Archive for September, 2009

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Our life in Virginia revolves around simple pleasures, such as observing our little pond in the backyard.  This is surprising: the little artificial pond was in sorry shape when we moved in, and our first instinct was to tear it out.  All that changed in late April when we realized that a green frog had taken up residence there.  There was no way the new landlords were going to evict him.  But the natural life of the pond has proven to be far more elaborate than we first realized.


A male green frog has been the dominant presence at the pond, but he appears to be visited periodically by females, judging by consecutive waves of tadpoles and the nighttime picture on the right, taken in early July.  His banjo-string-sounding croak is heard throughout the day and evening.


Nights after rainy days or evenings produce temporary visitors to the pond.  The loud trills of treefrogs are almost ear-splitting, as they gradually come down to the pond searching for mates (the fuzzy middle picture above appears to capture such a moment), producing new batches of tiny tadpoles.  By mid-September, no more tadpoles were visible in the pond, but the young frog in the picture on the right was on a swiss chard leaf that I picked and brought into the kitchen.

Click here for a one-minute nightime video of our green frog and two tree frogs.  Listen to their calls and note how their throats expand.

No author has informed and influenced me more in recent years than Michael Pollan.  As I became interested in gardening, his Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education captured the tension (also, as Pollan says, a false dichotomy) between nature and culture that is inherent in the enterprise and bedevils every gardener.  His Botany of Desire provided, as its subtitle states, “A Plant’s-Eye View of the World,”  both putting claims of  “domestication” in perspective and showing how dangerously problematic the collaboration of corporate and plant species interest can become.  Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma then integrated these themes into a broader canvass that included a devastating critique of industrial agriculture and a lament for the loss of a coherent food culture in the U.S.  And most recently, Pollan critiques the faddish and corporate-influenced nutrition industry in his In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, which also includes a vigorous defense of the pleasures of cooking and good eating.  I’ve learned much from each of these highly readable books, and recommend them to all.

In the past month or so,  Pollan has published two pieces in the New York Times that are perhaps less likely to have caught the eye of readers of this blog: hence this post.  The first, Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch, is a fascinating analysis of how it has come about that Americans as a whole spend more time watching cooking shows than actually cooking, something that only a decreasing minority actually engages in.  This has meant that corporations do the cooking for America, with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, food poisoning, environmental destruction, global warming, and a variety of other ills as the consequence.  Pollan ends with a claim that cooking matters hugely, and that it can be a fulfilling activity, not the “drudgery” that food industry advertising has claimed to liberate people from.

More recently, on the day after President Obama’s speech to Congress in support of health care reform, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Pollan entitled Big Food vs. Big Insurance.  Pollan argues that the “elephant in the room” of the health care debate is the American way of eating, which is very likely the single most important cause of both the cost of health care in the U.S. and the dismal health status of Americans.  He also argues that any health care reform that eliminates the ability of insurance companies to discriminate against people with “pre-exisiting conditions,” to drop subscribers at will, and to charge different rates, will set in motion a new dynamic in industry and politics–one that will for the first time pit a new interest of the insurance industry in addressing issues of diet against a government-subsidized food industry that promotes a kind of eating that makes people sick.  Who will win in such a conflict may be uncertain, but Pollan certainly succeeds in placing the health care debate in a broader context of both food and politics.   You can read both pieces  by following the hyperlinks above.  Also recommended for those interested in food policy is Pollan’s letter to the future “Farmer in Chief” last fall (2008).


Along the Blue Ridge, great views are not hard to find.  The Blue Ridge Parkway offers many down into the valleys, and almost every turn of valley roads brings new vistas.  But great views away from roads offer special charm, and recently we’ve taken short hikes to two great overlooks, one at Wintergreen and one at the James River State Park.

The pictures above are from The Plunge, a trail that does indeed plunge downwards to a great overlook of the Rockfish Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains (the uphill part is on the return trip).  The Blackrock and adjoining trails wind through wonderful mountain laurel forests with an abundance of wildflowers.   The views are magnificent.


These pictures are from the James Rivers State Park, about an hour away, which offers an array of hiking and biking trails as well as kayaking and canoeing on the river.  One hike took us to the overlook of the junction of the Tye and James rivers, where we also got great views of two bald eagles.  Other walks took us around a quiet pond and by a blueish snake that we believe to be a Northern Black Racer (can anyone offer a definitive identification?).  It’s a reminder that views from above include what’s at our feet too.

Click here for more views at both places.