforeseen danger. Even with modern meteorology tools, there is very little warning before a tornado touches down. The destruction caused by tornadoes is often very narrow, arbitrarily destroying one house while leaving its neighbor untouched.
Hurricane, Cyclone, Typhoon
A tropical cyclone is a rotating low-pressure weather system that has organized thunderstorms. Tropical cyclones with maximum sustained surface winds of less than 39 miles per hour (mph) are called tropical depressions. Those with maximum sustained winds of 39 mph or higher are called tropical storms.
When a storm’s maximum sustained winds reach 74 mph, it is called a hurricane. The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is a 1 to 5 rating, or category, based on a hurricane’s maximum sustained winds.
Generally, hurricanes originate in the Atlantic Basin; storms of the same force in the Pacific Basin are called typhoons. “Hurricane” is thought to have originated in Taino, meaning “Wind God.” “Typhoon” may have come from ancient Greek “tuphon” meaning “whirlwind” or “big/ heavenly wind.” According to language, our ancestors thought these enormous storms had a supernatural origin.
Although much about the weather is unpredictable—or at least most predictable short term, other weather patters are almost like clockwork. These generally predictable winds are called Periodic or Trade Winds.
Sea Breezes and Land Breezes
These develop due to differences in the temperatures between water and dry land. A sea breeze or onshore breeze is any wind that blows from a large body of water toward or onto a landmass, carrying some moisture; land/offshore breezes blow to sea and are dry.
These breezes are periodic because they are generally predictable, morning and evening. Also, they are relatively localized, and much beloved by beachgoers.
A monsoon is a months-long, seasonal, prevailing wind in the region of South and Southeast Asia. Between May and September, the wind blows from the southwest and brings rain (the wet monsoon). Between October and April, the wind blows from the northeast (the dry monsoon).
These rains blow in from the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea in the southwest bringing heavy rainfall to the area. The temperature difference created by the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Himalayan wall forms the basis of monsoons in the Indian subcontinent.
The regularity of monsoon seasons governs the agricultural patterns in these areas. Changes to the monsoon—if it comes late, brings more or less water than expected, or moves its path—can cause enormous hardship to communities that rely on the crops grown according to expected patterns.
Mountain and Valley Breezes
Valley breeze is the hot air blowing from the valley up to the slopes of mountain slopes. In contrast, mountain breeze is the valley breeze that is the cold air from the mountain flow towards the valley.
Trade Winds and Westerlies
These are permanent, prevailing winds. Indeed, the trade winds and westerlies are the most regular winds on earth. They blow with great force and in constant direction, which is why they are preferred by sailors. The trade winds bring heavy rain falls and sometimes contain intense depressions.
Trade winds blow from North east towards the equator in Northern hemisphere and South East Towards equator in southern hemisphere.
The directions of the Westerlies are opposite to trade winds and that is why they are also called antitrade winds. Trade winds are closer to the equator, in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Westerlies are closer to the poles
Characters might rely on regular trade winds to deliver supplies, escape a coming danger, relay news, or make a profit. Because of their regularity, meetings and departures can be worked into plots as scheduled, expected events.
Bottom Line: When wind meets water, it can be friend or foe.
According to the wind sock above, the wind when the photo was taken was blowing at about 6 knots (7mph). The sky is clear, the sun is bright, and there are no flying sharks. Unless you live in England or Seattle, this is nothing to write home about.
Even though you can’t actually see it, wind can create some pretty incredible things to write home about. Our ancestors definitely thought the wind was worth writing about, especially when it picked up everything around and sent it flying through the air.
Suppose you experienced a Dust Devil? A small dust devil, say 18 inches wide and a few yards tall is a sight to behold. A BIG dust devil—say 33 feet wide and 1000 feet tall—can be terrifying!
An extreme dust devil can reach 60 mph and last up to 20 minutes. In the process, it could lift more than 12 tons of dirt, and the friction between wind and surface can create sparks often mistaken for lightning. In fact, dust devils are not associated with storms.
Dust devils have been known to lift roofs and collapse buildings, sometimes killing people. They’ve been reported to fling animals and 10-year-old children about. Inflatable bounce houses are especially vulnerable.
Where do they come from? When hot air at ground level rises quickly and hits a pocket of cool/cold air, it can start to spin, forming a column of air. The spinning, along with friction from the surface, allows the column to move, picking up dust along the way. Dust devils are especially likely in deserts. Usually they cause little damage.
In Brazil, Saci-Pererêis said to live inside the dust devil and grant wishes to anyone who can steal his magic cap
Other Weird Winds
Martian dust devils form the same way as on Earth, but bigger: up to 10 times as high and 50 times as wide, with mini-lightning flashes. Dust devil trails on earth’s deserts usually disappear in a couple of days; on Mars, they remain visible (so I’m told) for weeks.
Gustnadoesare closely related to dust devils, short-lived and ground based, but they have stronger winds (maybe as strong as weak tornadoes) and develop over open plains areas of the U.S. They don’t form funnels and may go unnoticed. Though a gustnado can cause serious damage, it’s not tall enough to register as a tornado.
The actual definition of a tornado is a bit fuzzy, even among the experts. They can’t seem to agree on when one tornado stops and another starts. The swirling wind tunnel has to touch the ground and the clouds at the same time before it counts (that’s why gustnadoes aren’t really tornadoes). Tornado strength is judged by size, wind speed, and distance over the rainbow it can throw a farmhouse.
Snow devils develop when a strong wind hits a solid object (like a mountain), spins downward and lifts up snow, creating a vortex. They usually last only a few minutes, and they are small (seldom more than 30 feet across). Still not something one would want to be out in.
Fire whirls, aka fire devils or fire tornadoes, develop a vortex inside a wildfire. They are whirling columns of fire rising up into the air. They carry ash, debris, and smoke and feed the fire and spread it. Fire whirls have also been reported at volcanos and during earthquakes.
A firestormdevelops when a fire becomes so big and intense that it creates its own storm-force wind systems. Firestorms are most often associated with wildfires and brush fires, but they can also be created when large sections of densely built cities catch fire.
Haboob (هَبوب) is a kind of huge dirt devil found in deserts around the world, including the U.S., associated with thunderstorms. When the rain is released, it causes sand to blow up, making a wall of sand that precedes the storm. Haboobs can be several miles high and 60 miles wide.
