Author Archives: Melanie McNeil

About Melanie McNeil

Quilter, Designer, Teacher, Writer

Miss Pickerell and Me

Jim’s memories of a favorite book and author from his childhood.

How I See It

One of the first books I remember reading was Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars written by Ellen MacGregor and illustrated by Paul Galdone. It was published in 1951. It had a strong influence on me. Many other young readers apparently felt the same way as evidenced by the comments on this page at Goodreads. That book made me hungry for more adventures in science by the independent spinster with a pet cow who was willing to say what was on her mind.

I read about her trips to the Arctic and the Undersea as well as her adventure with a Geiger Counter. The science in each book was explained in ways a young person could understand. I have no doubt those books helped reinforce my interest in science. I became a teacher of physics for my career. Thank you, Miss Lavinia Pickerell and Ellen MacGregor.

MacGregor first wrote…

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Birdsong

by Melanie and Jim

We’re fortunate to have an extensive paved trail system in our area. The trails connect with broad sidewalks in many places, giving both safe recreation and transportation space for walkers, runners, and bikers.

This morning we went for a walk in our neighborhood, looping away from our house to the west, then northward around a pond, and back in on a deer trail behind the house. The birds make a joyful noise this time of year, attracting mates and defending nests. Redwinged blackbirds trill, wrens chatter, and the red-bellied woodpecker repeats its hoarse, cough-like call.  We hear birds we can’t see, and even the birds we see, we can’t always identify.

Today’s first notable bird-spotting was a male Eastern Bluebird. They like areas that are mostly open. It was perched on a small tree, but it flew away before Jim could capture it with the camera. Beyond that, above the tall trees, floated a red-tailed hawk.

Jim especially hoped to photograph a meadowlark today. We often see them in the grassy areas, but they don’t stay still very long for photos. Instead we saw a speckled bird (little brown jobbie?) a bit smaller than a robin. Any ideas for identifying this one?

On the way back toward the house in an area more thickly wooded, we both heard a mystery-bird. High in the trees, we couldn’t see it. We kept moving toward the sound until we found the correct tree. The song tripped my memory and I said, “It’s an oriole.” Why I was so certain, I don’t know, as we don’t enjoy orioles around here much. But that gave us a color to look for. The bright orange of these birds would make it easier to spot. Finally Jim saw it and was able to get a couple of good photos. Handsome fellow, isn’t it?

I remember long ago hearing a radio talk show. The hosts were visiting with a caller who talked about birding outings, and how they sometimes would have blind people join their group. The radio hosts were surprised that blind people could identify birds. In fact, often the call is the easiest way to “spot” them.

One last note, if you aren’t aware of the great website All About Birds, you should take a look. It’s like having the best bird book ever, including audio recordings to boot.

… And An Old Friend

by Melanie and Jim

One morning in February we had an unexpected visitor. A great horned owl perched behind our house, fending off harassing crows with its dignified, quiet pose. Though we’ve lived in this house for almost 15 years, we’d never known a great horned to stop here before.

As excited as we were, we also were a bit concerned. I’d read that great horned owls and barred owls don’t share habitat. If the great horned was here, did that mean we’d no longer welcome our old friends, the barred owls? There was no need for concern. The next day, the great horned owl was nowhere to be seen. Within a couple of days, we heard barred owls in the woods again.

On March 2 I opened the garage door to ready trash for pickup. As I did so, I heard a barred owl. It was close and sounded like it was across the street. I stepped out into the cool morning air, sky brightening but still dark before sunrise. The owl loudly called again as I searched for it, and I realized it was behind the house rather than in front. The echo had fooled me. I hurried to the side yard in time to see one land in the neighbor’s tree.

I ran in to tell Jim, and he was able to see it, too, through the window. Well, no need to worry about the great horned owls chasing the barreds out of the neighborhood. We had one a few feet from our house.

The bigger treat came later that day, as the sun was low in the sky. A bird called again, just behind the house. “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” came the characteristic hoot. (Listen to the recordings at All About Birds. Check the “Various hoots” first.)

We looked in the direction of the call. There on a branch, about 30 feet from the house, was this beautiful bird.

Barred Owl. Iowa, March 2, 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Jim also got a few seconds of video.

Since then we’ve heard these wonderful birds nearby several times. We’re fortunate to share our yard and close green space with them, and with the occasional unexpected visitor.

An Unusual Visitor

by Melanie and Jim

This morning as we readied for an errand, we heard a great commotion rise up behind the house. Crows, screaming bloody murder, shrieked in alarm. I thought there were several, maybe dozens of them, the cries were so loud. But when Jim looked, he saw only two. Two angry crows, screaming at something between and below them.

There are a number of cats that roam the neighborhood. Sometimes we hear squirrels or blue jays yelling at a wandering cat, but usually not crows. Even if there were a cat, the crows were high enough in the tree that a cat wouldn’t threaten them. It seemed unlikely that a cat was the cause. Still they continued cawing and screeching.

