In Other News

Three things I learned at AAAS 2018

Last weekend I grabbed a notebook and donned my cleanest business casual outfit to attend the largest science conference in the world: the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The three-day conference was both inspiring and utterly overwhelming. Here are a few things I learned concerning pigeons, climate change, and how to be a functioning human being.

1. Pigeons aren’t completely useless

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Pigeons get a bad rap. People say say they’re arrogant and entitled, and sometimes describe them as “flying rats.” But it turns out these city birds might actually be useful for detecting environmental toxins such as lead.

You probably have more in common with the ubiquitous pigeon than you might imagine. Pigeons share our food supply, water sources, and exposure to environmental toxins. Since they metabolize those toxins similarly to humans and each pigeon has a relatively small home range, Dr. Rebecca Calisi from UC Davis speculated that pigeons could provide accurate predictions of the amount of lead pollution in that range.

Calisi used data on pigeon lead levels from the Wild Bird Fund and analyzed it next to levels from children in New York City. She overlaid this data on a map of NYC and found that in areas where pigeons had higher blood lead levels, so did children — proving that your local pigeons can be used to test whether there are unsafe levels of lead in the environment before it’s too late.

2. Playing music keeps your brain young

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Neuroscience professor Nina Kraus demonstrated how your brain interprets music — and how the brain waves it creates can be deciphered and played back to mimic the original sound. 

Nina Kraus is the daughter of a classical pianist. As a girl, she would creep under the piano with her toys and blankets and sit there in the glow of  the music her mother produced.

Now a neuroscience professor at Northwestern, Kraus dedicates her time to studying the effects of music on the brain and the way speech and music are encoded in your neurons.

In a talk on Friday called “Sound and Brain Health,” Kraus showed how playing music — not just listening, but actually playing — can speed up your neural response time, which naturally slows as you get older.

One benefit of working out your brain this way? You’ll be able to hear better at parties. Seriously. Kraus said practicing musicians showed an enhanced ability to ignore distracting sounds and focus in on one voice or sound in a cacophony.

 

3. To make the biggest impact on how people see climate change, focus on people you can connect with

Climate change shouldn’t be up for debate. The facts are there, and the effects are already showing in our storms and sea levels and yearly average temperatures. But when the two sides of the U.S. political spectrum are playing a brutal tug-of-war over anything that can be grabbed and pulled upon, facts aren’t always enough.

That was the theme of the AAAS plenary lecture by Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech and a climate change expert. Hayhoe stressed the importance of using your connections and similarities with people to help them understand why climate change is a pressing issue.

No one can reach everyone. But each of us has a network of people with whom we share something. That’s how we can really change people’s minds, Hayhoe said. If you’re a Christian, reach out to those who share your faith. If you’re a mother, engage other parents. Whatever identities you hold, they are your key to helping — kindly and supportively — to make a positive impact on our planet.

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Canada trip part 4: We maple this off

Canada trip part 4: We maple this off…

Saturday was our last day in Canada, and we didn’t get up and going until 11ish. We ate a giant brunch of pfannkuchen–dutch pancakes–at a little diner chain called De Dutch, and then set out for the last item on our Vancouver itinerary: the VanDusen Botanical Gardens.

Really cool flowers on a tree at the botanical gardens!

Our flight left at 10 p.m., so we figured we had until about 6 to meander through the gardens. We spent the first hour gushing over rhododendrons, reading fast facts about useful wild plants, and surreptitiously sneaking bites of redwood sorrel, which is a little cloverish ground cover that tastes delicious and lemony. At this point we were about ⅓ of the way through the gardens, and looming in front of us was a sprawling hedge maze.

We set off into the maze nonchalantly–as members of the Harry Potter generation, we had high expectations for hedge mazes. This one seemed devoid of sphinxes and giant spiders, and the probability of encountering He Who Must Not Be Named was low.

But deep in the hedge maze, one monster did rear its ugly head: situational irony. At around 5 p.m., Eileen got a text from United Airlines, which read, “Your 6 p.m. flight has been delayed until 6:30.”

Evelyn entering the hedge maze.

Apparently our flight was NOT at 10. We looked at each other in panic, and began sprinting through the maze, running into dead ends and around maze cul-de-sacs before finally tumbling back out the entrance.

As we bolted through rhododendron-lined paths and across koi-stocked ponds, we called my Twitter friend, who, understanding the gravity of the situation, hopped in his car immediately to drive us to the airport. Unfortunately, we were still too late to catch our flight, and had to wait until 11 to take the red-eye to Houston.

Delirium set in in the airport, and we were laughing so loudly that an old man asked us to share with him the secret to happiness (I guess it’s the sheer exhilaration of getting stuck in hedge mazes, but I couldn’t tell you for sure).

At the gate, I was sharing pictures of a terribly ugly baby bird from Vancouver with Eileen and Evelyn, and I decided it couldn’t hurt to air drop it to the only other person whose laptop showed up on the finder page. The person, identified only as “Io,” accepted. Within minutes, they had responded with another meme. This conversation ensued:


As we got up to board, the man directly across from us looked at us and said, “it was nice talking to you ladies.” We talked to him a while about the bird, and I showed him what I had tweeted about it. He said he would retweet, and he did, and then we split off to our seats on different parts of the plane. When we looked at his twitter, he was verified! We had been spamming a well-known author with pictures of birds.

