Sunday, February 26, 2012

Florida Sky-Blue Lupine and Genista Broom Moth

This morning while running, we noticed a nice example of sky-blue lupine (Lupinus diffusus), a Florida native wildflower. You never know where the lupine is going to grow because they only live for one bloom. This member of the pea family can be found in the deep south, in particular areas of deep, dry sands. The sand pine scrub is the perfect environment to see them blooming in late winter through early spring.

Sky-blue Lupine (Lupinus diffusus)

The leaves of sky-blue lupine have a slight grayish fuzz. It forms a large clumps about the size of a bed pillow. Pictures never do the flowers justice. The pinkish blue stalks almost glow against the soft leaves. Eventually, the flowers will give way to seed pods that look like edamame pods. As they age, they turn brown and brittle. As they dry out, the pressure increases until ultimately popping open with loud snaps. The seeds inside the pod go flying in every direction.  I've sat in places in the scrub surrounded by popping lupine like a giant pot of popcorn.

This particular lupine was covered with countless genista broom moth caterpillars (Uresiphita reversalis.) They formed tent-like homes from silk and were doing quite a bit of damage to the plant.

Genista broom moth caterpillar

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Carpenter bee and lyre leaf sage

Today a noticed a large green-eyed bumble bee resting on the trunk of an orchid tree. It was a southern carpenter bee (Xylocopa micans), one of my favorite spring insects, waking up from winter. Male carpenter bees are gregarious bees the guard their territories with ferocious arial displays. If you live in Florida or the deep south, you've seen these guys buzzing and hovering about your eaves or any wooden structures like picnic tables, archways, garden trellises, and patio pergolas. They are so protective of their territory that they will dive bomb any movement, especially something the size of a bee. I always like to flick a acorn or small stick their way and watch them track the missile all the way to the ground. Luckily for us they don't have stings.
Male southern carpenter bee (Xylocopa micans)
Male southern carpenter bee (Xylocopa micans)

You will notice as the season wears on that the carpenter bees will start drilling perfectly round holes on the bottom side of any dead wood. Look for little piles of sawdust on the ground. Directly above those piles, you often find a carpenter bee nest hole. Into the holes will go an egg and plenty of pollen for the hungry little larvae. This is why they are so protective of trellises and eaves. Female carpenter bees love a male with prime real estate.

I'm always amazed by the subtle timing of nature. Today's carpenter bee awoke just one day after the lyre leaf sages began to bloom. Salvia lyrata is a very common weed and one of our earliest bloomers. It is perfect carpenter bee food.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Buck Island, St. Croix US Virgin Islands

We planned our day trip out to Buck Island on the day there would be no cruise ships on the island. On cruise ship day, there were over 150 people booked with Big Beards Tours. On our day, there were only nine including us. Over 50,000 visitors go to Buck Island Reef National Monument, so picking a quiet day can be tricky. We were lucky.

Big Beards departs out of Christiansted on the north side of the island. I always enjoy seeing a town from the water and Christiansted doesn't disappoint.

Within 30 minutes, we were approaching the island. The brilliant, royal blue water clarified and brightened the closer we made it to shore. Here is the water out in the deep:

Here is the water just off the beach:

The approach to the island is just as breath-taking.

Views from the Turtle Beach. This is exactly what it looked like. No Photoshopping here!

After an hour or so of swimming and exploring by ourselves, we headed off to the reef on the north side of the island. The geology and flora are clearly different than what occurs on St Croix. It reminded me more of Culebra than St Croix.

Unfortunately, the reef itself has suffered a series of setbacks due to Hurricane Hugo, coral bleaching, and yes, 50,000 visitors a year. You can notice the extent of the damage in this video of blue tangs on the reef. Still, we had a fantastic time and I recommend it highly. I also recommend Big Beard. They were efficient and non-intrusive tour operators. They stuck to the rules when it came to safety and the laws protecting the area, but otherwise were wanted us to explore and enjoy the way we felt best.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mile Zero

There is something magical about Mile Zero. Something hopeful. Mile Zero is completely manufactured and arbitrary, yet the sign makes us stop and consider where we are and where we hope to be. It is the New Years Day of sign markers.

We all know Mile Zero in Key West. But there are other Mile Zeros out there.

Does anyone know where this picture was taken and what was behind me when I took it?  (Answer coming in a future blog)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Seven Secrets to Improve your Writing (that you already know)

Like many writers, I’ve read a lot of books about how to become a better writer. Everyone has an opinion on the subject; after all, writing is a craft and an art. We give our lives to the pursuit of that fleeting spark of creation.  I’ve read so many articles and books on the subject, I’ve forgotten most of it because the messages are often contradictory. Authors love to talk about what works for themselves.  Free write or plan meticulously? Write everyday or let it come naturally? Plot first or characters first?

