Sunday, July 17, 2016

Polyphemus Moth Photograph

Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) photographed resting on grass during daytime. Shortly after this photo was taken
the moth moved its wings to an upright position. The underside does not show the eye spots, so resembles a dead leaf.  
This specimen of Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) was spotted resting on grass in the shadow of a building, morning of July 16, 2016, in a town in eastern Massachusetts, USA. The name, "Polyphemus" is taken from Greek mythology - being the name of the Cyclops who had captured Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) and his fellow sailors in the journey home from the war against the the city-state of Troy (the Trojan War). Odysseus blinds Polyphemus and his men escape.

Click on photo to enlarge.
Polyphemus, the moth, is a species in the Family Saturniidae, Sub-family Saturniinae, also known as Giant Silkworm Moths. Most of these have eye spots on lower wings and may also have eye spots on upper wings. In the U.S. the best known Saturniinae moth is the Luna moth, pale green in color with wing eye spots and tails extending from the bottoms of the lower wings.

All Saturniidae lack functional mouths and digestive systems. Instead, they live as winged adults for only 7-10 days. During this time the males seek out the females for mating. Each adult mates only one time. The females then lay a few eggs at a time to the underside of a leaf, in this way scattering 50-200 eggs across many sites.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Water Chestnut: Invasive Aquatic Plant

Water chestnut plant at surface, rooted to bottom. 
Often, the root supports multiple rosettes, each  
bearing several nuts. The plant is an annual, so it 
does not regrow from the same root the 
next year. Rosettes are 6-12 inches across.
Water chestnut, an invasive water plant, has a nature akin to lily pads on steroids, growing rapidly in nutrient-rich fresh water ponds, lakes and slow-flowing rivers. Unchecked, it will almost completely cover water surfaces, making boating, swimming and fishing impossible. The dense floating mat of overlapping leaves also blocks sunlight penetration, causing oxygen deprivation lethal to fish and other animal life. In addition to this ecological horror story, the large, sharply pointed seeds, which mature in early August, fall to the bottom, and can cause painful wounds if stepped on.

This species, Trapa natans, is not to be confused with the edible water chestnut common to Chinese cuisine. The plant was initially brought to the Harvard University Botanic Garden, possibly from southeastern Europe or western Asia. In the 1870s staff gardener Louis Guerineau took it upon himself to throw seeds into Fresh Pond and other Cambridge waterways. This came to the attention of botanist George E. Davenport, who decided to bring seeds and live plants to his friend Minor Pratt, in Concord. He and Pratt seeded a pond near the Sudbury River, and he suspected Pratt conducted additional distributions. Thus, Cambridge was point zero and Concord the plus one. Current distribution ranges from Canada to Maryland, and westward into New York and Pennsylvania.
Click on any photo to enlarge

As early as 1879 there was a concern voiced by botanist Charles S. Sargent, Director of Boston's Arnold Arboretum, that this non-native species threatened to become a nuisance, based on dense growths reported in Cambridge. Davenport fessed up in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol. 6: "I have several times had plants of Trapa natans that were collected in the vicinity of Boston, during the present year, brought to me for identification, and I have entertained no doubt as to the manner of its introduction into waters outside Cambridge Botanic Garden. But that so fine a plant as this, with its handsome leafy rosettes and edible nuts, which would, if common, be as attractive to boys as hickory nuts now are, can ever become a 'nuisance' I can scarcely believe."

This past Saturday a doughty band of twelve volunteers, organized by OARS (Organization for the Assabet Sudbury & Concord Rivers), launched canoes onto the Assabet River in Maynard, upstream from the dam next to Powdermill Road. What this involved was paddling upstream about one-quarter mile. Two occupants per canoe would steer into an area with plants to pull them by hand, each yank resulting in a dripping, muddy mess dropped into laundry baskets in the middle of the canoe. The laden canoes would be paddled back to the launch site, the baskets lugged ashore to a compost pile, the canoes bailed out, the process repeated. Messy, messy, messy! 

Pile of water chestnut plants, to be hauled away to landfill. 
Years of these visits, conducted every July before the nuts mature and fall to the bottom, have done a great job of eradicating the plants from long stretches of the Assabet River and reducing density in the still impacted parts. Surveillance visits are repeated each year, because while most seeds sprout next spring, some are still viable as much as 8-10 years later.     