We got back to Austin at 7 a.m., and I went to HEB and tried to put my life in order before the cold shock of a full-time job began then next day–a jolt not unlike jumping into the frigid water of a turquoise-blue mountain lake.

Extra photos:

These kind of look like hydrangeas and kind of don’t. What are they?

Nice.

Me before we missed the flight…

This is called redwood sorrel and you can eat it and it tastes really yummy and sour.

Friends and flowers.

A beautiful pink flowerbed!

Canada trip part 3: Strange, but Trudeau

 

Moss on a tree trunk in the Whistler Interpretive Forest.

Something I first learned in Australia in the rainforest is that forests have personalities just like people. A few feet in altitude, a slightly richer patch of soil, an imperceptibly drier climate, and you have a place that feels totally different.

Forest personalities were on full display as we drove from Whistler to Vancouver. On the way out, we stopped at the Whistler interpretive forest, which consisted of several winding paths through the woods, interspersed with plaques describing species of trees.

My favorite tree was the western redcedar, with its lush, flat, fractal-like sprays of leaves. Since it was spring, the ends of the little needle-leaves were bright green with new growth, which gave the entire tree the pleasant appearance of being trimmed in vibrant lace.

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The light-tipped leaves of the western redcedar.

As we got closer to Vancouver, the forest became eerier. The trees were slightly more widely spaced, leaving room for mist to curl between them. The road wound and twisted through the forest until finally the trees dropped away on one side and we dove parallel to the bay. We peered out into the fog, in awe. It didn’t take us long to get into Vancouver, and at 9 p.m. we checked into our Airbnb, ate some olive-and-cheese bread, and knocked out.

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The forest on the way into Vancouver was much darker and foggier than in Whistler.

The next day, we turned in our car and took a tour bus to the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. We were the only ones on the bus, and I guess the driver was used to giving loud tours to a bus full of families because he had this sweet one-sided conversation with us where he would say a rehearsed fact about the city in a flawless narrator voice, and then say something nice about us and smile and smile.

I had never been on a suspension bridge before, and it was pretty thrilling to feel it quaking beneath my feet as we walked down and across a river-hewn canyon into the forest on the other side. The park was full of cool interpretive exhibits, including one about a huge tree that had fallen across the bridge years ago. It had to be removed in chunks to prevent the bridge from bouncing back like a rubber band. The chunks of trees were still there, and people had thrown coins onto them as if they were a wishing well. It looked strange and surreal, all that money glistening on the forest floor.

Walking into the forest at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park.

For dinner, we ate in Gastown at a vegetarian restaurant called MeeT. My veggie burger was a deep red — beet-red, in fact, because it was made with beets — and in that moment, the thick-cut steak fries were the best thing any of us had ever tasted.

The next day I ran again in the morning, this time to take photos of a cute koi fish mural I kept seeing on the way to our Airbnb. It was about 2 miles away, and as I jogged up to it, a delivery truck parked on the street directly in front of it. A middle-aged man got out and started unloading box after box of bean sprouts. I figured I would wait it out. Twenty minutes later, he was still unloading bean sprouts. I ran home.

Half of the bigger fish is playing koi behind a bean sprout truck…

In the afternoon, the lure of the coast drew our inland Texas hearts, and later on that day we found ourselves on a small school-bus-esque shuttle to English Bay Beach, right next to Stanley Park. We hopped off the tiny bus at noon and walked down to the shore, and I proceeded to become completely enveloped in the microcosms of beach life. Small dramas unfolded as seagulls fought ravens for morsels of food, and crabs scuttled around the rocks when they thought I wasn’t watching. The rocks were covered in fleshy seaweed leaves, and when I picked some up to get a closer look, I found a small, perfect kelp isopod resting on the underside of the bundle I had grabbed.

It was exactly the same color as the seaweed, and when I disturbed it it arched its armored back and raised its legs in an elegant way that made it look like it was in the middle of a yoga session.

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A well-camouflaged kelp isopod!

It was low-tide, and the beach had an other-worldy look about it. Electric green algae carpeted the sand. It looked very extravagant and almost too bright to be real, especially against the steel-grey sea and ominous sky. We headed home at 6 or so to eat the rest of our olive bread, and some giant carrots we had bought purely for their novelty.

Bright green algae on the beach at low tide.

As night fell, we wandered again into Gastown in search of a fun bar. The best we could find was a hostel full of drunken grad students — not what we were looking for. More searching yielded an underground club with walls papered with a scribbly pattern of scrawly, barely-readable words. It looked really cool, but there were only four people there, and one was dancing like squidward. We hightailed it back to the first hostel bar and engaged in an earnest avoidance of two grad students who were valiantly trying to flirt with me and Evelyn, but who also, by their own admission, both had girlfriends.

Gastown was full of these cool street lamps.

The next day, determined to get my fish mural picture, I rose early and ran the two miles back to the wall. It was raining, of course, but I got a couple of photos of the placid orange fish swimming up the side of the building.

Later on, we met my Twitter friend who lives in Vancouver, and he took us to the strange factory-turned-farmers-market that is Granville Island. We ate food court noodles and visited a broom shop and a mystifying store called Dragon Space, which contained a menagerie of dragons from varying fantasy realms. It made me wonder about the taxonomy of dragons: are the same few dragon species ubiquitous across universes? Or is, say, a Lord of the Rings dragon an entirely different kind of organism than a dragon from the Eragon series? What about Game of Thrones dragons? In my opinion, Dragon Space could have benefitted from an ID chart and accompanying phylogeny.