Sandstorms(aka dust storms) don’t whirl or spin. It’s essentially a wall of wind that pushes sand in a more-or-less straight line. Entire dunes can be picked up and moved great distances. Sandstorms occur worldwide, wherever deserts are found.
Each spring, areas along the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Arabian peninsula are hit by a khamsin (خمسين from Arabic word for 50). The khamsin is a 50-day wind that coats everything in sand and dirt. In 2009, remains were found that appear to be those of a Persian army of more than 50,000 that vanished in 525 BCE. A strong wind that blew up from the south is suspected of covering them in suffocating mounds of sand.
A downburst occurs when the downdraft of a thunderstorm hits the ground and forces the air to gust outward and curl backward. As it moves horizontally, the wind can cause extensive damage to everything it passes over. The wind curling backward can cause further damage, creating tornadoes, waterspouts, snow devils, sharknadoes, and fire whirls.
A macrobursthappens when an extremely strong downdraft hits the ground. Horizontal gusts cover an area more than 4 km in diameter. These gusts can be as destructive as a tornado.
Microburstsare smaller in size and shorter in duration. A microburst is less than 4 km across and short-lived, lasting only five to 10 minutes, with maximum windspeeds sometimes exceeding 100 mph.
A derechois a widespread, long-lived wind storm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms. A typical derecho consists of numerous microbursts, downbursts, and downburst clusters. By definition, if the wind damage swath extends more than 240 miles (about 400 kilometers) and includes wind gusts of at least 58 mph (93 km/h) or greater along most of its length, then the event may be classified as a derecho.
Ground blizzards don’t involve any snow falling from the sky, but they are still deadly. Instead, snow that is already on the ground is whipped into whiteout conditions by an extreme cold front. Temperatures plummet, and snow on the ground is picked up by wind gusts up to 60mph. The Arctic cold fronts that cause ground blizzards also cause extreme low temperatures.
Every one of these wind events have been known to kill people! In addition, extremely hot or cold winds can do the same. Though we usually can’t see the air itself, the effects are pretty amazing!
Deities connected to the wind are often closely related to those of the air. In many traditions, the air and the wind are governed by the same deity. Cultures heavily reliant on changes in the wind, such as seafaring communities or nomadic groups on open plains, tend to have more detailed and powerful wind and air gods.
One of the most famous wind gods in mythology is Aeolus, the Greek god governing all winds, who was closely involved in Odysseus’s voyage home. He is certainly not the only supernatural being in charge of the wind and air.
If that’s not enough to convince you that wind and air hold a prominent position in our collective subconscious, just look at how many modern superheroes (and villains) have the names and powers of wind phenomena.
Bottom line: We tend to think in terms of breezes or stiff winds, but there’s so much more to wind than that!
Stay tuned, coming on Friday: When wind meets water, they create some of the most extreme weather.
By itself, “snow” is a weasel word, like beautiful or bird, that could mean almost anything. And it can be used for almost anything! Eating, recreation, insulation, magic…
The sports in the Winter Olympics are almost entirely based around snow. Next year (COVID permitting), we’ll be able to watch the very best athletes in the world slide around on crystalized or frozen water. Some of them will jump off a cliff with a bit of plastic strapped to their feet. Some will climb into little tubes and slide down slightly bigger tubes. Some will slide around on two bits of plastic and shoot things.
For those of us who don’t train 50 weeks out of the year, having fun in the snow generally means not sliding quite so fast.
One of the cheapest and easiest options, sledding only requires a slope/hill and something to sit on.
If you “borrow” the cafeteria’s trays to go sledding, make sure you return them.
To get an idea of how to walk in snowshoes, try wearing the flip-flops of someone with huge feet the next time you shovel the sidewalk.
This is the preferred method of chase for James Bond villains.
Descending a mountain via snowmobile may be the only method of travel faster than Olympic athletes.
There are indoor ski slopes in China, Dubai, and the US, so you can ski in the desert in the summer!
Unless you are a very small child, do not attempt this by attaching a sled to your dog’s leash. No one will be happy with the outcome.
For the fullest enjoyment of this spectacle, do the following
Hold a mug of hot chocolate or coffee, perhaps with a splash of brandy
Sit in comfort, inside by the window
Look out at the neighbors’ kids who have been duped into shoving your walk, steps, etc.,
Listen to their grunts as they strain to lift snow shovels far too big for their tiny hands
This is surely the most entertaining part of snow!
Depending on the region, snow can be used to build very temporary structures or nearly permanent. Even in areas where snow remains year-round, snow used as a building material is at risk of shifting or compacting.
Can use a sand or brick mold to make bricks
Furniture, most often made by backpackers.
Want lawn chairs on a break?
A dinner table in your cook tent?
With a good avalanche shovel, your dream home is just a little digging away.
Entire villages can be built of snow domes, which are surprisingly warm inside.
Temporary shelters can be erected quickly while travelling.
Because of its malleability and lack of color, snow makes an excellent creative medium for a patient artist with steady hands.
Use watercolors or food coloring mixed in water
The trick is find the balance between freezing the paint and melting the snow
Snow sculpture festivals and competitions are held around the world every year
Some artists can sculpt snow several stories high
Architecture and sculpture blend together in snow just as in any other building medium
Flop backwards onto fresh snow
Hope there are no hidden rocks or other nasty surprises under the surface
Wave arms and legs to create wings and a skirt shape
Look ridiculous as you attempt to stand without stepping on and ruining your creation
Make sure it’s clean and uncontaminated. Best is fresh and away from traffic and animals.(You heard it here first: don’t eat yellow snow.)
Consumed as is or melted in whatever quantity
The most obvious culinary choice.
Although most often made with shaved ice, they can be made with actual snow.
Adults might want a beer version; see recipes online.
Much like ice cream:
Heavy cream or milk, real sugar or Splenda, with or without eggs
The basic version includes vanilla
Best made in an ice cream maker
Get precise directions from Granny or online
Boil honey or maple syrup in a pot and pour it onto fresh, packed snow
It will freeze into a chewy, toffee-like treat
Fold a cup of snow into pancake batter directly before adding it to the pan
The water and air content will give your flapjacks a lighter texture
Margaritas or Daiquiris
Anything you would use shaved or crushed ice for
In extreme circumstances, eating snow can temporarily ease hunger pain
Snow for Survival
Consult backpacker sites or magazines for a plethora of uses specific to campers, but here are a few more general examples.