 To get an idea of how bad it can get, Vermont spends over half a million dollars a year hiring companies with mechanical harvesters to manage the worst parts of Lake Champlain, plus paying dozens of people to do hand-pulling in less-infested waters on the big lake and elsewhere. The 2013 report described 1,200 tons collected by the harvesters and more than 21 tons by hand.

This posting repeats in part a column that was in the Beacon-Villager newspaper (serving Maynard and Stow, Massachusetts) in July 2015.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Ginger Beer

Three ginger beer brands available in most liquor stores 
Ginger, the plant, was originally cultivated in India, then dispersed widely across tropical climates. The spice – dried ground ginger root – was an important part of the spice trade from the Far East to the Roman Empire and remained so through to the founding of European empires and countries, and to European colonies in Africa and the Americas. Today, worldwide production is on the order of two million tons of fresh ginger per year, mostly from India, China, Nepal and Indonesia. Some of that is used to make ginger beer.

Beer, centuries ago, was a broader term than we think of now. Basically, a mix of a carbohydrate source, a fermenting agent and flavoring agents yields a product of about five percent alcohol and a range of claims about drinkability. In time, Europe narrowed the classic ingredients to water, malted barley and hops. Other cultures used rice or corn or wheat for the fermentable ingredient and other plant ingredients for flavor and as preservatives. (In general, the bitter and astringent ingredients are plant chemical compounds known as polyphenols, with preservative properties.)   

Ginger beer started out as an alcohol-containing beverage made from sugar, ginger, and a fermenting agent that combined yeast and bacteria - confusingly known as "ginger beer plant." This created a home-brew or commercial product with a low level of carbonation and a cloudy appearance. Crabbie's Original Alcoholic Ginger Beer is a close approximation, albeit filtered and pasteurized, and there are other, harder to find brands.

Low alcohol varieties got a big boost during Prohibition, as beverages with less than 0.5% alcohol were still legal. Breweries could stay in business by selling "near beer." Ginger beer adapted down the same path, but also spun off soda-like offspring - golden ginger ale, and also a milder product out of Canada that became Canada Dry Ginger Ale. All these by-pass the fermentation process, instead combining carbonated water with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, ginger extract, sometimes artificial flavors, citric acid and caramel for color.

Much as the artisanal beer movement of the 21st century has brought on a proliferation of brands, same for non-alcoholic ginger beer. Website searches will find reviews of scores of brands. Most of these are hard to find in Maynard or Stow. Liquor stores tend to carry only one or two brands, most likely Goslings, Barritts, Saranac or Reed's. The Merai Liquor store at 129 Main Street (near dry cleaners) carries Fever-Tree Premium Ginger Beer, at $7.00 for four 6.8 oz bottles. Buy this if you want your Moscow Mule to have a real ginger kick.

Fever-Tree Premium Ginger Beer is expensive, but a great mixer for Moscow Mule
I love Fever-Tree for mixed drinks. My personal preference among the lower cost brands is Goslings. I find Barritts and Saranac closer to being golden ginger ales. Reed's 'Jamaican Style' Ginger Beer follows the Jamaican ginger beer formula, which calls for adding spices, including cayenne. These products have a pronounced ginger/spice 'bite' that timewise lags a second or two behind the sweetness of the sugar. Reed's veers further from the traditional, in that the product contains significant amounts of pineapple juice, in addition to using honey and sugar for sweetness, and lemon and lime juices for citric notes. People either love it (not me) or hate it (me).         

Locally, the Maydale Bottling Co. of Maynard, Massachusetts, located on Glendale Street (hence “Maydale”) was renowned for its golden ginger ale from its founding in 1899 until its formulas and customer lists were sold to Chelmsford Ginger Ale Company in the 1960s. Chelmsford, like Maydale, was a regional company with sales across eastern Massachusetts. Chelmsford was bought by Canada Dry, in turn acquired by Schweppes, which discontinued Chelmsford Golden Ginger Ale. The brand name was sold to Polar Beverages, Worcester, which now makes Chelmsford Golden Ginger Ale for Market Basket supermarkets, in addition to Polar Golden Ginger Ale for other stores. And for final confusion, in the United States, Polar makes Goslings Ginger Beer for Gosling's and Schweppes makes a highly rated ginger beer.