FISH FLASK!

We also went to a store called Make, which had a lot of cool stuff, the coolest being a silver flask shaped like a fish! It was $30 dollars, but they were Canadian dollars, so it was slightly cheaper. I left the store armed with my new fish flask and an arsenal of fish-related puns.

Fish flask was put to good use that night–and by “good use” I mean he was filled with cheap vodka and then emptied in short order as we visited bars on Granville Street, which is sort of like Vancouver’s version of Sixth Street. The mess that ensued included more Squidward-esque dancing, a man who thought that because I was from Texas I would be exceedingly interested in examining his personalized belt buckle (so interested, in fact, that he deemed it necessary to take it off and wave it around on the dance floor), playing rugby in the street, and an impromptu limo ride. In other words, it was a wild ride!

Extra Pictures

More moss!!!!

Disgruntled-looking dandelions after a rain.

Sun through the trees at Whistler.

This is called skunk cabbage and bears eat it to detox after hibernation LOL

The beach at English Bay.

Such pretty colors!

Weird, waxy flowers of a fremontodendron.

Spot the isopod!

Canadian rocks are the coolest rocks.

Burgundy smokebush.

A super-glossy tulip!

Canada trip part 2: Alberta’ll be fine

Our fifth day in Canada was our last day in Banff, and the only driving day of the trip–we were headed to Whistler, BC next to go bungee jumping.

We were on the road by 9 a.m., which should have been plenty of time to get to Whistler in the daylight, except we are all chronically distractible and couldn’t resist the urge to stop at one more glassy turquoise lake. The one we chose was the jewel of many a Pinterest page–Emerald Lake.

Emerald Lake.

Unlike Lake Louise, Emerald Lake was not frozen and was a brilliant, opaque blue. Lacy pine trees bent over the water, and people paddled across the sunlit water in striking red canoes. A trail let up past a group of lodges on the water, and we followed it until the trees thinned and the water stretched out before us against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Everything felt so clear and beautiful.

The trail began to get muddy, and Eileen’s birkenstocks were not suited for the trail (we had not expected to hike today). I wanted one more picture, so I pushed ahead in my muddy Chacos and waded into the water. Evelyn followed a few steps behind me, and Eileen waited on the trail.

The photo we left Eileen to get…

At least, we thought she did. After I snapped my shot I turned back and we walked to where we had left Eileen, but she was nowhere to be seen. Not on the trail, not on the fallen log we had sat on earlier, and not at the viewpoint looking at the water.

“We’ll definitely find her if we walk the trail back to the car,” I said. “Maybe she’s just sitting in there eating a snack.”

We walked the three quarters of a mile back to the car. She wasn’t there.

“Maybe we missed her along the trail,” said Evelyn.

We walked back up into the woods and back to the place we had stopped. No sign of Eileen. It had been 45 minutes since we had seen her.

By now, we were starting to get panicky. Eileen wouldn’t just leave us. Something must have happened. We walked the trail again. The weather mirrored our feelings. If I hadn’t been hysterical with worry about Eileen, I might have laughed at how unexpected thunder cracked and grumbled as we searched, as if the weather had watched too many movies and was trying its best to provide the ambiance. We walked the trail again, calling her name, telling each other it would be fine and that we were definitely over-reacting. In my own head, it seemed like I was under-reacting, if anything. Should we call the police? Search the woods on either side?

Weird prehistoric-looking plants on the trail at Emerald Lake.

When we finally found her, it was anticlimactic. She was in the car eating a snack. Apparently she had gone to a vantage point from which she assumed she would be able to see us when we came back down the trail. She was not able to see us, and therefore assumed that we had been walking without her for over an hour. We were glad to see her, and finally get on the road

to Whistler.

I don’t know if you saw that meme of a Canadian mowing his lawn with a huge tornado behind him, saying “I’m keeping an eye on it,” (here it is), but I think that’s probably the same philosophy with which they approach their roads. The drive from Emerald Lake to Whistler had us all on the edges of our seats from start to finish. The first few hours in daylight were not too bad, but excessively curvy.

As the sun sank behind the mist-covered mountains, darkness fell like a suffocating blanket over the road. We drove between looming peaks, around hairpin turns, and past still, black lakes like mirrors. The road wound higher and higher into the mountains, ceased to be paved, and at 2 a.m. we realized that none of us had seen another car in at least two hours. If we rolled down the window we could hear the rush of water to our right, but we couldn’t see the river, the darkness was so complete. Tiny animals skittered across the road, and deer watched with blank, glowing stares from the sides. At times, the road sloped and eroded down slopes, and I could see Evelyn’s knuckles growing white as she clutched the steering wheel.

When we finally pulled into our hostel in Whistler, it was 4:30 a.m. and we were all wondering whether it would have been better to just forego the hostel and sleep in our car, rather than deal with the too-cool-for-us night-shift check-in guy with long hair and an exclusively-Beatles playlist on blast in the lobby. We finally finished check-in and staggered to the elevator as the first pale rays of light flickered at the horizon and “Here Comes the Sun” played in the background.

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The Cheakamus River, which we bungee jumped over.

The next morning, we crawled out of bed at 11, and spent way too long deciding which t-shirts to wear bungee jumping to optimize the videos we would take of each other shrieking as we fell 50 meters over the rushing Cheakamus river.

