Apples Right Side Up

In the fading light of mid-November I’m suffering from apple exhaustion.

Apples floated before my eyes as the first fallen leaves dusted my route from Vermont to Pennsylvania. I raided my father’s apple tree with such tenacity that he demanded I wear a helmet, then I attacked the neighbor’s trees. I made applesauce until I ran out of mouths to feed and canning jars to fill. Bursting with pride (and applesauce), I shuttled the remaining fruit back to Burlington, where it became the star of a dessert for the season’s first potluck.

Upon arriving at the event, I unveiled my creation and placed it among the other dishes. It accompanied…

…three apple pies. And nothing else.

The potluck’s four guests ate only apple desserts. In true Burlington spirit, someone arrived with a quinoa dish, but the damage was done. I was sick of apples.

But like a true naturalist, when I’m sad, I look to botany for comfort. I harkened back to a time when fruit was a buffet of discovery, not a monoculture of boredom. And I remembered this:


From a botanist’s perspective, I had been looking at the apple upside-down.

Along with pears, cherries, strawberries, and many other delectable fruits, apples are a member of the Rosaceae (rose) family. After an apple blossom’s sticky stigma snags a pollen grain, the sperm nuclei escape the pollen to travel down a tube to the ovule of the flower, where fertilization occurs and seeds begin to form. In the case of apples, fertilization triggers swelling at the base of the flower; the developing seeds are quickly swallowed by fleshy fruit. In the end, a comparatively grotesque apple dangles where a delicate flower once grew. All that remains of the flower are five pointy little protrusions in a star shape at the “bottom” of the apple. The twig that once served as the blossom’s stem emerges from the “top” of the apple.


My personal apple renaissance was more than just the rediscovery of a piece of fruit. It reminded me that, in the world of a naturalist, we will never be bored as long as we remember that there’s always more to be discovered. We just have to keep changing our perspectives.


Originally written for UVM’s Ecoblog.


6:32 am: Bar Harbor, ME

The patter of rain slows long enough for me to emerge from my soggy tent, where I am greeted by my latest single-serving friend. I met Don yesterday while we were standing in line for the last remaining campsite in Blackwoods Campground, Acadia National Park. With only three tent sites remaining and a line of anxious faces behind us, we decided to share a site. We remain standing while we eat Honey Bunches of Oats; the picnic table is too wet even to lean on.

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“killing [my] darlings”: on writing, criticism, and attachment

I’ve returned from my hiatus. For the 3 people that wondered where I was, I have two words: Field Notes. Behold:


While I hid behind the cover and the graphic layout, my fellow editor (the handsome fellow on the cover) wrangled the contributing writers*. I watched from the sidelines as each piece of writing was tailored to suit my space limitations – sentences rearranged, lovingly-written paragraphs deleted.

In response to one particularly pressing email entitled “I’m Sorry to Pester but will I see your Final Draft Today?”, one of our writers responded, “Killing a few more darlings… be with you shortly.”

And that brings me to where I am today. I write. I am edited… I kill my darlings. And it’s so, so hard.

One would think that after years of rearranging my artwork to suit merciless** clients, I would get used to criticism. Taking my FAVORITE PART of that painting and just slapping another layer means NOTHING to me, REALLY. And most of the time, it really doesn’t. (Because I secretly scanned it before I painted over that REALLY GREAT THING and I’m going to put the version that I like on my website).

But writing is different. I don’t know why, yet. Maybe by the end of the summer, when I’ve written 15 narratives and surrendered each one to 3-6 editors, I’ll know.

But for now, I’m just going to hike the rest of Maine. It’s a big state and I’ve got a lot of ground to cover.


**BTW, you should totally give money to this writing program. We’ve got Bryan Pfeiffer, Hamilton Davis, Bernd Heinrich, and Thor Hanson on our team!
*No, of course I’m not talking about you. You’re my favorite!

Let’s blow up the moon! (Unnerving correspondence with a state senator)

About a week ago, I emailed Pennsylvania senator Gene Yaw a simple statement.


I had just heard (admittedly, via an email from PennEnvrionment) that Loyalsock State Forest was in danger of being opened for natural gas drilling and I was hoping to influence the political decision making behind the project.  Mr. Yaw responded within minutes:


“When were you last in the Loyalsock Forest?” No greeting, no closing.

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My year in business receipts

This rainy evening, I’m doing archaeology in my living room. I’m gently smoothing, sorting, and stacking bits of my past under the guise of tax preparation. These receipts are a scrapbook of 2012: a year of drive-ins, Fancy Fridays, and warm nights on the plain streets of Scranton before I stumbled into frozen Vermont. Among the layers, I’ve found:



  • The last vet receipt for my beloved dog, Shyloh.
  • A first date (pizza), the day that I fell in love (chinese), a first fight (ice cream), and a last date (pizza again).
  • The first time I met the residents of Riverdale at a small pizza place in Philly.
  • A hungover morning at a diner in Binghamton with some fine archaeologists (yes, real archaeologists!)
  • Postage for a package of puzzle pieces mailed to an old friend in California.
  • An uncanny number of gas station egg breakfast sandwiches.
  • Manic Panic pink hair dye (and accompanying bleach) for that quarter-life crisis.
  • Champagne yeast for that… experiment.
  • The gas receipt from the closest that I ever came to running out of gas.
  • That burrito that I ate right after I interviewed at UVM… sadly, because I didn’t think I was going to be accepted.
  • The night that I wore a “fancy hat” to the V-spot and, apparently, our server named our table “fancy hat”.
  • My 26th birthday lunch on our way to the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.
  • The receipt from THIS gas station.

Sadly, I can’t write off any of these as business expenses. Who knew tax day could be so emotional?

What’s in your backpack?

Rattle my bones

Dripping with cultural history and utterly unique, the objects cradled in Connor Stedman’s excited hands burned with sentimental value. Their glow reflected in Connor’s eyes and didn’t flicker for an instant upon the delivery of my first question.

“So, what are they?”

To the untrained eye, they were two pieces of wood roughly the size and shape of tongue depressors, but slightly heftier and square at the ends. Connor explained it was a set of bones: A historically Irish one-handed musical instrument that is played by holding one bone stationary while rattling the other bone against it.


While the traditional instrument was made from sheep’s bones, Connor’s version originated as the South American tree palo santo, or “holy wood” in Spanish. Palo santo’s use as a good luck charm and a cleanser of bad energy dates back to the Inca era. Connor says that he’s never heard of another pair of bones made from palo santo.

Connor carved his bones in anticipation of a local visit by Irish bard Gerry Brady, who described bones as “the only instrument you can play with a pint in the other hand”. Gerry blessed this set of bones himself.

Dripping with cultural history and utterly unique, Connor had produced an item that was quintessentially Connor. I was pleased to find that I was not the only Field Naturalist with a very special item in my backpack.

Lovin’ spoonfuls

The “What’s in your Backpack?” project began with an orange spoonfork. No, not a spork. “Spork” implies tiny tongs on the end of a spoon. My beloved spoonfork has a spoon on one end of the handle and a fork on the other.


The spoonfork lives in my backpack for the obvious reason: It is saving the ocean.  Continue reading