Whether the apostrophe? Reed's, Crabbie's and Stone's use the possessive, Barritts and Goslings, not. Goslings is actually a bit schizoid on the topic, as the apostrophe does appear on their older and more well known Bermuda rum products. The family reached Bermuda in 1806 and is still family owned - seventh going on eighth generation.    

How to ruin a perfectly good ginger beer: Goslings is a cloudy variety, achieved artificially by adding gum ingredients. If an unrefrigerated can's contents are vigorously poured into a tall glass, a very, very, long-lasting foamy head is formed. You don’t want to try to drink your way through this because all of the bitter, astringent, ginger compounds are in the foam, while all the balancing sweetness is in the liquid at the bottom. Pour slow and pour cold.

Popular mixed drinks:
Dark and Stormy: dark rum carefully poured atop ginger beer, with wedge of lime
Moscow Mule: vodka and ginger beer, wedge of lime, traditionally served in a copper cup
Kentucky Mule: bourbon and ginger beer with lemon wedge and fresh mint leaves
Mexican Mule: tequila, salt on the rim of the glass
....and the list goes on. Sweetened lime juice works in place of or in addition to fresh lime.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Juggling Fire

Click on any photo to enlarge
The occasion was in celebration of our daughter's wedding. She and her husband are both veterans of Burning Man festivals (look it up), and so have acquaintances who are fire performers. After the wedding reception there was a next-night 'Burner' reception for family and friends. There were fiery hula-hoops, fans, staffs and poi. That last prop name refers to a pair of devices with a handle at one end attached by a length of chain to a fiery ball. These are swung about the body with great dexterity, to great effect. (Look it up on YouTube.)

There were no examples of fiery jump rope or kerosene-soaked balls that are juggled bare-handed. (Yes, those are real props.)  

Not for the reception, but after, in the wedded couple's honor I decided to resurrect my fire juggling skills from way, way back when I was a Boston-area street performer in the 1970s.

This involved several weeks of practice unlit, followed by an afternoon when I broke out the kerosene and matches. I was immediately reminded that juggling is a wee bit harder when the whooshing sound and the flashes of heat as the lit end spins in toward ones face are added to the act. However, other than a few scorch marks in the grass from dropped torches, no harm.

Photos were sent to be added to the wedding album. Now I have to decide whether to re-retire this skill or continue practicing. A few tips I was reminded of: Practice with one lit before lighting up all three. Wear cotton - it's a lot less flammable than synthetic fibers. Use only approved fuels. Shake excess liquid off the wicks before lighting up. Have a damp towel handy. If you grab the hot end by mistake, let go fast.

For jugglers who prefer the idea of sharp objects over fire there are companies that manufacture props that appear to be sharp but actually have blunted edges. Pricier props have a 'sharp' side of the blade with a visible bevel, but the actual edge is blunt. For show, a performer could use a real knife or ax to cut an apple in half, then switch to the props for the juggling part of the act.

One company, Three Fingers Juggling, LLC, sells a double-bladed axe with a fire wick. To me, that feels a bit over the top - if it is dark enough for the fire to be impressive then the axe blades won't be that visible. And at 22 ounces each, a LOT heavier than the standard 10 oz torch. One problem with these heavy props is that even a blunt edge can cause quite a bruise if a hit taken on head, shoulder or arm.

Oh, and Ian Stewart, California, juggles chain saws, and for an encore, he has a wick on the end of one and sets it on fire. FLAMING CHAINSAWS!  

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

History of Assabet River Rail Trail

Maynard rail road station, photo taken 1910.
Courtesy of Maynard Historical Society.
Click on any photo to enlarge.
Same site, once auto shop, later dry
cleaner's, now empty. Potentially a
site for a Maynard visitors' center?
People with long memories can recall the end of Maynard's railroad passenger service in 1958. Less noted was the decline and end of freight service in the 1960s. After decades of disuse the railroad and MBTA each gave up on resurrecting rail service. The 12.4 mile long right of way was deeded over the five communities (Acton, Maynard, Stow, Hudson and Marlborough). Some of the land was subsequently sold to private owners. And there it lay, a broken-up ghost of a railroad spur dating back to the 1850s, once traveled by as many as twenty trains a day, crossties rotting and trees growing up between the rails.