 

“Will green blend in too much with the trees?”

“Yeah. Wear grey.”

“What if the water is grey?”

It was embarrassingly girly, to be honest.

Our shirt color turned out to be completely irrelevant when we arrived, because it was pouring and we all wore our rain jackets. We parked the car by the river and climbed onto a black metal bridge. It climbed through the thick pine and cedar forest and arched over the river, which rushed below us, green and foamy and furious. I looked down at my feet on the metal bridge, and saw the eddying, foaming rapids through the gaps.

The nonchalant bungee crew harnessed us up and rushed us through the liability paperwork in under 10 minutes, and before I knew it I found myself standing on the edge of the bridge, my back to the river below.

“Three, two, one, jump!”

With a shriek, I flung myself off the bridge and tumbled down toward the water.

I hadn’t even jumped and I was already screaming.

Still screaming.

Extra pictures

Forget-me-nots!

Forget-me-nots plus dandelions.

Really lush grass we found at a rest stop. 

This pine flower looks pretty calm…

Until you see what happens when you hit it!

Blurry iPhone photo of grizzly bears we saw along the road to Whistler. 

The most beautiful blue water at Emerald Lake! 

Canada trip part 1: Geez Louise

There’s something unholy about waking up at 3 a.m. Waking up at 4 is acceptable–a hard-working businessperson might wake up at 4 to get a workout in before their commute. But 3 is just plain the middle of the night. The birds aren’t singing and there’s no hint of the sun on the horizon for at least a couple of hours.

One day this summer though, my two friends and I woke up at 3 a.m. to catch our 5:30 flight to Canada. And boy, was it worth it.

Usually I try to blog my trips while they’re happening, but due to an unfortunate sequence of events, including a broken laptop with a nine-days-expired warranty and a severe lack of wifi, this one is a post-trip recount.

When we hopped off our flight in Calgary at noon, we felt the weight of our already 9-hour day pressing down on us, but we shouldered it along with our luggage and made our way to the rental car building.

The landscape in Canada was a dream from the start. Pulling out of the airport I watched the lush green grass blowing in the wind, shining like glossy silken ribbons. As we drove closer to the mountains, we marveled at the clearness of the air–i felt like I could see for miles and miles, and everything appeared crisp and sharp. I guess I hadn’t realized how the Texas scenery is often dulled by airborne dust.

Melting ice on Lake Louise.

The town of Banff itself was one of those typical hyper-planned tourist towns: it looked really cute, but felt fake, like it was putting up a facade for us. Which I guess it was, literally. Each storefront on the picturesque main street boasted signs for several stores within, and upon entering, several proved to be underground malls with 10 or more shops and pubs below ground level.

Our roommate in the hostel was from South Korea and a hopeless romantic. In halting English, he asked why we traveled to Canada, and we replied that we were just vacationing, drawn to the country by the scenery and climate. When we asked him the same question, he answered that he had first heard of Lake Louise when he listened to a song of the same name by Japanese pianist Yuhki Kuramoto. The flowing melodies and shimmering arpeggios had stirred something in him, and he planned a pilgrimage to the lake that had inspired the music. He played the song for us and it was complicated and beautiful and calm all at the same time.

When we woke the next morning at 7, the sun had been up for two hours already. That’s just how summers are up north–more light than you know how to take advantage of. The sun set close to 10 p.m., and rose a little after 5 in the morning.

A blue patch of water through the trees

In the bright daylight, we ate breakfast outside on the stained-cedar balcony of the hostel cafe, then set off on the drive to Lake Louise. The lake was partially frozen, so it wasn’t the turquoise vista in the Google image photos–at least not immediately. For our first hike, we climbed the mountain to the left of the visitor’s center on a trail called the Lake Agnes Teahouse trail. Unfortunately, the warm sun beating down on the mountain snow created prime conditions for avalanches, so we weren’t able to venture all the way to the tea house. We did, however, make it to Mirror Lake, which was so blindingly white with snow and ice that we looked anywhere but at the lake.

 

On the way up the mountain, we saw a glimpse of the thawing lake, which was now a brilliant blue. When we reached the bottom of the slope after the hike, we took off and walked half the perimeter of the lake to see the water, which was almost opaque from all the suspended rock flour in the water.

The blue rocks whose powdered form give the lake its opaque color.

When we got home, we were exhausted, but ate some indian food at a cute restaurant called Masala (uninspired but accurate I guess) before passing out.

The next day was Friday, and we decided to stick closer to town. After asking around at the visitor’s center in town, we decided to hike the Surprise Corner to Hoodoos trail, which began right on the edge of Banff and ran parallel to the road out to our hostel.

This trail felt very different from yesterday’s snow-covered path–the trees were closer together, and the strong sunlight filtered through them, dappling the forest floor with green and yellow and brown. Moss grew thick on either side of the footpath and formed little mounds. After a while the moss gave way to tussocks of glossy grass along the banks of a teal-colored river. As we ate our lunch on some mossy rocks, we saw a group of mule deer wade chest-deep through the water to graze on the other side. The trail was out-and-back, but we never did see the hoodoos.

Cool moss on the Hoodoos trail

Back in town, we snacked on some grocery store falafel for supper and headed into Banff for a night out. In short, the night included at least 5 gin and tonics, a grimy “English pub,” new friends from France, Germany, Australia and more, and a bar called the Dancing Sasquatch (there really was a dancing sasquatch who posed for a picture with us).