Snow has high air content (up to 95 percent by volume) making it an excellent insulator.
To survive outdoors, dig a trench to escape high winds or carve a snow cave into a deep drift by tunneling parallel to the ground. You’ll need to insulate your body from the frozen tunnel floor.
People have been known to survive an avalanche this way.
Unlike a dead leaf or smooth stone, snow is moldable, and the white color makes it easy to monitor a thorough cleaning.
There is also no danger of grabbing poison ivy snow by mistake!
Compress snow and apply it to injuries to calm inflammation
Wrap the snow in a towel or bandana to prevent damage to tissues
Cleaning wounds when nothing else is available
Lowering core body temperature in case of fever
Keep food or drink cold
Refill aquifers for summer water reserves
Sasquatch or Yeti
Any animal that frequents the area
Snowballs are said to have been the first missiles at the Boston Massacre in the Revolutionary War. Impromptu weapons are not the only military use of snow. Armies in countries with lots of snow tend to learn how to use it to their advantage.
Northern Shaolin Temple
Northern Style Shaolin Kung Fu differs from Southern Style in many ways, including the adaptations for terrain.
In northern China, Shaolin temples tend to be in areas with cold, snowy, rocky mountains.
Kung Fu learned under these conditions requires stronger legs and compensating for thick, warm clothing.
Winter War (1939-1940)
Finnish skiiers with submachine guns repelled invading Soviet troops in the Winter War.
According to legend, Soviet soldiers carried a how-to manual for skiing in their packs.
The Finns found these manuals highly amusing.
Believe it or not, snow is generally accompanied by rather cold weather. It can also make travel a bit inconvenient. These conditions, along with unstable surfaces, mountain terrain, decreased visibility, and changing landmarks make snow potentially deadly, even for experienced snow-dwellers.
American migrants in a wagon train from Missouri to California in 1846-1847
Only 47 of the original 84 migrants survived the winter
The wagon train was snowbound near Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Many migrants died of sickness, hypothermia, and starvation in the snow-bound camp
Some survivors claimed that they had resorted to cannibalism during the winter
After rescue, some survivors changed their stories repeatedly, sometimes admitting to cannibalism and sometimes denying it ever occurred
Archaeologists and historians have not been able to state definitively whether members of the Donner Party actually resorted to cannibalism
Dyatlov Pass Incident
A group of nine hikers died mysteriously in the Ural Mountains in 1959.
The hike was meant to be the final step in earning the highest certification for hiking instruction, so all participants were very skilled and able.
Their tent was found ripped open from the side and flattened.
All of the bodies were found wearing inadequate clothing, some without shoes or coats.
The bodies were discovered in several places on the mountain, some very far from the camp.
Several of the bodies had no sign of injury; others had very strange, unexplained injuries.
Soviet authorities called a halt to the investigation and sealed all records.
Alcoholism often goes along with extreme winter weather
A drunk person who falls down or falls asleep outside in the snow is likely to die of hypothermia quickly
Heavy snowfall would soon cover the body, not melting all winter
In spring, when snow begins to melt, corpses are uncovered
This is so common in some communities that these corpses are called snowdrops
This is also a good method to get rid of a body, destroying murder evidence
Language of Snow
As with so many things, the more important something is in our own lives, the more precise our language and the finer the distinctions we make. For example, skiers and snowboarders: for these people, snow and its condition are so important that they have a vocabulary all their own.
Freshly fallen snow, the preferred kind
Extremely light, fluffy powder
Usually found in Utah, Colorado, and British Columbia.
A lot of powder, ideal for doing tricks because it gives a soft landing
They had powder the day before that is now compacted
Bumpy, choppy, or tracked out
Usually occurs later on a powder day when hoards of people have gone through
Makes the athlete bounce around and gives knees a workout
Heavy, deep snow that feels like riding through concrete
Corduroy or cord
Ridges in the snow left by groomers
They create sound and sensation under your feet
After the snow has softened a little, when it gets cold again, leaving an icy layer on top
Dust on crust
A bit of fresh snow on top of hard, icy snow
A tiny bit of new snow that probably won’t last more than an hour or so
A run that has been groomed, giving a smooth, easy ride
Snow compressed so much it doesn’t move when stood on; requires good edges
Feels like sticky tape on skis or board, making runs slow
Frozen snow, makes for hard landings
Slush or spring snow
Wet, soft, very forgiving
Actually machine made
No doubt you have heard/read that Eskimos have a huge number of words for snow. This is more or less true. In fact there are several languages in a family of Eskimo-Aleut languages. For this group of languages, “snow” is an example of polysynthesis: a base word attached to suffixes that clarify the meaning.
So, what in English might take a phrase or a whole sentence to communicate can be accomplished in fusional languages with one (sometimes quite long) complex word. Readable.com gives these not-so-long examples:
Kanevvluk: ‘fine snow‘
Qanikcaq: ‘snow on ground’
Muruaneq: ‘soft deep snow‘
Nutaryuk: ‘fresh snow‘
Qengaruk: ‘snow bank’
The type of snow is often important, for reasons I’ll go into below.
Crud: the next phase from powder
Graupel: also called snow pellets or soft hail
Slush: snow that has started to melt and therefore becomes more wet
Often, the most salient feature of snow is how it comes down, because this determines how we function in it. Business and school closures, road safety, transportation delays, power outages, physical injuries (with accompanying ambulance and hospital activity), and structural damage all depend heavily on the type of snow.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) recognizes these types of snowfall:
A blizzard is a violent winter storm, lasting at least three hours, which combines subfreezing temperatures and very strong wind laden with blowing snow that reduces visibility to less than 0.40 kilometers (0.25 miles).
A snowstorm features large amounts of snowfall.
A snow flurry is snow that falls for short durations and with varying intensity; flurries usually produce little accumulation.
A snow squall is a brief, but intense snowfall that greatly reduces visibility and which is often accompanied by strong winds.
A snowburst is a very intense shower of snow, often of short duration, that greatly restricts visibility and produces periods of rapid snow accumulation.
Blowing snow describes airborne snow particles raised by the wind to moderate or great heights above the ground; the horizontal visibility at eye level is generally very poor.
