Category Archives: nature

Watery Birthday, Part II

There are many summer birthdays in my family, and the the one that we celebrated most recently was my father’s–though the actual holiday is July 15th. I put him on hold this year because I was tired of sending him gifts via Amazon, and instead wanted to treat him to an outing rather than yet another object to stick in a drawer or on a shelf. The trip I had in mind was actually one that we’d taken before–back in the summer of 2007 when I was but a lowly PhD student taking a break from my field season:

Looking contemplative

I’m not sure how or why, but my parents went through a period during which they frequently visited Ohio’s Burr Oak State Park and rented pontoon boats so they could explore the reservoir. After their initial foray, they returned with my dad’s parents, my mom’s parents, and, finally, me, each time packing a picnic lunch to eat while out on the water. They discovered an inlet, which they dubbed Kight Cove, where it was particularly pleasant to drop anchor and float while dining.  Despite the fact that they very much enjoyed their visits to Burr Oak–so much so that they even investigated how much it would cost to purchase their own pontoon boat–they got distracted by other outings and stopped going. I figured it was time to revive the tradition.

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Amazingly, the marina looked pretty much exactly as it did the last time I was there, despite the fact that seven years had elapsed. Because we visited on a weekday, it was nearly deserted, which only added to the peace and calm of the environment–a calm that we momentarily disturbed when we practically crashed the boat while pulling out of our parking space.

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When I say “we,” I actually mean “my dad,” because he was our driver for the day. I suppose it seems a bit wrong to make the Birthday Boy take the wheel, but he’s the one with the most experience and my mom and I only really felt comfortable driving when we were out in the middle of the lake where we were unlikely to bang into anything (obviously we needn’t have worried). It wasn’t until our near-miss at the docks that any of us appreciated the fact that pontoon handling skills might be diminished after seven years of non-use. We eventually made it out onto the water in the end, with the rental office staff assuring us that we couldn’t do anything they hadn’t already seen.

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The park is located about 30 minutes from my parents’ house, just on the edge of Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio. When people tell me that Ohio is flat, boring, and/or filled with nothing but cow pastures and cornfields, this is the portion of the state I tell them they need to see. Here, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, there are rolling hills covered with green trees filled with singing birds. As far as I’m concerned, there are few places that can compete with the seaside–particularly the Cornish seaside–in terms of beauty and restfulness; this area is number one on the list.


As we drove along, I could hear the voices of many familiar North American birds–Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, downy woodpeckers, American goldfinches, belted kingfishers, and dozens of great blue herons that took flight as they saw us coming. We also passed vast patches of blooming swamp rose-mallow, a beautiful plant in the same family as the hibiscus:


At the time, I incorrectly (but understandably, I think) identified this as marsh mallow, which is a very similar invasive relative. Despite the inaccuracy of my first ID, it did have the benefit of initiating an interesting investigation into the relationship between the marsh mallow plant and the marshmallow sugary treat. It turns out that ancient Egyptians harvested the plant’s root to make medicines to soothe sore throats. The French created a sugary, meringue-based form of this treatment that gave rise to the modern marshmallow that we all know and love.

We also encountered many fragrant water-lilies–though sadly we didn’t get close enough to test the accuracy of the plant’s name:

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A few years ago, these grew in Burr Oak Reservoir in such abundance that boaters were complaining; the vegetation got caught in propellers and made it impossible to make any headway through the water. An extended period of flooding killed off many of the plants, leaving only small, picturesque patches floating above the shallowest parts of the lake.

