Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fire Therapy

Gie me a spark o' nature's fire, that's a' the learning I desire.
-Robert Burns

A place of joy.

One can lose a lot of problems in a fire. There's something fundamental about flames, it's as if they call out to the very atoms of your body, reminding them of the stars in which they were first born. We have been sitting around fires tens of thousands of years, it is our oldest companion. One can not just sit with this ancient friend, one must feed it and poke it and explore it. Otherwise it fades away. To have a fire is not a passive activity. One interacts with the fire.

In most people's lives television has replaced fire. Instead of story tellers spinning great yarns of incredible adventures, joys, and heartbreaks in the minds of their audience, people sit and watch the same stories acted out for eyes/ears only. There is no mind involved. There is no imprinting the stories with their own hopes, dreams, and fears. There is no playing with the fire.

Sometimes on has to return to fire. Playing with the flames, feeding is beautiful hunger, feeding yourself of food cooked over it's coals...these things recharge a body worn down by the days and nights of modern life.

Sunday Clark and I escaped into the borderlands for a day of fire therapy. We had both been working ourselves to the bone. It was time to relax. By 8:30am we were off the known trails, bushwhacking our way towards Spring Creek. Hurricane Ike had swept through the area as both fierce winds and a wall of water nearly 20ft high. The landscape we knew had been changed turning old grounds into a place of new adventure. Each step brought a discovery.

A fire extinguisher left in a tree after the flood waters receded.

A spider 4" long from tip to tip. These guys are all over out there. It sucks to end up with one crawling on your face because you weren't paying attention to where you were going and walked through it's web. Though it is funny if it happens to someone else...

A beaver-chewed tree.

Spring Creek.jpg
A place of joy.

We had many sandbars to chose from, but we always wanted to see what was around the next bend of the river so we didn't stop until about 11am. I built a fire while Clark lashed together a tripod to support his cooking pot. Tripods are great for adjusting the exact position of your pot, but I prefer the simplicity of a dingle-stick. I was just boiling water for some tea so I didn't need a lot of exactitude in my setup.

I can't say this enough: tinder/toothpicks/pencil sticks/finger-sticks/etc to make a "one match" fire. The tinder was a clump of dry pine needles and each layer of the fire after that doubled in diameter. The big stuff isn't put on until the smaller stuff is raging away in a good blaze.

Dry kindling can often be split out of damp wood by batoning a blade along the grain of the wood. A fixed blade knife with a flat spine can be used though here I am using my tomahawk. I like the tomahawk because it is light yet very effective. You don't want to use a folding knife for this as striking the blade will cause it to break the locking mechanism and fold up on you. A fixed-blade knife with a saw back or a sharp (or even semi-sharp) spine will chew up you striking-stick before you are able to accomplish the task, plus sawback knives can easily crack by striking their back.

Clark's tripod over the fire, my dingle-stick coming in from the right.

Hawaiian Tea.jpg
Tea from a good friend who I've never actually met. Sidenote: that is nine days worth of facial hair on my upper lip and chin.

Clark is many years removed from his Boy Scout days and his tripod wasn't quite up to par. Since we didn't want to cut any green, living wood it was made from the same dry driftwood we were using for the fire. This resulted in a flaming tripod but that was okay. We weren't out there to accomplish feats of engineering.

So fire burned, jalapeno sausages and Mountain House lasagna were eaten, Merriwether's special Brandy+X was drank, and the problems facing the world were tackled. The fire died down and was rebuilt several times.

Finally it was time to let it die for good. Sadly one can not live their entire life staring into the flames, we both had to return to our responsibilities, our families, our modern lives. But this was okay. Our spirits were recharged, our stomachs were full, and we had a long walk along through the borderlands to get back to my truck. Back home, our wives and daughters would be excited by our return, especially since we were getting back earlier than originally planed. This is a good thing. Sometimes it can be a very, very good thing!

Crossing Panther Creek. The day was only in the 50's but the sun had warmed the water up to a point where walking through it wasn't painful.

A place of joy.

Hopefully y'all are now thinking 'I need to do that". You are right, you do need to do that. Get some of your buds together, pick up a cheap patio fire pit or other fire ring, turn some logs into kindling and then into ash while talking to one another. There is old magic in doing this, but it is magic the world needs right now.

Peace be with you.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today, remember things.
Good things which made you happy.
Bad things that made you stronger.
People who you love.
People who you miss.
People who changed your life.

Remember all these things
And give thanks.

Peace be with you.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Camping at the Texas Renaissance Festival

Studiers of history (aka historians) are well aware of the Little Ice Age that took place 1250AD-1650AD and the major upheavals it caused in the world. Villages were smashed by glaciers, populations starved due to crop failure, ports and harbors froze, and as far as I could tell from our latest jaunt through time, the resultant barbarian hordes had an odd fondness for 70's soft rock! Yeah, go figure.