Drifting snow is snow on the ground that is blown by the wind to a height of less than 1.5 to 2 meters (5 to 6.5 feet) above the surface.
In extreme cases, rural or mountainous communities may be cut off from their neighbors for weeks or months at a time by heavy snow.
Wet, sticky snow gathered during a raging blizzard might be used in workings related to high energy and power
A jar full of light fluffy snow collected during a soft, quiet snowfall could be incorporated into a ritual for peacefulness and tranquility
Snow in divination
In love spells
In beauty spells and infusions of lemon balm, rosemary, and basil and add to bath when moon is waxing or full
Can be frozen in ice cube trays for later use
To make ice candles
Make a snowman or snowman to use as a magical poppet to guard the entrance
Make bad habits into snowballs and throw them away
Use actual snow as you would quartz crystals in work related to wishes and goals
Write the name of a nuisance on a slip of paper, pack it in snow in a jar or bowl, place in a bag in the freezer to “chill out.”
Freeze some snow in a bag or jar for use later on in the year, when fresh snow isn’t available
Go for a walk in the woods to enjoy the silence, and the magic of the snowfall, and perhaps receive messages from the Divine.
Bottom line: Consider the multitude of ways snow is and/or can be part of your life.
On Wednesday I saw my first dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) of the season—and my thoughts have been returning to it since! Is that weird our what? It turns out that in being struck by the first dandelion I’m not alone.
Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close emerging, As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, had ever been, Forth from its sunny nook of shelter’d grass—innocent, golden, calm as the dawn, The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful face.
Indeed, if you look up poetry about dandelions on discoverpoetry.com, you will find the following:
But dandelions are more than just pretty faces! More than harbingers of spring. More than cheerful chips of sunshine come to yards and roadsides.
Have you eaten a dandelion recently? When I was a child, a “mess of greens” meant dandelions. But that fell by the wayside before I even reached adulthood. Something to reconsider?
Botanists consider dandelions to be herbs. People use the leaves, stem, flower, and root—raw or cooked—for various purposes. It’s one of the earliest edible plants to emerge in the spring. Native Americans and early European colonists eagerly awaited this addition to their diets.
The bitterness of raw dandelion leaves is similar to arugula—thus not for everyone. If raw dandelion leaves don’t appeal to you, they can also be steamed or added to a stir-fry or soup, which can make them taste less bitter. The flowers are sweet and crunchy, and can be eaten raw, or breaded and fried, or even used to make dandelion syrup or wine.
And dandelions are safe! There are no poisonous lookalikes for the common dandelion. Dandelions are found on 6 continents and have been gathered for food since prehistory, but the varieties commercially cultivated for consumption are mainly native to Eurasia and North America. A perennial plant, its leaves grow back if the taproot is left intact (to many gardeners’ frustration). You can forage your yard!
So, people can consume dandelions in many ways and forms. But why would you?
In terms of nutritional content, from root to flower, dandelion are highly nutritious plants, loaded with vitamins, minerals and fiber. Dandelion greens can be eaten cooked or raw and serve as an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K. They also contain vitamin E, folate, and small amounts of other B vitamins. What’s more, dandelion greens provide a substantial amount of several minerals, including iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Dandelions contain beta-carotene, which is an antioxidant that helps protect cells from damage. Research shows that carotenoids such as beta-carotene play a vital role in reducing cell damage.
The flower of the dandelion is also full of polyphenols, which are another type of antioxidant.
Dandelions are a good source of potassium. There is clinical evidence that shows that potassium can help reduce blood pressure. For example, research has found that people taking a potassium supplement saw a reduction in their blood pressure, especially if they already had high blood pressure.
There is some evidence to suggest that dandelions contain compounds that may help with regulating blood sugar.
Very little research has been conducted on dandelion’s effect on bone health, though some of its individual nutritional components contribute to the maintenance of strong, healthy bones. Dandelion greens are a good source of calcium and vitamin K — both of which are associated with the prevention of bone loss. Inulin, a fiber found in dandelion root, may also support healthy bones through improved digestion and the promotion of healthy gut bacteria.
So far, studies have looked at dandelion’s impact on cancer growth in test tubes and found that it may help with slowing the growth of colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, and liver cancer. As with other potential benefits, more research is required to show how effective dandelions can be as part of cancer treatment.
Dandelions contain bioactive compounds that may help lower a person’s cholesterol.
So far research has been with animals. However, testing on humans is still needed.
Some people use dandelion as a traditional remedy for constipation and other digestion issues. The root of the dandelion is rich in the carbohydrate inulin, which is a type of soluble fiber found in plants that supports the growth and maintenance of a healthy bacterial flora in your intestinal tract.
Researchers have found that dandelions show both antiviral and antibacterial properties. For example, one 2014 study found that dandelions help limit the growth of hepatitis B in both human and animal cells in test tubes.
Some studies indicate that dandelion extracts and compounds may help reduce inflammation in the body.
Some research indicates that dandelion may help protect the skin from sun damage.
Dandelion could help people achieve their weight loss goals, based on the plant’s ability to improve carbohydrate metabolism and reduce fat absorption.
Strong evidence to support this claim is lacking, however.
Dandelion root is often dried and consumed as a tea but can also be eaten in its whole form. The root can also be dried and roasted to be made into a substitute for coffee. Dandelion wine is considered quite a delicacy among those who know these things.
But Beyond Food
Because dandelions can endure almost any living condition, they represent overcoming every hardship by standing strong and proud. The word “dandelion” comes from the French name for the flower: ‘dent de lion’ or ‘teeth of the lion.’
Healing from emotional pain and physical injury alike
Intelligence, especially in an emotional and spiritual sense
The warmth and power of the rising sun.
When dandelions start popping up on your front lawn, consider it to be an omen of good luck. That is because Dandelion belongs to the planet Jupiter which is the planet of wealth.
Throughout the ages, dandelions have been used for divination, as a way to tell fortunes or make wishes.
If you rub a dandelion under your chin and your skin turns yellow, you like butter — at least according to an old wives tale found in cultures worldwide. Dandelions are the favorite flower of children
In The Hunger Games, the dandelion becomes a symbol of hope for Katniss, and evidence of her resourcefulness and expert foraging. When she sees the field of dandelions, she gains confidence in her ability to feed her family.