A tree blocked our view, so we moved to another window. Jim thought he saw another bird on a branch below them. Cooper’s Hawks occasionally visit our yard. They eat small birds and mammals. Once we watched as a Cooper’s dropped onto a squirrel, latched its talons tightly in, and flew away with it. With that risk, the little birds go silent and scarce when a hawk is around.

Binoculars showed the cause for alarm more clearly. It wasn’t just “another bird.” It was an owl. Since we moved to this house 15 years ago, we’ve been visited by barred owls. They aren’t as frequent as they used to be, but we still open the door to the screened porch in almost any weather to hear them calling to each other.

A shift to yet another window gave an even better view.

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This owl had ear tufts. It was no barred owl. It was a great horned owl! We’ve never heard nor seen one around here before! I’ve read that barred and great horned owls don’t share habitat, and that the horned owls get first dibs. I don’t know what this means for our barred owl friends, or if we’ll get to enjoy their occasional visits again.

Jim was able to get a few pictures of this beautiful bird. Though they are unfocused, you can clearly see the large ear tufts and hooked beak.

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He took this photo from below. It shows the feathering better.

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As I write this several hours later, the owl is still perched in the same place. The crows gave up pestering and screaming long ago, though they’ve made a few more half-hearted attempts to intimidate.

How Be a Friend

Tips for non-confrontational intervention of hate.

FiftyFourandAHalf

It’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And so, of course, Putin’s President, with the irony born of someone without a soul or a keen eye for history, chose today of all days to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

Naturally, that means anybody who “looks” Muslim will become even more of a target than they have been since Trump took us all down the gold escalator into hell.  It is now open season on “others” here in our nation of immigrants.

So what can we do about it?

I will admit that the safety pin movement left me feeling decidedly unhelpful.  It’s a nice thought, but it never made me feel like I was actually standing up for anyone.  Or like I was doing something to help people being targeted.

But a while back I saw this article that offered some practical suggestions that have some meat on the bones.  Really! …

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Seattle | Holiday Visit | 2016

by Jim and Melanie

Before Christmas we traveled to Washington, with Seattle our first destination. We arrived late to the Mayflower Park Hotel for our three night stay. The next day dawned sunny and bright. It was a positive omen for things to come. The window of our tenth floor room faced south, and we had a good view of the heart of town.

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The first goal for the day was to find breakfast. We headed toward the Pike Place Market and found three places serving breakfast, one for each of our three mornings. They each had views out over the bay like this. We watched ferries cross the bay, and tankers and tugs chug through.

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After breakfast the first day, we wandered through the Market, intent on filling Christmas stockings with small treats. Vendors were setting up, giving samples of fruits and pepper jellies. Crafters arranged their wares with care, ready to sell to holiday shoppers. The fishmongers sang a call and response while tossing fish to fill orders. They put on a fun show as people watched with cameras poised.

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We returned that evening after dinner, well after closing. The vendors were gone. The stalls were cleaned and empty. It was an eerie sight, one that not many people see.

The next day we headed for the Market for another breakfast with a view. Afterward, we visited the Seattle Art Museum. We enjoyed the exhibits, especially of the Native Americans of the northwest.

The day continued with fair skies. Our next goal was to visit the Space Needle and surrounding venues of the Seattle Center grounds. Going up in the Needle is pricey. We used to bypass tourist opportunities like that, but we’ve learned that some things are worth the price. This was one of them. The viewing deck gives a 360° panorama of the Seattle area. We could even see Mt. Rainier, almost 60 miles to the southeast. After rounding the outside deck at least once, we sat inside and shared a bowl of chili. It was fun to watch other tourists, including several who spent a lot of time posing for selfies, trying to get just the right slant of chin for the photos.

As we waited for the monorail to take us back to our hotel, we noticed a young man with a strange looking camera. Jim knew it was an older model Polaroid. He went up to ask him some questions. The young man was happy to tell about his prized camera. He asked if he could take our picture. We said it was okay. He pointed and pressed the button. Out came the film which developed slowly over the next 30 minutes. We chatted more on the monorail ride.

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That evening we enjoyed dinner with old friends, long missed. The next morning we headed south to spend several more days with our son.

Seattle was fun and interesting, with much more to see and do than we had time for. We’ll look forward to visiting again.

Scotland | Whisky

by Melanie and Jim

If you’ve never been to Scotland and someone asks you to free-associate words you link to the country, you might think of things like highlands, tartans, kilts, golf, sheep, and scotch whisky. Though Scotland is much more than these, these stereotypes actually hold true. The land is beautiful and rugged; the people hold their textiles and kilts dear; golf courses are everywhere; and whisky is one of the main manufactured products of the land.