We arrived on the edge of the barbarian camp late Friday evening due to heavy construction on the Time Lanes just south of Conroe. It never fails whether you are trying to get across town or across Time, the road you need will be under construction. Oh well.

The thermometer read a hair under 40F as we set up camp. Miniwether and Mambowether huddled under US military poncho liners (Mahalo!) while we set up camp and some friends set to building a fire.

Sidenote #1: the Texas RenFest camping rules state no fires are allowed other than the main campfire. Once you get there though they are more than willing to rent ($20) you a cut-up oil drum to use as a fire ring and sell you wood for $1 per log! If you do chose to be robbed in such a manner be sure to pick an oil drum that has already been used as a fire ring, otherwise you spend the evening breathing the vicious smoke of burning oil. Better still bring your own wood and your own fire ring. In the dark no one can tell you aren't using a cut up oil drum.

Sidenote #2: People, learn to build fires, okay? If you've gone through an entire bottle of lighter fluid and the logs as thick as my leg still haven't caught fire you may want to rethink your methodology! Remember, it's tinder/toothpicks/finger sticks and then small increases in size up to logs.

Eventually the camp was up and the fire was roaring.

Mambowether, entranced.

The thrill of dancing flames wasn't enough to keep the little ones awake and they shuffled off to their sleeping bags. From across the campgrounds drifted the yells and shouts of the horde coupled with...Steely Dan music?! Honestly, that was actually worse than the techno-rave music of other years. Apparently young thugs don't like cold weather, leaving the campgrounds to an older crew.

Bundled against the cold.

Being the insomniac that I am, I wandered over to the main "adult" bonfire to, uh, listen to the drummers.

Nothing to see here folks. Just good drumming and uh, good dancing.

Come morning we had a bit of breakfast before heading into the faire. Miniwether had a great deal of fun playing with the large beetle she caught while Mambowether preferred to just sit and eat cookies.

A new friend.

Camping means cookies for breakfast!

After breakfast it was time to head in to the Faire. Misseswether had sewn nice, warm cloaks for herself and the girls the week before, while I wrapped myself in three layers of Chinese silk to ward off the cold air.

Merriwether clan, circa 700AD

Me again, because I'm so dang beautiful!

As usual, we have our favorite parts of the Faire. For instance, Misseswether and Mambowether love the juggling toys...

Balancing orb.

Juggling flags

I do it!

Miniwether loves the rides and the shiney-pointies!

I want one of these in the back yard!

Mini and I thought the "Dizzy Dragon" was awesome, but it made Misseswether really sick. Imagine a telephone pole with a circle of benches around it, connected to the top of the pole by chains. Two strong guys turn the circle of benches around the pole causing the chains to twist up around the pole. Then they let go and jump out of the way. The chains unwind causing the benches to spin around faster and faster until they twist up in the other direction. Then it unwinds again. Repeat 4-5 times. It is definately worth the $4 per person!

Please dad?

Of course the food plays a big role, too!

Funnel cake and Gypsy music!

Turkey leg!

Turkey leg!

Kettle corn!

My favorite part of the Faire? Just being there. It's very different now that we have kids. Most of our money gets spent in Sherwood Forest, we skipped my favorite but wildly inappropriate for children comedy troupe Sound and Fury
and the hard blowing/drumming music of Tartanic. In return I get this:



Old friends



And of course, fireworks!

The day passed far too fast. At dusk we retreated to our campsite to munch on kettle corn and watch the fireworks followed by campfire flames. Sunday morning was spent cooking up a fine breakfast, striking camp, and saying goodbye to our friends.

Misseswether in the kitchen.

With luck I'll be back there this coming Friday, though the long-range forecast predicts ugly weather. That doesn't matter though, nothing cane ruin the Faire.

Sidenote #3: Skip the fishing game in Sherwood Forest! Your child tries to "catch" a fish with a magnet on a pole. If they succeed they get to make a wish and then toss the "fish" back in the pool. It is craptacular.

Sidenote #4: Fire ants are still active at 45F. If camping it makes sense to put down some ant killer around your tent.

Peace be with you.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Opposite Ends.

You know what turns a good walk in the woods into great walk in the woods? Getting paid to do it! I held my first Edible Wild Plant class down at the Houston Arboretum this last Saturday and it went very well. People learned, peopled laughed, and most importantly, everyone survived. Okay, I wasn't worried about that last one, it just sounded funny to me.

edible wild plants.jpg
Food disguised as weeds in my yard. Many more were found at the arboretum.