Whole essays have been written on dandelions as our favorite weeds. Indeed, there are whole worlds of dandelion info out there. Seek and ye shall find.
BOTTOM LINE: Dandelions are ubiquitous. Surely there is a place for them in your life and/or writing!
Surely, somewhere along the line, you’ve done the getting-to-know-you exercise in which each participant answers the question, “If you were an XXX, what would you be? And why?”
XXX can be anything—from trees to historical figures and beyond. In this variation, the question is “Would your character be an alpaca or a llama?” Although they share many similarities, they are quite distinctive in several ways.
The size difference between llamas and alpacas is obvious even from a distance. Llamas are big: as much as 4 feet tall at the shoulder, and tipping the scales up to 400 pounds. Alpacas are around 3 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh up to 150 pounds.
So, is your character tall for his/her gender? Muscular? Overweight? Or more petite?
Think clothing, hair, and skin. Both llamas and alpacas grow thick coats of hair, that can vary in color from white or pale yellow to various shades of brown and black, to piebald, but. . .
Alpacas are more likely to have one consistent hair color.
Would your character be more likely to wear flashy clothes (llama) or conservative clothes (alpaca)?
Both llamas and alpacas are herd animals, i.e., sociable. But overall, alpacas are more laid-back than llamas. A llama can move up or down the social ladder by picking fights—usually among males, to establish dominance. These involve spitting, ramming each other with their chests, neck wrestling, and kicking to knock the other off balance.
Females usually spit as a means of controlling other herd members. When overloaded or maltreated by humans, llamas spit, kick, lie down, or refuse to move. Llamas take care of each other by issuing a loud, shrill sound that rhythmically rises and falls to alert others to a threat. They also hum to each other.
Alpacas are typically shy and polite. Although they can play herd politics with the best of them, they seldom do so. They live in family herds, which typically consist of an alpha male, several females, and their young.
Is your character tough, competitive, ready to throw down, like a llama? Or a peacemaker?
A llama’s degree of upset is revealed in what they spit: the more irritated, the more digested the food that is spit. If they groan or go “mwa” it is a sign of fear or anger. When unhappy or agitated they lay their ears back. Ears perked upwards is a sign of happiness.
Alpacas spit when they are distressed or fearful. Their warning of danger is a sharp, noisy inhalation that sounds like a high-pitched bray. When a male is defending his territory, his ears are laid back and they turn sideways. Alpacas are amenable to petting as long as it’s not around the head or neck.
Communication is both verbal and non-verbal. Sometimes the meaning is unclear, just like people. For example, alpaca mothers and babies hum constantly, but all alpacas also hum as a sign of distress, curiosity, happiness, worry or caution! They also snort, grumble, cluck, scream, and screech. From what I’ve read, it appears alpacas are more vocal than llamas.
What emotional “tells” does your character display? To everyone, or only close friends and family?
Alpacas look smoother than llamas. Alpaca hair is silkier, each strand being half or less the diameter of llama hair. While it might not perfectly reflect refinement, llamas are used for food and as beasts of burden. Alpacas are herded for their hair, to make expensive textiles, and seldom kept as food animals.
Is your character smooth and sophisticated or a little rough around the edges?
Llamas can be trained to a lead quickly when young. Alpacas are also very trainable using food as a reward. Llamas can carry heavy loads over long distances and are more likely to be pack animals. Both can be guard animals for other species, such as sheep. Here again, it’s more likely that the guard will be a llama.
Sometimes, llamas even guard herds of alpacas! When guarding other species, males are most likely to hold their posts alone. If more than one male llama is put on guard duty, they might fraternize with each other and neglect their charges (just like humans!).
Nanobodies (part of the antibody) of llamas and alpacas are particularly useful to molecular biology research. Alpaca and llama nanobodies have a very strong ability to destroy viruses like HIV and influenza. Currently, researchers are looking into the possibility of a vaccine for COVID-19.
Does your character care for—take responsibility for—others? When, how, and why?
As with humans, much depends on the eye of the beholder.
Llamas have pointy, protruding faces and long, banana-shaped ears. Alpacas have smaller ears, shaped like elf ears, and a pug-like face.
Does your character share any physical characteristics with llamas or alpacas? Does s/he meet the cultural standards of beauty? And is it important?
Prior to the last ice age, llamas inhabited large parts of North and Central America. Now llamas and alpacas live primarily in parts of Peru, Equador, Bolivia, and Chile. As of the 20th Century, both alpacas and llamas have been reintroduced into the U.S.
Is your character a rolling stone or a homebody?
One interesting tidbit about alpacas: They use a communal dung pile where they do not graze.
One interesting tidbit about llamas: In Aymara mythology, the Heavenly Llama is said to drink water from the ocean and urinates as it rains. According to Aymara eschatology, at the end of time, llamas will return to the springs and lagoons they came from.
What is one interesting or unexpected tidbit about your character?
Bottom line: better know your character by looking at her/him slant!
It’s everywhere! And surely anything as ubiquitous as salt has a place in your writing. The English language is sprinkled liberally with salt. The following phrases are so common that they are clichés, and writers note: as such these may have a place in dialogue but seldom, if at all, in narrative. No doubt most if not all of these are familiar, so take this as a nudge to use them.
Rub salt into the wound: make a painful experience worse
Salt a mine: bring in ore or something else to make the source seem rich
Salt the books: inflate receipts to falsely show more money
Salt of the earth: a really good person
Salting the earth: victors sowed salt to prevent the growth of plants on enemy land
Worth one’s salt (or not): has earned his money (or not)
Take something with a pinch/grain of salt: view skeptically, think something is exaggerated
Salt away: save for the future
Old salt: old seaman
Above/below the salt: above is closer to the seat of power, indicating the diners’ relative status
Salt mine: figuratively, work, especially a difficult job or task
Salty language: somewhat rude or shocking
Writers: Consider building a scene or a plot around one of these
Salt in Religion
As valuable as salt has been, finding it used in religious ceremonies is only to be expected.
In Hittite rituals, during Semite and Greek festivals at the time of the new moon, salt was thrown into fire where it popped and crackled.
Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans made offerings of salt and water to their gods.
Some historians think this may have been the origin of Holy Water in Christian rituals.
In Aztec tradition, the fertility goddess (Huixtocihuatl) presided over salt and salt water.