In case anyone is interested in the culinary details of our outing, as well as the biological, I should probably mention the goodies we ate when we arrived at Kight Cove (or the spot that we judged to be Kight Cove; seven years’ absence makes it difficult to tell one inlet from another). The main course was Giada de Laurentiis’ penne with beef and arugula–a recipe that was designed specifically for picnics, but which I usually eat warm; I think this was actually the first time I used it for its intended purpose. I also made a modified version of Paula Deen’s fresh fruit salad with poppyseed dressing. The modified bit was the fruit, since the grocery store was fairly depleted when I visited the night before our departure. I followed the dressing instructions very specifically, since that is what makes the salad so special. (The version of the recipe I have includes avocados, raisins, and chopped walnuts–none of which feature in the recipe in the link above, but which are quite tasty additions!) Finally, we had a savory salad made from a recipe whose origins are completely mysterious to me. At some point I typed the ingredients and instructions into a compilation of recipes on my computer, but I have no record of where I got that information; the dish is pretty similar to this one, though the vinaigrette is made with lemon juice rather than vinegar.

As you can imagine, we were all quite full after lunch, and stuck to boating rather than indulging in a bit of swimming–though the water was inviting given how warm it was in the sun. We managed to explore nearly the entire perimeter of the reservoir, which is impressive given how large it is. Much of the shoreline looked quite similar (trees, herons, lilypads…trees, herons, lilypads…), but there is something about being on the water that makes it enjoyable no matter how repetitious the scenery becomes; the breeze on your face and the vibration of the motor put you into a bit of a Zen state.

My mother calls this the “pharoah pose”

Hopefully that peace of mind–not to mention a full belly, a suntan, and some good memories–was a more valuable gift than a new book or shirt or whatever else I could have ordered for my dad online. Happy birthday to a great guy–may there be many more years, and boat trips, to come!

Foggy first day of fall in Falmouth

Although today is officially the first day of fall–or “autumn,” as they prefer to say here in the UK–I have felt it coming for a while. We’ve actually had fairly summery weather the last few weeks, but the changing day length is an unmistakeable sign that we are headed towards the cold, dark portion of the year.

As a result, I’ve been feeling a bit antsy, like a migratory bird becoming restless in the days before it heads south. I don’t feel the urge to go anywhere (though if you told me you wanted to send me to the Maldives for a week, I wouldn’t complain). I do, however, feel the same inclinations that I feel every autumn, to do things that haven’t been a part of my routine for years. I want to go back-to-school shopping for clothes and office supplies; I want to put on a sweater and go watch a football game under stadium lights; I want to meet up with my cross country team and race on a 5K course that smells like damp earth and fallen leaves. Most especially, I want to eat candy corn.

Those things were a part of my life for so long that it is hard to shake the feeling that I should still be doing them, even after all these years. When I lived in the US, I could see them happening around me, so I could vicariously get my fix of autumn activities. Things are quite different here in the UK, though. Sports are different, weather patterns are different, food is different. For example, in addition to the dearth of candy corn (alas!), there is also no hint of pumpkins or pumpkin-flavored things, which I also associate with fall. People don’t decorate with dried corn husks or those cute miniature gourds, and stores don’t have displays of homecoming dresses or miniature candies for Halloween.

On any given day, if you asked me to describe myself, “small-town girl,” “Midwesterner,” and “American” wouldn’t be high on my list. In autumn, though, the drifting of my thoughts reminds me that I am most definitely all three of those things, no matter where I go or what I do. The fall-themed movie that plays in my mind contains just about every American cliche you can think of, from pickup trucks driving down windy country roads, to plaid flannel-wearing men going hunting, to V’s of Canada geese flying above red, yellow, and orange trees. I can practically smell the smoke from the fires my grandparents light in their wood stove, and almost taste the winesap apples my dad faithfully brings home from the farmer’s market throughout the harvest season.

I don’t necessarily feel sad about missing out on all these quintessential American activities, but I suppose that I do feel a bit of wistful nostalgia–not so much about the US in general as about my childhood there. The return to school each autumn heralded the chance to make new friends (and, of course, boyfriends), learn new things, be a different person than I had been when school let out at the start of summer. All these possibilities made me think of fall as quite an exciting season, and I still feel the remnants of that excitement even now. Those positive vibes more than made up for the fact that autumn can actually be quite depressing, what with the plants shutting down and the animals departing and going into hibernation.