Nine people showed up for the class and it lasted five hours. We covered about half the Arboretum trails and I pointed out edible plants everywhere. Of course, I also taught them about the poisonous plants they needed to avoid. Turns out there was almost as many of them as safe plants. One of the class members had recently been poisoned by a plant she had thought was edible and was thankful I spent as much time as I did warning them about nature's bad guys.

I forgot how tiring teach is, especially when you are doing it while walking for miles. I got home just in time to make supper for the family (mmmm, tenderloin!) and then CRASHED at 7pm. I slept until 4:30am Sunday morning, then fell asleep again until 6am. I think that long sleep saved me, though. Everyone in my research group is out with the flu, I seem to be the only one left standing. That's a good thing as I have to teach advanced chemistry topics to a room full of engineers all this week. They were a little excited today when I was able to work Damkohler Numbers into class today, but they all went to sleep while I talked about the fascinating aspects of zwitterionic surfactants. *Sigh* engineers and chemists find beauty in such different ways. The engineers wax almost erogenously about equations they have known and find beauty only in the abstract perfection of a mathmatical model. A chemist, looking upon the same object, will exclaim "meh" and switch back to covetous study of the molecules flowing through the engineer's equations. Our eyes lustfully trace the sensuous curve of an aromatic ring or the long, languid movement of an eight-carbon chain. A glimpse of a nitrogen peaking out from between to oxygens keeps us going for days. A hydrogen stripped of it's single electron, leaving it standing alone but highly reactive as a naked proton...

Um. If you want me I'll be in my bunk.


p.s. To learn more about edible wild plants check out my Wild Edibles Blog

Friday, November 14, 2008

Oh, this will be great!

Please, if you have any sort of humor bone in your body you need to help me out with this. It seems the U.S. government has teamed up with Google to track the spread of the flu. Google will be reporting the locations of heavy searches on flu symptoms (vomiting, headache, fever, etc...) to the Center for Disease Control. By doing this they feel they'll be able to track and respond to flu outbreaks better.

The problem is they told people like me that they'll be monitoring these search terms.

Why is that a problem? Well, no pun intended but I have kind of a sick sense of humor. Ah, who am I kidding...that pun was completely intended!

Here's what I want you to do. On Nov. 19th start doing searches on Google for "flu, vomiting, bleeding from eyes and gums". You search for that and have everyone you know search for that! Imagine the confusion and fear that'll erupt at the Center for Disease Control when they see thousands of searches for those symptoms. Of course, I might end up in federal prison for instigating this, but it would be so funny!


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Well, I didn't plan for THAT.

Oh cool, it feels like bloody playdough!
-Miniwether, wrist-deep in freshly ground venison.

Yes, that is a spoon stuck in her hair.

So, Monday a friend at work asks if I'd like some deer meat. He didn't have room in his freezer for it and he knew I'm always up for free food. Tuesday morning comes and I helped him carry a heavy ice chest from his truck to mine. Mmmmm, venison!

When I got home yesterday evening I lugged the cooler into the house and exclaimed, "Hey honey, check this out! Free meat!". Misseswether came over, looked in the cooler, then looked up at me with a strange expression on her face. Confused, I looked into the cooler.


Fresh venison.

Still on the deer.

So instead of spending time prepping for my classes I've spent the last two nights butchering a deer. Not exactly what I had planned. At least he had quartered it already, I just had to cut the meat off the bones into assorted steaks and roast plus grind up all the small bits into venisonburger.

It cutting time!

I hadn't done this in twenty-five years. Luckily there's the internet! Five minutes of searching brought me to this post on a bowhunting forum. If you ever end up with a freshly killed deer you need to butcher but don't quite remember how to do it, go here.

Hmmm, pretty simple...

Of course, it's not as easy as it looks. By 1:30am I decided I didn't need to get every bit of meat of the bones. I cleaned up and crawled into bed. Ninety minutes later a massive thunderstorm came through and knocked out our power. Being exhausted, I slept right through it, then on into the morning well past my normal wake-up time. I finally woke up to sunshine and birdsongs. It was a beautiful morning if you excluded the fact I needed to be to work in 30 minutes for a meeting. Considering I have a 25-minute commute, I was a bit rushed this morning. *sigh*

After a full day of being ground through the gears at work it was time to take out my frustrations on the meat. Luckily, I had picked up a meat grinder on clearance last year, so I was set to turn medium-sized chunks of deer into itty-bitty bits of deer mixed with yummy bacon. As usual, the Wethergirls wanted to help. Miniwether got mad yesterday when I wouldn't let her help cut up the deer so I let her help with the grinding today.

Making meatdough. Miniwether was on bacon duty while Mambowether supervised.