Hindus consider salt auspicious and use it in weddings and house-warmings.
Devotees of Jainism lay an offering of raw rice with a bit of salt before a deity to symbolize devotion.
Salt is sprinkled on cremains before they are buried.
Mahayana Buddhists use salt to ward off evil spirits.
After a funeral, a pinch of salt is thrown over the left shoulder to prevent evil spirits from entering the house, a practice that is also copied by superstitious people of many cultures.
In Shinto Buddhism, salt is used for ritual purification (people and places).
Small piles of salt are placed at the entrances of shrines to ward off evil and attract patron spirits.
In Judaism, salted bread is recommended for passing around the table after the Kiddush.
Sabbath bread is dipped in salt, as are the bitter herbs at Passover.
Both Jewish and Muslim dietary laws require removing blood from freshly slaughtered meat; salt and brine are used for the purpose.
In Wicca, salt is symbolic of the element Earth; it cleanses harmful or negative energy. A dish of salt and one of water are nearly always present on an altar, and salt is used in many rituals and ceremonies.
What if a character not of a particular culture or religion learned something about the rituals and decided to practice them?
When most people think “salt” they think of seasoning food. In fact, only 6% of salt is consumed by people. Even so, gourmets identify at least 12 salts used in food preparation. Also, salty is one of the five basic tastes (along with sweet, bitter, sour, and umami). In addition, salt releases food molecules into the air, giving food an aroma. And FYI, apart from the basic tastes, almost all other tastes are actually smell. In small amounts, salt curbs bitterness and enhances sweet, sour, and umami. In higher amounts, it reduces sweetness and enhances umami, great for savor and meat dishes.
Table salt: most common, from underground deposits, highly refined and finely ground, usually treated with an anti-caking age. Often iodine is added to prevent goiter.
Kosher salt: flakier and coarser grained than table salt, good for sprinkling on food and cooking. Does not have additives. Not kosher itself, it’s used in the koshering process
Sea salt: from evaporated sea water, usually unrefined and coarser grained than table salt. Contains minerals (e.g., zinc, potassium, iron) and flavor from where harvested.
Himalayan pink salt: purest salt in the world. It contains the 84 elements found in the human body.
Celtic sea salt (gray salt): harvest off the coast of France, mineral rich, chunky grains.
Fluer de sel (flower of salt):delicate, paper-thin crystals, harvested by hand with wooden rakes, the most expensive of all food salts
Kala namak (black salt): it’s Himalayan, with a faint sulfur aroma that goes tofu (for example) the taste of eggs
Flake salt: harvested by boiling sea water, thin irregular crystals, very low mineral content
Black and red Hawaiian salt: both coarse-grained and crunchy, great with seafood and meat.
Smoked salt: slow smoked up to two weeks over a wood fire (e.g., hickory, mesquite, apple, oak, alder); varies in flavor
Pickling salt: used for pickling and brining, no added iodine or anti-caking agents, not many base minerals
Consider a character who has 5 or 6 types of salt on hand: which kinds and why?
Myriad Uses for Salt
In researching this topic, I read that there are more than 14,000 uses for salt. Searching online for uses for salt turns up lists of all sorts of lengths—6, 12, 20, 55—more than enough to establish salt’s place in the life of your character. Is your character thrifty, and thus finds salt a less expensive alternative to cleaning, medical, or beauty products? Does your character strive for simplicity, and want to purge as many products as possible? Here are a few examples. Each bigger topic could be researched separately.
Around the home
Keep wicker looking new
Put out a fire
Prevent new towels from fading in the wash
Health and beauty
Alternative to mouthwash
Exfoliate your skin
Gargle saltwater for sore throat
Cleaning with salt
Remove tea and coffee stains from mugs and carafes
Clean a dirty room
Refresh chopping boards
Get rid of watermarks on wood furniture
Salt in the kitchen
Quick and easy nut shelling
Test the freshness of an egg
Extend the life of cheese
Whip egg whites and heavy quicker
Keep sliced apples and potatoes from browning
Keep car windshield frost-free in winter
Pain relief from a bee sting
Keep stains from setting in clothing
Importance of Salt—Past and Present
It is essential for human and other animal life.
At the same time, excessive salt consumption is related to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases.
Salting food is one of the oldest methods of preservation, along with drying and smoking, dating to at least 6050 BCE in Bulgaria, 5400 BCE in Romania, and 6000 BCE in China. It’s still used as a preservative in processed foods.
Other uses include water conditioning (12%)
De-icing highways (8%)
68% of world-wide salt production is used for manufacturing and industrial processing (PVC, plastics, paper pulp, aluminum, soaps, glycerine, synthetic rubber, and firing pottery, drilling, to fix color in dying textiles, tanning hides)
Salt was used for barter pretty much world-wide:
Moorish merchants in the 6th century traded salt for gold, weight for weight.
Salt was traded like gold or silk everywhere along the Silk Road and throughout Europe.
Salt has been used as money in Ethiopia, other parts of Africa, and Tibet.
An allowance of salt was made to officers and soldiers in the Roman Army.
Writers: Consider an apocalyptic story in which the basic necessity of salt returns.
The Lasting Stamp of Salt
In many places, in many forms, the historical significance of salt continues to reverberate today.
One of the oldest roads in Italy is Via Salaria, salt route
The river Salzach in Austria translates to salt river
Salzburg means salt castle
The Roman allowance of salt turned into a monetary allowance to buy salt, and this salarium gave rise to the English word salary
In Japan, a person who works a M-F office job is often referred to as a salaryman (サラリーマン )
Salting the Dead—and Not Dead
Salt accelerates the process of decomposition of the body.
It helps to prevent bad odor from leaking out of the soil where the corpse is buried, so dogs and other predators don’t dig up the body.
If someone is buried in salt up to his/her neck: the salt would start to draw water out of the body slowly. The skin starts wrinkling and drying as time goes by, mouth becomes parched and eyes become irritated because of the loss of moisture. It becomes harder to breathe as water leaves the body and the blood becomes thicker and more coagulated. The terrible thing is that unlike being buried alive, the person would likely remain conscious and eventually delirious before dying a long time later. The corpse would be dehydrated and preserved by the salt and thus become a mummy.
Writers: consider the dark possibilities of torture and/or murder.