 

Waking up was hard the next morning, and we spent the day hanging around town shopping and sight-seeing. That night, I went for a trail run and went far enough to actually see the hoodoos for which the Surprise Corner trail was named. As night fell, Evelyn and I took the car and drove into town and up Mount Norquay.

Bighorn sheep!

The road up the slope of the mountain was just a series of hairpin turns through thick forest, interspersed with grassy alpine meadows. Near the top, we got out and admired the view of the town, nestled cozily in the valley below. I proposed that we sit in the pair of giant red chairs (these are everywhere in Canada??) in the middle of the meadow, but we only got halfway across when we realized the spot was already taken by several huge, shadowy animals. Upon closer inspection–but not too close–they proved to be bighorn sheep trying to sleep. We startled them, and they turned and looked at us with luminous eyes. We backed away slowly to the car, and they turned and ran up to the road ahead of us. Once we were safe in the car, we drove along the road alongside the sheep, who would trot ahead and then stop and stare balefully back at us.

Extra Photos

Some sort of liverwort?

The angriest bird–it followed us all around Lake Louise and watched us grumpily as we ate our snacks.

 

A prairie crocus.

Weird ground-growing lichen.

A view on the Surprise Corner to Hoodoos trail.

Pasque flower seed head.

Prairie smoke on the mountain. The seed heads will be fluffy poofs!

Living my childhood dream of sleeping on a bed of moss.

The woods on the trail near town.

The patchiest mule deer.

The dancing sasquatch himself!

Sunset on the moss!

Bighorn sheep skulls are surprisingly heavy…

A hot spring pool at Cave and Basin. A really rare snail lives here, and we saw them crawling around!

Succulent cupcakes: desert plants for dessert

Whether you’re deciding what to bring to a party, looking for a fun family project, or just hoping to make the green life a little bit sweeter, this cupcake recipe fits the bill.

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Supplies:

Ready-made cupcakes

Wilton icing dye in moss green

Ready-made Wilton fondant

Rolling pin

Your favorite icing

Crushed graham crackers

Flower shaped cookie cutters in varying sizes

Mini cupcake tins

White chocolate for “glue” (optional)

Instructions:

Start with a batch of ready-made cupcakes. These are made with chocolate cupcakes, but any flavor will work. Coat the top of the cupcakes in icing, and roll in crushed graham crackers to give the appearance of sand or gravel. Set the cupcakes aside.

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Chocolate cupcakes

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A cupcake that has been iced and rolled in Graham cracker crumbs

Take out the fondant and knead to soften. Once pliable, add a small amount of green food coloring and pull and knead the fondant to blend in the color.

When you have achieved the desired shade of green, roll the fondant out to a little more than ⅛ inch thickness. Use the flower-shaped cookie cutters to cut pieces of fondant of varying sizes. To make them look more like succulent leaves, take a knife and cut in between the petals towards the center to make longer “leaves.” Pinch the ends of the leaves with your fingers to create points. Make the centers of the plants by forming a small ball of fondant and surrounding it with tiny leaves. These can be hand-shaped since they are too small to cut with the cookie cutter.

Layer the succulent leaves from largest to smallest in the mini cupcake tins. They should like like this:

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This step takes literally forever, just put some good music or a cool podcast…may I suggest S-town?

Allow the fondant succulents to sit in the open air so they dry and harden a little bit. Test to see if they are hard enough by removing one from the cupcake tin and checking if it maintains its form.

Once they are ready, gently set the succulents on top of the graham-cracker-covered cupcakes. If you’re worried about the cupcakes staying together, melt a little bit of white chocolate and use as glue to attach the succulents to the cupcakes. Enjoy your tasty succulent treats!

Utah trip part 2: In which we become true canyon connoisseurs

illusionsBryce Canyon

The weather was cool and breezy when we drove into Bryce Canyon National Park, and residual snow drifts lay in patches of shade along the roadside. I was wearing my trusty estate-sale flannel and an old t-shirt, but I wasn’t cold; the weather felt at odds with the surroundings.

Bryce Canyon (which is not actually a canyon, if you want to get technical) cuts through a more-than-20-mile stretch of Utah ground. The reason Bryce is not a canyon is the method of erosion. True canyons are cut into the ground by the flow of a central stream or river. Bryce, however, was formed by headward erosion, in which the flow of water over a plain and into a depression causes the rim of the depression to recede backwards. One way to think of this is to imagine you’re digging a hole on the beach—as the wave reaches the edge of the hole you dug, it will destabilize the edge, causing it to move back.

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Bryce Canyon from one of the roadside lookout points

The national park is pretty much a driving tour with pullouts at viewpoints that overlook different amphitheaters. We thought about hiking a snow-covered trail paralleled the rim, but it was too muddy and slushy to go far without snow boots. Just looking across the park from the viewpoints was more than enough, though. Rippled, layered columns of red rock called hoodoos lined the canyon like teeth, and snow lay nestled in shadows. It looked so innocent, you’d never guess at its potential as a fierce agent of erosion.

As we drove out, the lure of sparkling snow proved too much for our inner Texan children and we pulled over on the roadside next to a glittering white clearing. We meant to stay for ten minutes, but an hour later we were still there making snow angels, wading knee-deep through fluffy drifts, and throwing snowballs into the air and swiping them into little flurries as they fell.