According to wikipedia, “Scotch Whisky has survived USA prohibition, wars and revolutions, economic depressions and recessions, to maintain its position today as the premier international spirit of choice, enjoyed in more than 200 countries throughout the world, and generating more than £4 billion in exports each year.” Besides the whisky itself, the whisky industry is closely linked to tourism. Many distilleries are open for public tours (for a fee), adding more than £30 million of value a year.

When we decided to travel to Scotland, whisky was one thing that drew us. Friends recommended we look at Rabbie’s tours for parts of our journey. Rabbie’s hosts a number of whisky industry tours. Benefits of using a tour company include having a driver/tour guide, an itinerary, and scheduled entrance to distilleries and other sites. We didn’t need to rent a car, drive on the left, or figure out how to get around, all while potentially tipsy!

Where We Went

The Scottish region with most whisky distilleries is Speyside, the area around the River Spey in northeast Scotland. The prime location features fresh water springs and nearby farming of barley, two of the three ingredients used in production. The third ingredient is yeast.

Our 3-day tour, in orange, took us from Edinburgh up to Perth and then northwest through Pitlochry, before turning northeast to follow the River Spey. Near the top of the green region of Cairngorms National Park we stayed 2 nights at a bed & breakfast. On day two we reached the north sea near Forres. The third day brought us down the east side of the park and near Balmoral Castle on the south. Our driver said during one recent summer, on two separate occasions, he met a pair of vehicles on a remote road with one of them driven by the Queen.

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Morals | Liberal vs Conservative

A look at moral decision making in a framework of “liberal” and “conservative.”

How I See It

right-way-wrong-way1Consider the following moral foundations that guide the decisions people make. How would you rank them in terms of their importance to you? Which one is top on your list? Which is least important to you?

Take your time. Order them from most to least in how important they are as guides to your moral decisions.

Care/Harm: This foundation is related to our ability to feel the pain of others and underlies the virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

Fairness/Cheating: This foundation underlies the ideas of justice, rights, proportionality, and independence.

Liberty/Oppression: This foundation relates our feelings toward those who dominate and restrict our liberty. Tension with authority can bring people together in attempts to remove the oppressor.

Loyalty/Betrayal: Evolved from our tribal history and the formation of coalition groups with others. Patriotism and sacrifice for our group are two ways this foundation is expressed.

Authority/Subversion: Related to the hierarchy…

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Scotland | Barge Trip Continuing To Banavie

by Jim and Melanie

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On September 3 we began our week-long trip on the Fingal of Caledonia, one of two barges owned by Caledonian Discovery. Each day the barge averaged about 10 miles of progress. To read about our first few days, read here and here.

Loch Oich

On the fourth day we left Loch Ness at Fort Augustus, traveling through 4 or 5 miles of canal to Loch Oich, the smallest of the three lochs (lakes) in the glen. Some passengers including Jim biked to Cullochy Lock, which provides entry into Loch Oich. He was able to easily stay ahead of Fingal as evidenced in this video. On the way he encountered a startlingly large slug and a slow worm, which is not a worm or a snake, but a legless lizard.

A surprise treat was mooring up with the Fingal’s sister ship, the Ros Crana. While the two barges were linked, passengers on both were able to step aboard the other. I think everyone decided their own accommodations and crew were best. We also took on some canoes and exchanged other equipment and supplies.

A different treat awaited us in the afternoon, when we visited a hotel for cream tea. Those of us unused to the ritual of tea needed “cream tea” demonstrated. (That is, the two of us!) It is tea accompanied by a scone or treat with clotted cream and jam. The photo below shows the tables set for 6 passengers. If you look closely through the window, you can see the Fingal in the bay.

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 And On To Laggan Locks

Drenching rain swept the next morning. As the clouds lifted some, we passengers chose our activities. We decided to walk to Laggan Locks at the south end of Loch Oich. Clad in rain gear we set off, encountering several northbound hikers with fully loaded packs. On the way we passed antique train cars, waiting for use within a historical restoration project. By the time we reached the locks and the Fingal, the rain had ceased. Docked across from the barge was the Eagle.

The Eagle is a Dutch barge built in 1926. It was used as a troop carrier in World War II and is armour plated. It weighs about 200 tons. After the war, it was used as a sugar beat mover. After being decommissioned, she was brought over to Scotland and placed on the Caledonian Canal here at Laggan locks and converted into the Eagle Bar and Restaurant. Periodically, it must be moved. Then, it is allowed back to this same spot.

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In the afternoon the sky was clear. Captain Adam suggested canoeing. He and Chef Kevin prepared canoes and the small motorboat as passengers donned flotation devices. We headed north a ways before boarding the canoes. None of us had recent experience with them, but we soon found our rhythm.