Didn’t know lettuce is a member of the daisy family? Lots of people don’t. And there is much else that is surprising about this enormous plant family. But even so, so what? Well, I got interested, and when I’m interested, I explore and write. Butwhy read this blog? Because writers can bring plants into their work in any number of ways.
as a character’s hobby
as a character’s work
as a reflection of a character’s character or personality
as a reflection of a character’s aesthetic taste (or lack thereof)
as factoids characters can drop into conversation to amaze and astound
The big picture. Technically, the daisy family—also commonly known as the sunflower or aster family—is the Asteraceae family. It’s huge.
32,913 named species
for size, it’s rivaled only by orchids. Which is larger is unknown.
mostly annual or perennial herbs, it also includes shrubs, vines, and trees
this family grows worldwide, except Antarctica and the extreme Arctic
Many daisies are known primarily as food. Dandelions head this section for a reason. They were introduced into the New World by European immigrants who ate the greens—but now are more often considered a weed than a food.
Besides lettuce, important food crops include endive, chicory, artichokes, sunflowers, and safflower.
Daisy species are used as culinary seasoning: tarragon, salsify, and stevia, for example.
“Daisies” such as camomile are used for herbal teas. Also included here are pot marigold, and echinacea, which is used in medicinal teas. In fact, many species are used as traditional anti-parasitic medicine.
Species such as ragweed cause allergic reactions such as so-called hay fever. Other varieties cause contact dermatitis—as many who work with flowers can testify.
Many of us think of daisies first as flowers, but many varieties are important for the flower industry. Besides dahlia, think Gerbera daisies, calendula, zinnia, chrysanthemum, and many others.
And, BTW, chrysanthemum as well as several less familiar species have useful insecticidal properties.
Marigolds serve important industrial purposes. It is used in commercial poultry feeds, and it’s oils are used in colas and in the cigarette industry.
Several varieties of daisies are copious nectar producers and are thus important for beekeepers. These include sunflowers, knapweed, and some species of goldenrod. Goldenrod in particular has a high protein pollen which helps honey bees winter over.
Bottom line: just imagine all the ways a little knowledge of the daisy family might season your writing!
Keeping a nature diary has spotlighted how often I look for and at birds. Bird feeders just outside my kitchen provide many opportunities as I eat breakfast or lunch. Until now, my focus was mostly on beauty, dominance, and learning the names of the locals.
Now, it seems I have a very narrow window on birds of the world: there are approximately 10,000 different species worldwide! They have a few things in common, however: they have feathers, wings, lay eggs, and are warm-blooded. They are thought to have evolved from theropod dinosaurs. They have hollow bones which help (most of them) to fly. (Kiwis are an exception. They are flightless. And, FYI, they lay the largest eggs relative to their body size.)
About 20% of bird species migrate long distances every year. And birds have the same five senses as humans: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
Butamid these commonalities are enormous variations.
Sight: birds use sight for flight, evading predators, and finding food. They are especially good in perceiving motion and detail—2 to 3 times better than humans. Those with more widely positioned eyes have a wider field of vision, including being able to see directly behind themselves. (Think evading predators and evading attacks.) They have an inner eye membrane to help protect their eyes and clean them often. During flight they often spread their wings to protect their eyes, and when attacking they go for the eyes of their adversary. The owl, famously, has to turn its whole head to see.
The ostrich is the largest bird in the world, and they have the largest eyes of any land animal. They are approximately the size of billiard balls, and are actually bigger than their brains. Also, FYI, ostrich eggs are the biggest and they have the fastest maximum running speed (97 kph, just over 60 mph).
But in spite of eye size, other birds (e.g., murres) have been shown to see, and recognize, it’s partner several hundred meters away out at sea.
Compared to mammals, birds have relatively large eyes. In general, bigger eye means better vision. In fact, bird eyes are bigger than they look, because all but the pupil is covered with skin and feathers.
Diurnal birds that become active at dawn have larger eyes than birds that become active later after sunrise. Nocturnal birds (with the exception of kiwis) have relatively larger eyes.
People have three types of photoreceptors in the retina: red, green, and blue. Birds have these AND ultraviolet—which they use to find food as well as partners.
Birds use their right and left eyes for different tasks. Domestic chicks use their left eye to approach their parent. Male black-winged stilts are more likely to direct courtship displays toward females seen with their left eyes. When peregrine falcons hung, they rely mainly on their right eye. New Caledonian crows show individual preferences for one eye or the other when constructing tools or prying prey out of crevices. The stronger the preference for one side is, the better the bird is at problem solving, foraging, etc.
So far it is know that songbirds, ducks, falcons, and gulls can sleep with one eye open. A study of mallard ducks showed that those sleeping in the center of a group were more likely to have both eyes closed, whereas those on the edge were more likely to keep the eye facing outward from the group open.
There is also evidence that birds can sleep on the fly, e.g., swifts and glaucous-winged gulls.
Hearing is the second most important sense. Their ears are located behind and below the eyes and are covered with soft feathers for protection. The ears are funnel shaped to focus sound. Here again, owls are special. Their face plates (facial discs) help direct sound. Surprisingly, so called “ear tufts” of owls and other birds have nothing to do with hearing.
Birds’ hearing is much more acute than humans for sound recognition, though with a smaller frequency range than humans. They are especially sensitive to pitch, tone, and rhythm changes. They use this sense to recognize other individual birds, even in flocks. Birds use different sounds, songs, and calls in different situations to identify predators, mark a territory, or offer to share food. FYI: owls simply devour small prey whole (think insects, mice, etc.) and regurgitate indigestible bits like bones and fur.
Bats and oilbirds (and perhaps others I haven’t read about) use echolocation. Bouncing chirps and clicks off solid objects is used to navigate through dark caves.
Touch is more important to people than to birds. Even so, birds are very sensitive to changes in air temperature, pressure, and wind speed, changes which are transferred down the feather to nerves in the skin. Some have special feathers around their bills that seem to serve a purpose when feeding.
Mutual preening—which involves manipulating one another’s feathers—is important in courtship for many bird species. On the other hand, they have fewer nerves in their legs and feet, which makes them less sensitive to extreme cold. Shore birds have extremely sensitive touch receptors in their bills, aiding them when feeding through mud, water, etc.