The concept of converting obsolete railroads to pathways for non-motorized use, i.e., "rails-to-trails," began in Wisconsin in 1967 with the opening of the 32 mile long Elroy-Sparta State Trail. Important milestones were the National Trails System Act, which allowed for conversion of government-granted railroad right-of-ways be converted to trails, and the Transportation Equity Act (TEA-21, passed in 1998), which permitted federal funding for transportation improvements other than in support of planes, trains and automobiles. The law has gone through name changes but the goal of federal support for non-motorized transportation remains. 

Rails were removed in 2014 and sold for scrap steel. A few
pieces were left behind where trees had grown over the rails.
According to the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy organization ( there are now more than 22,000 miles of official ex-railroad trails in the United States. Another 8,000+ miles are in building or planning phases. Lengths range from the 253 mile John Wayne Pioneer Trail, Washington, to the 1.5 mile Manhattan High Line, New York. In Massachusetts, two of the best-known are the 22 mile Cape Cod Rail Trail and the 10 mile Minuteman Bikeway.

Trails take two forms, either packed crushed stone or paved. The first has a much lower construction cost, but higher maintenance. The second can easily exceed $1,000,000 per mile, especially if bridges are needed. In all instances the majority of the cost is federally funded. The remainder is divided between states and towns crossed by the trails.

Locally, the vision of a rail trail on the Acton to Marlborough right of way was begun in 1992 by a few interested residents acting in concert with town employees. A plus for potential funding was the intermodal nature of the concept - with the north end anchored at the South Acton train station, users could walk or bicycle to Acton to commute by train, or the reverse, commute by train to Acton to get to work in neighboring towns. To this end, the Acton train station rents enclosed bicycle lockers for $75/year, soon to go to $100/year.

ARRT sign put up by volunteers years ago, to
promote awareness and use as a walking trail.
The Assabet River Rail Trail organization ( was created in 1995 to coordinate volunteer activity. The five towns voted to approve the trail in 1998. Jeff Richards was the first ARRT president, followed by Thomas Kelleher, who has served in that position since 2001. Duncan Power has been clerk for as long. ARRT members have been instrumental in fostering awareness of the proposed trail. For Acton and Maynard that included literally hundreds and hundreds of hours clearing and maintaining the right of way for hikers and bikers. While a few people have been ambivalent about the planned trail ("It's right behind my house!" or "Why does it have to be paved?"), most of the comments have been positive.

Trail construction in Maynard and Acton is to start July 2016 and be completed by May 2018 (all but the final landscaping and fencing should be done by late 2017). After this 3.4 miles is completed at the northeast end, to go with the years-old 5.8 miles at the southwest end (in Hudson and Marlborough), what is planned for the middle?  Negotiations are underway for Track Road, the two miles between the Maynard/Stow border and Lake Boon. Beyond that, the trail would require two (expensive to build) crossings of the Assabet River, and a wide swath of land between the bridge sites is in private ownership. An alternative would be to detour south across the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge before turning west. This would add many (scenic) miles to the originally proposed length, but obviate the need for bridges and the repurchase of the original right-of-way. Either way, the next phase of the trail is years and years away before any possible funding.

An oft-asked question is whether the Acton end of ARRT will link to the Bruce Freeman Trail, currently being extended south through the east edge of Acton, toward West Concord. There is no rail right-of-way between the two, and thus no good option for an off streets connection. One possibility would be to create a three mile long bicycle lane on School Street and Laws Brook Road.

June 2013 has a long write-up on walkability of all of ARRT. Visit for maps, etc.

Display of railroad rail mounted on cross tie
An exhibit on the history of the railroad and transition to a rail trail was put on display in the Maynard town building on June 28, 2016, in anticipation of construction beginning on the Acton and Maynard portion of the trail. The display case on the main floor includes ten photographs, five pages of text showing the timelines of the railroad and the trail, and explanatory captions. One text panel explains how Amory Maynard's teenage son - Harlan - took the train to Concord to attend school at a private school run by Frank Sanborn. Harlan's classmates included Ralph Waldo Emerson's children and one of his teachers was Henry David Thoreau. The lower part of the case contains a section of original rail, baseplate, spikes and cross tie, plus extra spikes painted in Maynard school colors of black and orange. The exhibit will continue through the summer.