After dinner, we all headed to the Eagle for a drink. Jim went back again later to see if Susie our hiking guide could help him remove a small tick embedded in his ankle. She did so. He found another on his waist next day. Once home, the family doctor did a Lyme test and got a negative result.

The Final Dinner 

On the last full day, the Fingal anchored in a small bay. All passengers but Melanie hiked the Dark Mile, crossed World War II commando training grounds and the great Cameron estate. A small museum and ice cream shop enticed some in. On the last part of the outing, Melanie met them at tiny mission church on the estate.

Our final evening’s wonderful dinner included chicken stuffed with haggis and vegetarian haggis. The crew were dressed smartly in their finest kilts. A highlight before eating was the Address to a Haggis by Robert Burns.

Coming to Banavie

The next morning broke quite rainy. We had about 7 miles to go in order to reach our final destination at Banavie. Two passengers chose to walk along the tow path. Jim and another passenger chose to ride bicycles. They suited up with rain gear and set out. It gradually quit raining. Jim recorded this short video along the way.

Neptune’s Staircase in Banavie

The longest set of canal locks in Britain consists of these 8 locks to raise or lower boats 64 feet (20 m) in about 90 minutes. They were built between 1803 and 1822. Three operators can coordinate to run the lock gates on a schedule. From this point, the waters gradually open to the southwest and into the Atlantic Ocean.

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The view looking up the 8 locks of Neptune’s Staircase. Our barge did not descend.

Fort William

We stayed in the town of Fort William for two more nights before continuing to Edinburgh by train. The town population is around 10,000 and is a short distance from Banavie. Fort William serves as the southern entrance to the Caledonian Canal, a skiing center in the winter, and as the gateway to hiking the Great Glen Way as well as to Ben Nevis. Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles at 1345 m (4414 ft).

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We continued our trip with time in Edinburgh and a three-day whisky tour in Speyside. (We’ll share some about those, as well.) But none of it dimmed our enjoyment of the week on the Fingal, the funny and interesting passengers, and the skilled and generous crew.

Scotland | Barge Trip on Loch Ness

by Jim and Melanie

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On September 3 we began our trip on the Fingal of Caledonia, one of two barges owned by Caledonian Discovery. Each day the barge averaged about 10 miles of progress. The first day it was about 6 miles. We moored that night north of the entrance into Loch Ness. Next morning we were underway before breakfast.

 

After dinner every evening, the activities director outlined the options for the next day. Our cruise was focused on hill hiking. Mountains rise up on either side of the lochs and canal, while foot paths line most of the way. Passengers could hike, bike, or walk, depending on the weather and their preferences. The activities director led the most challenging of those options, and those who chose otherwise were on their own.

Our intention when we booked the trip was to hike as much as possible. However Jim injured a knee in May and Melanie did in early August, leaving her unable to trek very far. Below we’ll share a few pictures of our outings, as well as some of the vast beauty of the Great Glen.

Foyers Falls

Loch Ness is approximately 23 miles long. Our progress on Day 2 would take us about halfway, to the town of Foyers. On the north side of the loch is a peak that two adventurous passengers chose to hike, led by Steve. On the south side is a less challenging choice, a beautiful waterfall tucked within woods, which we opted for. Roundtrip of our outing was about 3 miles. Part of the journey was on paved roads, and part was on maintained hiking trail.

 

Captain Adam checked the water traffic from our Foyers mooring. Could there be pirates?

 

Later that afternoon, Jim posed for a photo. What’s that behind you, Jim??

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Fort Augustus

2016_0905barge3_02After mooring at Foyers overnight, we proceeded to the locks at Fort Augustus. Jim steered us toward our destination for part of the way. Steering was a challenge for a couple of reasons. It was windy. And, the barge was built in the 1920s. The steering mechanism was via chains and gears. It had a lot of slack. It took more than a full turn left or right to engage the chain and gears to get a response from the rudder. Jim handled the challenge well. He is a former farm boy.

As we neared Fort Augustus, Captain Adam took over the wheel for the final approach to the locks. Moving a 180 ton vessel into and through is a delicate job. Not one for an amateur.

Fort Augustus is a small village on the south end of Loch Ness, with a population of about 650. From the looks of the main street, most of them are involved with the tourist trade.

After passing through the locks, all passengers and a new crew member, Susie, hiked to another waterfall. We enjoyed an ancient cemetery, some tree covered lanes, a boggy patch, ferns, and pushed through shoulder-high bracken on the way. Round trip mileage was about 5 miles.

 

At the end of our busy day, Chef Kevin served another delicious dinner, which we all enjoyed. What kinds of meals did he fix? Salmon, venison stew, curried chicken, and haggis-stuffed chicken, to name some of the dinners. And there were always vegetarian options. Breakfasts were wonderful, too!

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Chef Kevin preparing dinner

The next day we continued our journey through canal to Loch Oich. Come back next time for more of our adventures.