Taste is not well defined in birds. Depending on the species, they have fewer than 50 or as many as 500 taste buds, compared to 9,000-10,000 in humans. Birds can taste sweet, sour, and bitter, and can identify suitable and most nutritious food sources—but this is less important than sight and hearing. For those of us who hope to discourage squirrels and raccoons from a particular food source, birds are impervious to spicy-hot, as in cayenne pepper infused birdseed.
Smell is the least developed bird sense. They have small olfactory centers in their brains. Therefore, some claim this debunks the myth that nesting birds will reject a fledgling that has been handled by humans. In fact, songbirds cannot detect the human scent.
That generality aside, vultures, kiwis, honeyguides, albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters all use keen senses of smell to locate food, often from treat distances or when the odor is not noticeable to humans.
And now to some interesting (to me) facts about birds.
Hummingbirds can fly backwards. The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest living bird in the world, with a length of just 2 inches. Larger hummingbirds, on average, weigh less than a nickel. The smallest ones weigh closer to a penny
Chickens are the most common species of bird in the world.
Homing pigeons are bred to find their way home from long distances, and have been used as messengers for thousands of years. During WWI and WWII, Pigeons were used in this way, but also for reconnaissance.
Pigeons can learn to play pingpong, among things.
They are excellent at visual signal detection and other similar tasks.
A great tool-making bird is the crow. Not incidentally, they (along with ravens and rooks) have large brains compared to other birds. They mainly make probes out of wood, twigs, or wire to catch or impale larvae. But crows are among the only that create their own tools.
Tool use in other birds is mostly shown in intricate nest building.
Although not making tools, other birds use them. For example, a parrot may use a tool to wedge to crack nuts. Gulls often drop shellfish in front of cars to crack them open.
Although parrots are renowned for being able to talk, ravens in captivity are even better at mimicking human speech, as well as the sounds of car engines revving or toilet flushing. In the wild, they sometimes imitate other animals, such as wolves or foxes as a way to get them to make carcasses bird edible.
Acorn woodpeckers store acorns in holes they drill in trees or other wood items. They have been known to store up to 50,000 acorns (each in its own tiny hole) in a single “granary” tree
While on the water, the black and white coloring of penguins camouflages them both from above and below by blending with the surround.
One bird I especially like is the northern cardinal. It’s one of the most popular birds in the U.S. Indeed, the cardinal is the state bird for seven states: Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and North Carolina.
Although male cardinals are brighter, females have more elaborate songs. One cardinal may have more than two dozen song variations. Both sexes sing, and sing year round.
Cardinals are territorial—the territory defended against competitors by the male—and are noted for trying to fight their reflections in mirrors, windows, and other reflective surfaces. Cardinals are monogamous while together, and may mate for life.
They eat various seeds, fruits, berries, grains, and insects depending on what’s available.
Another favorite is the bluebird. They can be found throughout North America, including my back yard. Bluebirds, too, are monogamous throughout a breeding season, and may breed together for more than one season. Also like cardinals, they are territorial. The male tends to defend the outer territory while the females defend the nest.
A bluebird can spot caterpillars and insects in tall grass at a distance over 50 yards. They especially like live mealworms.
In my experience, bluebirds tend to come to the feeder in pairs—sometimes more than two pairs at a time. I think of them as family birds.
My backyard aviary is alive with goldfinches, purple finches, titmice, mourning doves, robins, grackles, starlings, house finches, and sometimes mocking birds, hummingbirds, crows or hawks. Right now, I know less about many of these birds. Sufficient unto the morrow.
Bottom line for writers: Nature writing can enhance any genre. Consider bird details for your next story.
As you may recall from my previous blog about pigs, the relationship between humans and pigs has been all over the place, from despised as filthy animals to being eaten by the millions. Actually, pigs and humans have so much in common that live tissue can be transplanted from one to the other, pig insulin is a boon to humans, and pigs are often the surrogate of choice when testing potential new drugs. According to some South Sea cultures, pigs were created so humans wouldn’t have to eat each other!
Experts guess that pigs were introduced to Papua New Guinea (PNG) from elsewhere, maybe as long ago as 10,000 years. Whether they have thrived or not is a matter of definition. PNG pigs are distinctive, and scrawnier than pigs with which we are more familiar. Wild pigs in PNG are slaughtered for food, but domestic pigs are eaten only when no other protein is available. Mostly they are kept for social and political uses, and are particularly important among tribes in the Central Highlands.
My interest in PNG pigs was triggered by my reading about pigs in general. I came across the fact that in Papua New Guinea, women sometimes nurse piglets. I had to know more! It turns out that in Papua New Guinea pigs have enormous economical, political, and mystical importance. They are used to buy brides, and to pay debts (for example, compensation for killing members of another tribe). Pigs are killed for important ceremonies, such as cremation, marriage, initiation rites, and to appease ancestral spirits. Pig killings are often followed by days of celebration. An exception is pigs that are sick or stolen, which are eaten as quickly as possible.
A man’s wealth is judged by the number of pigs in his household, and every few years, huge pig-giving festival are held to impress other tribesmen. The importance of pigs can scarcely be overstated. They are the only domesticated animal. And the care and feeding of the pigs falls to the women—along with virtually all the other work of the family, such as gardening, cooking, hauling water, gathering firewood, caring for children—and pigs! The men hunt or fish occasionally and protect against enemy attacks.
Someone named Adam, who reports working in PNG, posted the following online: “. . . And I have seen the women breastfeeding pigs. And there is a simple reason for it. Pigs are worth more to the tribe than children. You cannot eat or sell or trade children. . . A child eats your food, which in ten, leaves less on your plate.” Pigs must be kept alive until needed at all costs.
The women have very close relationships with pigs. The pigs accompany the women everywhere. Sometimes they spend the night in specially built sties, but others sleep in the same huts as the women and their children. They eat with the family. They are often given names and are treated as pets are here, being stroked, fondled, and cajoled in tender voices. Although women are the caretakers, the pigs are the property of the men. I can’t help wondering about what happens when a man decides to kill a woman’s favorite pig.
Although some people recoil in disgust at the thought of women nursing piglets, others cite more familiar examples of cross-species care throughout the animal world—for example dogs nursing kittens—and point out that people are animals, too.
The idea of a woman nursing a piglet is strange to us, at the least. But This has been the culture in Papua New Guinea for centuries. Who are we to judge?