At some point one of us kicked a drift of snow, and found the crunch it made satisfying and cathartic—perfect for letting our pent-up frustrations from the trip.

“No tomato basil soup!” yelled Evelyn. “Ugh!”

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Eileen and Evelyn playing in the snow

“Being sick!” Eileen added

“Blisters!”

“Expensive gas!”

“Homework over spring break!”

At 6:30 p.m. we climbed back into the car, soaked to the skin with melted snow and eyes filled with tears of laughter.

Zion National Park

By the time we pulled into our Days Inn in Hurricane, Utah, it was dark outside and the nighttime cold was starting to grip us. We had bought little cans of colorful bean salad in Moab, and we ate them with Wheat Thins as we finished up our homework, then passed out.

When the sun rose the next morning, we left our hotel for the park with two huge bottles of water and backpacks full of snacks and sunscreen and joined a queue of cars winding into the valley that is Zion National Park.

Zion made me feel small the same way flying in airplanes makes me feel small. The park is set up the same way Yosemite is—the visitor’s center is at the mouth of a huge valley, and hikes in the interior either involve trekking alongside the Virgin River in the middle or climbing steep trails up the sides of the canyon.

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The squiggly part of West Rim trail leading up to Angels Landing

The sun in the valley beat down intensely on one side of the cliffs, but in the shadow of the rocks the shade was deep and cool. We started hiking at 12 when the sun was high in the sky, and we weren’t even a quarter of the way up before we had stripped off all our layers and were stopping every five minutes for water breaks.

Angels Landing is a viewpoint at the top of a gargantuan ridge of rock. The trail up to the top starts out hard and only gets harder. For the first two miles you follow a paved path that wiggles and winds as it ascends almost 1,000 feet, and then levels off at Scout Lookout, where you can see far out over the canyon. Some people stop there, content to take in the view from this safe and accessible resting place. For the more adventurous hikers, however, Scout Lookout is only halfway. From there the trail is no longer paved, but follows a series of narrow ledges up the ridge of the rocky cliff. For most of the way there are chains to hold on to, and drops of over 1000 feet on one side or both sides.

Hikers at Angels Landing weren’t like other hikers I’ve seen—there were people of all types, in all sorts of clothes. Some looked like average college kids like us, hiking the trail for the view and the thrill. Others seemed more like they were doing it because they had something to prove, either to themselves or to the world. Everyone talked to each other and helped one another up the harder parts. Because some parts of the trail were only wide enough for one person, there were several bottleneck spots where we stopped and waited for people going the opposite direction to pass.

The mood was happy and upbeat, and almost everyone we encountered on the way up offered us encouragement and incentive to finish the hike. And when we finished finally, we were so glad we did. The view was amazing, and the top was a paradise of tired but euphoric hikers snacking, taking photos, or just looking out at tiny buses the size of tic-tacs traversing the park roads and the river twisting across the valley floor.

The sun was setting behind the cliff walls by the time we finally finished climbing down to the trailhead again. Wherever the sun hit, the walls were a beautiful red-gold, and the yellow and green trees by the river glowed in the light. Our bodies felt loose and tired, and we were so happy as we drove back into town for dinner. Juicy Portobello burgers and golden, foamy beer had never tasted so good.

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Rock spiraea clinging to the cliff walls at Zion

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Budding trees lining the banks of the Virgin River

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Post-Angels Landing

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Galls?

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Aboard one of the shuttles through the park

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A waterfall at Upper Emerald Pool (another Zion trail we hiked)

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Six feet, 1500 feet above the ground

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Orange water at Upper Emerald Pool

Utah trip part I: In which we storm out of a restaurant and hike ten miles of red rocks

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Driving through New Mexico

We stumbled into a restaurant in Gallup, New Mexico the way a lost traveler crawls to an oasis in the desert. It felt like we had been driving for several days and nights. In reality it had been about 6 hours, but New Mexico has a way of stretching time so that you feel like you’ve been there an eternity.

The restaurant was a promising oasis. A live band played in the corner, and the menu boasted several vegetarian options. Warm yellow light glowed from the windows.

The cashier looked on as we debated the relative merits of ordering a bowl of tomato basil soup or a sandwich with pesto. We decided on half of each.

“We’ll have the veggie Panini and the tomato basil soup.”

“Oh, sorry, we can’t make that sandwich.”

We reconvened, deciding finally on another sandwich with the coveted pesto.

“We’ll have the Mediterranean melt, and a cup of soup.”

“Oh, are you looking for something with the pesto? That’s what we’re out of.”

Again we put our heads together. If we couldn’t have pesto at least we could still have the soup, and then just settle for a salad. Again, we stepped up to order. The cashier smirked at us from behind the register.

“Okay, we’ll have the tomato basil soup and a Caesar salad.”

“We can only make the house salad, is that okay?”

It was okay with us. We just wanted food as soon as possible.

“Sure, we’ll have the house salad and tomato basil soup.”

“We’re actually out of the tomato basil soup.”

We walked out.

 

Arches National Park

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Finally, twenty minutes past midnight, we pulled into our tiny campsite and got ready for bed as fast as we could. Right before we went to sleep, we heard a knock at the door. A voice came through the window.

“It’s okay, it’s just the girl next door.”