So who am I to tell you one way or the other on how to write better? I can’t.  Everyone is different. But I can filter the noise out. Worrying about the noise keeps you from the core practices that will actually improve your writing. No doubt, you already know these fundamental rules but you may not be putting them into practice. When revisited over and over, your writing will inevitably improve. The seven steps to improve your writing are common sense and they are generic enough to fit your own particular style.

Rule 1:    Read …a lot
                It always amazed me as a writing teacher that many of my adult students resisted reading under the mistaken notion that art comes magically from within. If you don’t love books, how can you possibly love to write? Read fiction, non-fiction, primary sources, poetry, picture books, scientific journals, nature guides. Read the classics. All of them. Cultivate your curiosity on as many subjects as possible. If you liked a book, figure out why you liked it. Not just because you liked the story, but what did the author do mechanically to draw you in?  If you hated a book, figure out why you hated it.  All of that said, you probably shouldn’t try to be the most well-read person in the world. You have to save some time for writing after all. So be careful what you read. Think of your reading habits the same way you think about food. You are what you eat.  Make the books you read count.

Rule 2:  Recommit yourself to grammar and vocabulary
                You are probably the best grammarian in your circle of family and friends. Maybe even the best speller. You probably have a better than average vocabulary. This isn’t good enough. Sorry. I feel your pain. What was the last book on grammar you’ve read? Grammar is the basic unit of communication. It is your paintbrush. Grammar and vocabulary are the tools of your trade. You better strive to master your tools. Don’t buy into the excuses (I don’t want to sound too technical and dry. I don’t want to force my readers to keep one hand on  You cannot choose to write clear, smooth prose if you don’t know have the grammar skills to begin with. Conversely, you can’t be a rule breaker if you don’t know the rules. You will be imprisoned by your ignorance and you won’t even know it.

Rule 3: Hear yourself write
                One of the best skills I ever cultivated was hearing myself write. As you type on your computer or scrawl on your notebook, there is a voice inside your head whispering the words that you are writing.  Free your voice. Read what you write aloud. If you are embarrassed, go into another room and stuff a towel against the door. Read it aloud and listen to yourself. This dynamic is slightly different than simply writing and acknowledging the silent voice inside you. Your ears are the best editors you will ever have.  You will know if your writing is ringing true. One day, after months of reading aloud, you can let your voice go back inside. But let it speak loudly in there. And listen.

Rule 4: Don’t hold back
                How many books are you going to write in your life? That is right, you don’t know. Assume the book you are writing is the last book you will ever write. What is the point if you don’t let it all out? Don’t save something for the next book, even if you are writing a series.  Trust that inspiration will hit you again.

Rule 5: Be prepared to cut your favorite passages
                This falls under the rule of edit edit edit.  Of course you edit for grammar and syntax. Of course you edit for the flow of your writing. Sometimes though, you have to cut scenes. Sometimes, you have to cut your favorite scene, the scene where your artistic talents really shined. The scene that was supposed to be the entire reason you started writing your story in the first place. That is tough.  Your willingness to cut your favorite passages should be the measure of whether you are editing enough.

Rule 6: Live you life
                Experiencing real life is more important than reading another book. It is more important than any given session of writing. Real life feeds your art like nothing else can. It is sacred food that no one else in the world can eat.  Yes, you have to work hard. When things are really clicking, let them click as long as possible into the night. Writing makes obsessives of us all. But you have to work patiently. What is your hurry? You have time.  Go someplace you have never been. Eat at a new kind of food. Learn to surf. Over the long haul, this will keep your writing fresh and uniquely yours.  (Please note that “experiencing real life” does not mean watching television for six hours a day.)

Rule 7: Repeat 1-6
                I have been reminding myself of these rules for a long time. I suspect that no matter how experienced a writer you are, you could still gain value in revisiting these rules. Number 2 is the hardest for me. I have to force myself to review grammar rulebooks.  I still sometimes mess up on basic rules. If I let my guard down, I'll go off on some weird incoherent pathway. Number 5 might be your hardest. You might have to pay special interest to your ability to objectively edit your work.

What rules do you follow to improve your writing? Send me your ideas and I will add them to the list.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Egmont Key

Egmont Key

Around the point, a flotilla of light
beer, pounding rumba, a fiberglass battle
for moorage to be seen and admired.
But on the lee, the key becomes
a palm tree plaza, a colony of tortoises.
I do not regret this passage from activity,
this lonely affair with the quiet moment,
halfway between the permanent party
and the heaviest of breathless water.
From under this sea grape,
holding this sandwich,
pulling this brim over my brow,
this orange conch from the sand,
there is enough for me Lord.
There is enough.

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