As far as I can remember, I have only ever been homesick once in my life–an autumn night during my freshman year in college. I had my window cracked open and could smell that sweet, earthy scent of decaying leaves; every now and then, the sound of a goose’s honking voice would drift up from the pond behind my dorm room. The poignancy of the moment inspired probably the best poem I have ever written, and I can still picture that scene vividly. I find it interesting that I am still, consistently, contemplative at this time of year.

None of this is to say that Britain doesn’t have any charm once September rolls around. In our part of the country, at least, we can look forward to temperatures that are cooler but never very cold; as a result, we often get dramatic fog under conditions that are comfortable enough to allow pleasant walks. This was certainly the case this weekend, which was both the last of summer and the first of fall. Though the town has been swathed in thick mist since early this morning (and soundtracked by the consistent tolling of the foghorn out in the bay), the coastal path was full of people enjoying the dramatic views–or lack thereof. Like me, they were obeying the urge to flock to the shore to see what couldn’t be seen.

It all felt very deep and metaphorical, and I could see more than one set of eyes filled with a far-off look. Maybe I’m being melodramatic because of my own contemplative frame of mind, but it seemed that everyone was pausing, thinking, and remembering. I think that’s just the nature of the season: The beach trips are behind you and the merriment of Christmas is too far ahead of you to seem concrete, and so you are left in a bit of a hinterland. It’s disconcerting, but also fascinating. It reminds me of how it feels to travel to a foreign country: Only when you’re unmoored and working without a safety net (excuse the mixed metaphors) do you learn whether or not you can make it on your own. It’s a bit risky, a bit scary, but also somewhat thrilling.

I guess that means autumn still offers me a feeling of excitement and opportunity, just like it did when I was young. I won’t be running any cross country races or attending any homecoming dances (probably both for the best), but I’m sure there are other adventures waiting. I just need to go see what’s on offer. (Too bad it’s not candy corn.)

Longwood Gardens: A Taste of Europe in the US

As lovely and rugged as Cornwall is, it lacks the ‘wilderness’ feel that you can experience in many parts of the US. I miss that unkempt lushness and always revel in it when I’m back in the States–particularly when I’m there during the summer. That is one of the reasons why Sasha and I literally took the scenic route–Skyline Drive–between Williamsburg and Montgomery Village. Even though it extended our commute by about two hours, it was lovely to see all the crags and trees and birds along the way.
The view from Bacon Hollow Overlook
A male indigo bunting advertises/defends his territory
Given my fondness for these sorts of wilderness environments, I suppose it was a bit odd for me to suggest that Sasha and I stop at Longwood Gardens on our way to Philadelphia. After all, gardens tend to be rather cultivated–not to mention, we have our fair share of them here in Cornwall, so it’s not as though I needed to go all the way to the US to spend time in one. Still, when I saw that the garden was listed as one of Philly’s top ten attractions (despite being about 30 miles outside of town), I was intrigued. It wasn’t far off our route, so why not give it a try?
Floral display near the entrance of Longwood Gardens

The gardens are open fairly late on summer evenings, so Sasha and I didn’t have to worry about rushing even though we showed up around 4 PM. This was actually quite a nice time to go, because the crowds were relatively thin. The parking lot is huge, so I imagine the gardens can get fairly busy during peak tourist hours. Things were slow enough at the time of our arrival that we were able to park just a couple rows away from the gate.

Lily pads on the pond. There was also a green heron foraging on the bank, just out of frame to the left.

Entry prices are fairly high, but not National Aquarium high. Longwood has quite good deals if you become a member, which I think I would be tempted to do if I lived nearby. For someone who enjoys both plants and walking, the garden would be a great place to exercise; it’s large enough to allow you to get in a pretty good hike, plus the terrain is forgiving and the scenery is pleasant.