Her name was Jay, and she just wanted to know the wifi password but she stayed and talked for a while. She recommended us a trail to hike the next day, and told us about her experiences at the park.

“I came here last year,” she said. “I was tent camping, and I meant to stay two weeks but I ended up staying five.”

Somehow having five spare weeks to spend in a national park didn’t mesh with our perception of adult life. What did this woman do for a living? We resolved to talk to her and find out the next day when it wasn’t 1:00 a.m. and we weren’t dog-tired. We didn’t see her again the next day, though.

We woke up at 8 the next morning and got ready for the day hike Jay had suggested.

 

 

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Landscape Arch from the trail

We had been on the trail for maybe ten minutes when we came upon Landscape Arch, which definitely looks like it should not be standing. The sign near it described the last flaking event, where a huge chunk of the bottom of the arch fell, leaving it thinner and more improbable-looking than ever. Probably the holes in the sandstone had become saturated with water, the sign said, and the added weight caused the massive flake to crash to the ground. The flake story made me think about how someday the entire arch will collapse, and grateful that I got to see it.

After Landscape Arch the trail began to live up to it’s “difficult” rating; we scaled a huge fin of rock which jutted from the ground to a dizzying height, then followed stacked cairns along a narrow ridge and out over Fin Canyon. Beyond the canyon there was a wide grassland and the sugarcoated ridge of a mountain range. Little crispy dried flowers grew from tufts of white leaves on the sandy ground, and gnarled cedars twisted towards the sun with less and less success the higher up in elevation they grew.

When our comments on the landscape became increasingly food-related (i.e. “Wow, don’t those fins look like loaves of bread?”) we stopped under a pine tree and ate our avocado cheese sandwiches before continuing on our hike.

The trail led us past two more arches, each carved into the rock in improbable ways. Double O Arch was two holes in one huge slab of rock, both of which framed the landscape beyond. The last arch we saw on the way back was called Private Arch, and we had to trek back half a mile from the main trail, but it was so worth it. It hid behind two other fins, nestled in a nook that blocked all sound, even birds. It was so quiet that I could hear the hum that creeps in when there is nothing else to hear.

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The upper arch in Double O Arch

We finished the 7-mile hike at 4 p.m. and took a quick water break before our last adventure of the day. We were rested up by 5, and as the sun sank behind the mountains, we climbed up to Utah’s poster child, the Delicate Arch. Its lopsided shape adorns license plates, postcards, and pretty much every kitschy travel mug Utah offers, and we were appropriately excited.

The hike up to the arch was a strenuous uphill trek, made harder by the fading light, but the steady stream of people kept us on the right trail. As we neared the top of the rocky hills we were climbing, the crowd got thicker, and finally we crested the rock at the top and say the arch. It sat alone in a wide amphitheater of rock, silhouetted against a view of the plateau beyond. It seemed almost too perfect to exist. Along the walls of the amphitheater, photographers crouched every few feet, cameras poised and ready in a forest of tripods.

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Photographers and tourists overlook Delicate Arch

The saddest part of Delicate Arch came at the most beautiful time: when the setting sun fell on the face of the rock, painting it a glowing golden red. The people taking pictures near the arch were walking in for photos, when all of a sudden deafening shouts rained from all sides of the amphitheater. “Get away! Move! You had your chance for photos! Hey, red backpack, GET OUT!” It reminded

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Tourists scared back from the arch by booing photographers

me of a gladiator ring, the rabid crowd screaming down at the tiny people in the center. The little foreign woman with the red backpack shuffled away from the arch.

I’m a little conflicted about the yelling, because I know the tiny posing figures would have marred a flawless photography opportunity, but all I could think about was how their perception of this natural wonder would be colored by the rudeness they had experienced there.

Delicate Arch was beautiful, but somehow it felt off to me. The photo I Instagrammed showed me sitting in front of it, looking out as the sun fell on its curved shape. No one else was in the frame—no hint of the clamoring audience or the hapless tourists on all sides. But that wasn’t really what it was like at all.

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The photo i instagrammed from Delicate Arch

The next morning we climbed to the Windows arches for sunrise, but when the sun rose over the mountains, it was sucked up immediately by a thick blanket of clouds. Still, the dawn light lit the plains and we saw two jackrabbits and everything glowed.

 

 

 

 

 

Good things come in threes: December

Three really ordinary things that made me extraordinarily happy

 

  1. Exploring with Ella

A couple of days ago, my little sister and I braved the 20 degree weather to traipse across the countryside surrounding our house and pay a visit to my favorite plant–a charismatic mountain of old man’s beard that adorns a fence along a country road on the way to town. It’s the only plant of its kind in the area as far as I know, and I make a point to check on it every time I come home. We also hiked around the lake and stopped to look at yuccas along the county road. Ella really liked it.

“This is the most interesting thing I’ve done all day,” she said.

That was pretty nice, especially because I understood just what she meant. I know the feeling of the slow winter days at home in Dublin, when even the eyes of the gas station clerk or the sight of a familiar face at the grocery store added a sense of intrigue to the flat expanses of a holiday afternoon. Glad I could liven up her day!

  1. Mom’s succulent plant

Her tips for growing a succulent plant this lush: a little bit of water and LOTS of sunlight. It’s in a windowsill right now, but it spends non-freezing days out on a little pedestal in the yard (maybe the special treatment of being placed on its own pedestal helped too).