I sent it through the grinder first to chop it up then I had Miniwether add the bacon while I reground it. She also made a few big meatballs, but those got reclaimed by the meat-collective when it was time to wrapped everything up for the freezer. By that time they were in bed and I was alone again in the kitchen. For a brief moment I considered leaving the clean-up for Misseswether, but considering the large number of really sharp knives involved plus that whole thing about loving her, I cleaned everything up.

This made her happy, which is a good thing. And by good I mean I won't have to sleep with my eyes open...

I see it is now 11:16pm. I still need to do some stuff, then off to bed until the 6am alarm sounds. Who knows what adventure tomorrow will bring...

Peace be with you.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

No, frantic was me last week when I still had some time...

Now my deadlines are just days away, it's time to kick the caffeine/sugar/aspirin combo into maximum overdrive. Which, in light of giving double blood today, may not be a wise plan. On the other hand (I think I'm currently up to six, which is making the purchase of gloves expensive). I'm trying to finish pulling everything together for my first official Edible Wild Plants Class next weekend followed immediately by teaching a week-long course on the Chemistry of Acidizing. Yeah, so I'm a little stressed right now. On the plus side, part of the preps involved spending half of Saturday out at the beautiful Houston Arboretum. It was wonderful. I'm still amazed that such a spot exists here in Houston. Y'all should go there even if you aren't taking my class. You can't even tell a hurricane went through there except for the occasional giant, shattered tree trunks, lots of fresh wood chips on the paths, and the mass of sweaty Boy Scouts hauling piles of brush hither and yon.

Being in a teaching frame of mind I decided that it was time for Miniwether to learn how to build a campfire. The ability to INTENTIONALLY start and maintain a fire is a dying skill, suprisingly even among Boy Scouts. The concept of tinder->kindling->finger sticks->logs has been replaced by green wood->gasoline->emergency room. While somewhat entertaining to those outside the blast zone, singing songs and telling stories around a burn-victim's oxygen tent isn't nearly as satisfying as doing the same around the dancing flames of a well made fire.

Step One: collect the wood. The jar on the left holds wax-paper candy wrappers that we use as tinder. They work great. Next to those are thin, dry twigs, followed by the larger finger-sticks (so called because they are about as thick as a finger).

Step Two: lay the fire. We went with a classic "Tipi fire" where the twigs are stacked in a cone shape over the tinder. First the smallest twigs, then the sticks in each outer layer gets a little thicker.

Step Three: lighting the match. We went through half a pack of paper matches but Miniwether couldn't get the technique down. She was starting to get frustrated so we switched over to Strike Anywhere wooden matches.


At this point I helped guide Miniwether's hand/match down to the tinder. It burst into flames and within seconds the whole pile of wood was engulfed in fire. She was very suprised by this and it scared her a bit, which was a good thing. We had a serious talk about how fire can quickly get out of control, how there are lots of precautions one must take when making a fire, and why playing with fire inappropriately is a bad thing.

Then we roasted marshmallows. Mambowether was asleep through all this. She's entering another growth spurt and that makes her tired and cranky (as opposed to just being cranky).

When we finished we poured a lot of water on the fire, stirred the ashes with a stick, then poured on more water. I didn't get any pictures of that, but here's a nice one of some of the resultant steam drifting away through our yard.

A good place.

Word of warning to my dedicated readers. Posts are going to get a bit thin from now until probably after Thanksgiving due to everything I've got going. On the plus side, there are some adventures coming up that should be interesting. I'll continue to put up amusing videos and links that I find so you'll have something to see in the meantime.

Peace be with you.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Three Levels of Awesomeness I'll Never Reach

I am not worthy.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Peace be with you.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Candyman Banished

For nine years the Candyman had struck terror in the hearts of neighborhood children. Just a glimpse of his dark, towering form sent kids running, screaming back to their parents. He and the house of gore he dwelt in rose up every October to cast darkness across the land. Nothing could stand up against this evil.

Until this year. This year a little girl said "No" and sent the Candyman back into the little darkness under the stairs.

Which is a total bummer.

Miniwether used to love the skulls, the zombies, the dismembered body parts... But this year she said they scared her and she asked that I not decorate the house other than jack o'lanterns.

Carving the pumpkins.

So very not scary. Mambowether's pumpkin has five eyes. It kind of looks like a shape-sorter toy.

As usual, Miniwether and Mambowether chose to be fairy princesseseses. At first Mambowether wanted to dress as a chicken, but considering our neighbor was going out as Peter Griffin we decided it was best not to tempt fate.

Sweet, innocent, beautiful fairies.

I don't know when the Candyman will free to bring the true meaning of Halloween back to this neighborhood, free to howl and bleed, free to remind people there are still things with fangs in the darkness. For now everyone can laugh in the night thanks to the pleas of Miniwether. For now there's nothing to fear...

Fairy.jpg Wah hah hah haaa!

Pieces be with you.