The garden is located on land that was originally purchased from William Penn by the Peirce family, who went on to establish a large farm that persisted for approximately 200 years. Two of the Peirces created an arboretum on the site in 1798. The descendents of these trees were considered interesting and important enough to philanthropist Pierre du Pont that he purchased the land in 1906 in order to conserve both the plants and their habitat. He is also responsible for adding many of the more elaborate features that exist on the garden grounds today.

These include, but are not limited to, species-specific gardens (wisteria, rose, peony, etc.), a greenhouse, a waterfall, a meadow area, a woodland area, a little orchard and berry patch, and cafes and other man-made structures where you can get out of the sun and/or grab a bite to eat. At the time of our visit, one of these buildings was the headquarters for a wedding, and we caught glimpses of the party having their photographs taken amongst the foliage. Although I’m not really a white wedding type of gal (unless you’re referring to the Billy Idol variety), even I can imagine that this would be a lovely place to have a ceremony and/or reception.

Sasha allowed me to take his photo outside the overrun walls of the Peirce-du-Pont House
One of the garden features that I was most anticipating was I the “Birdhouse Treehouse,” but was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t really much to see when we climbed to the top. There were, indeed, many birdhouses, but none of them seemed to be active during our visit; I suppose it was late in the season for that sort of thing. We could hear a few birds singing off in the distance, but there were no real opportunities for communing with wildlife. However, the house was full of binoculars and bird guides and even little listening stations where you could hear recordings of the various bird species that you are likely to observe. Assuming there are times when the boxes are occupied and the birds are a bit more visible, visitors would be well equipped to identify what they are seeing and hearing.
Treehouse offering a view of the forest and several birdboxes that had been hung therein

One of the things that Longwood Gardens is best known for is its selection of fountains. There is a main fountain section, an Italian water garden, a collection of fountains in the Open Air Theater, and various other fountains sprinkled around the grounds. We visited the garden during the Festival of Fountains, a time each year when the fountain jets are lit up in various colors and set to go off in time to music. As you might imagine, performances occur after sunset, so Sasha and I were long gone by the time this got started. Still, the garden is very pretty–though extremely well-groomed and “proper”–even without all the extra accoutrements. Sasha noted that the view made you feel as though you were standing somewhere in Europe rather than in the middle of Pennsylvania.

The two of us made a big loop around the outside of the garden, and one of the last major sights that we came to during our wanderings was the Chimes Tower and associated water features. The tower houses a 62-bell carillon, which was silent at the time of our visit. It overlooks a reservoir of water that flows down from the Eye of Water on the hilltop above.

The Chimes Tower, built in 1929 predominantly from stone unearthed on the land where the garden is found today.
The stream meandering away from the Eye of Water and down to the 50-foot waterfall that creates the reservoir at the foot of the Chimes Tower

The “Eye of Water” sounds like something out of a fantasy, but actually it is nothing exceptionally exciting. To be honest, I found it a bit weird. The photo of the Eye on the Gardens’ website is much more attractive and appealing, and suggests that perhaps the feature is merely in need of an end-of-season wash. Still, there is something disturbing about the idea of a giant eye gushing water; it is more painful than poetic. I did, however, appreciate the pagoda-like structure in which it was housed.

The underwhelming Eye of Water

Once we finished our circumnavigation of the garden, I quickly popped into a little walled-off area we’d been unable to visit the first time around because of the wedding photos. I was able to snap a couple of my own pictures of the gigantic elephant’s-ears that were growing there in pots:

The aptly-named elephant’s-ear

By that point, we’d been walking for a little over an hour, and we figured it was time to get back on the road. (Plus, truth be told, it was uncomfortably warm and we were ready to return to the air conditioning.) I exited the garden via the gift shop so I could pick up some postcards and an unexpected little gift for one of my future foodie penpals. With those goodies in hand, we programmed our trusty sat-nav and began the final push towards Philly.

Longwood Gardens can be found at 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, PA, 19348.