  1. The new piece of land behind our house

Of all the possible reasons to purchase fifty acres of land, Granddad’s rationale behind buying this one is the weirdest I’ve ever heard–apparently a couple of generations back, one of our relatives killed one of our other relatives in a house that used to stand back in the woods at the end of the pasture. Lovely.

Familial murders aside, it is a pretty field. There’s a huge hill covered in tufts of Texas bluestem (it’s orange in winter), a deer blind which doubles as a scenic lookout, and a creek with enough small artifacts of human living that it could provide years of interesting exploring. My favorite part is the way the different grasses form a patchwork across the field.  In the evenings the coyotes in the woods around it organize small choirs that yip and howl and serenade…who? Other coyotes I guess. I’m looking forward to exploring it more in the future!

Catching the Texas travel bug

After last weekend, I can now say that I have been on an entire camping trip in search of one shiny green beetle.

Our friend Alejandro had been excited about this particular kind of beetle, the Wood’s Jewel Beetle, for months, so the four of us—Cano, Alejandro, Jenny and I—packed our bags and headed west to Davis Mountains State Park.

We left Austin at 10am, breakfast tacos in hand. Google maps pegged the drive at 6 hours, but our tendency to stop for scenery, fresh peaches, enchiladas and ice cream stretched it to a solid 9.

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Our campsite–is West Texas even a real place?

The drive was stunning—every time I travel in Texas, I am amazed at the diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. I didn’t want to sleep in the car because I was afraid I’d miss the scenery changing subtly from scrubby forest to grassy flatlands to gently rolling hills to (finally) the crinkled peaks of the Davis Mountains.

We arrived at the park at sunset, and drove to a scenic overlook, where we wandered around in awe of the green valley, meandering creek, and hillsides covered with grass glowing in the golden light. When got to the campsite, the sun had set, and we hurried to put up our tents.

When we were finished, Alejandro pulled out a black light from his car, which he mounted on the side of the vehicle and draped in a white sheet. Within seconds, the air around the light was filled with moths careening in and out of the shadows. Huge, clumsy beetles dropped from the air onto the sheet, all of them bumbling, awkward, earnest, none of them green.

I wandered away from the light, just far enough that my eyes could adjust to the velvety blackness around me. On the ground, I saw something glow—maybe a reflection of the light on a shard of glass? I approached it, but as I changed angles, the glow stayed constant. I scooped it up—it was a female firefly! Wingless and wormlike, she crawled on my hand, emitting a soft green glow.

When the sun rose on Sunday morning, it found me peering out of my tent, sleepy-eyed and stiff from lying on the ground. I hadn’t really seen the campsite the night before, and the drifts of dewy flowers and green expanses of hills looked magical in the slanted, lemony light.

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The campsite at sunrise

We decided to hike in the morning, but fate was not with us. The first trail we tried led straight to the bank of the swollen creek, which was flowing with a strong current that we did not want to cross. The second trail was the same, with the added complication of my eye swelling shut due to an insect sting.

We drove into town to the nearest grocery store, and I grabbed a bottle of antihistamines and walked up to the counter, where the solitary checker was writing prices on bottles of shampoo with a black sharpie.

“Can you see this?” she asked, holding up the bottle.

I laughed.

“I can’t see much, since my eye is swollen shut.”

We finally got to go on our hike later in the afternoon, once I could open my eye almost all the way again. We chose the most challenging path on the map, the Indian Head trail, which started off ambitiously by winding straight up the nearest mountain. We were all a little winded after the first few minutes, but the beautiful scenery made up for it.

The hills were blanketed in tall tufts of grass, and dotted with dark green junipers. Torrey yuccas, looking disturbingly human, loitered on the slopes, casting long shadows in the afternoon sun. The fibrous trunks of dead yuccas doubled over instead of snapping like branches, giving the eerie impression of bent, broken bodies.

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Shooting the breeze with a Torrey yucca

The trail took us over three small mountains, each more fascinating than the last. We found quartz pebbles like milky bubbles, spiny, lightning-fast lizards, and a stand of white flowers so fragrant that we stopped to smell them for a full ten minutes. Every so often, the constant green of the hills was broken by rocky outcroppings, which we climbed and lay on top of like reptiles warming their blood in the sun.

On the way back to camp, I found an uprooted Boletaceae mushroom, and broke it open to get a better look at the gills. Within seconds, the flesh turned a vibrant blue. We gathered around the mushroom, and I pulled it apart as many times as I could just to watch the color shift as the inside of the mushroom oxidized. It was so beautiful!

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Boletaceae mushroom turning blue

That night, we black-lighted again, and then stood around talking and admiring the stars, which were brighter than I had ever seen them and strewn across the sky with all the elegant chaos of a Jackson Pollock painting. I felt so at home.

The next morning, packing up the tents felt bittersweet; one day wasn’t nearly enough to see all the beautiful things the Davis Mountains had to offer, and we hadn’t even found the beetle. I was concentrated hard on folding the tarp into an even square, when I heard a loud, droning buzzing, and turned around to see a flash of green—the beetle! I shot out a hand to grab it, and opened my fist to see it flailing on my palm, an iridescent green underlaid with yellow. We were all so excited to see it—the perfect end to the perfect camping trip!

Extra pictures

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A leafed-out ocotillo

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We found a whip scorpion!

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A really pretty mushroom

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Walking in the hills

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More hiking