Category Archives: environmental issues


Last fall I tried dying fabric using plant products and was immediately hooked. I love the nuanced organic hues that you can get, but also standing over a steaming cauldron and stirring a bunch of weird things together to see what color they will produce. It’s like being a kid again and making potions from stuff you collected in your back yard.

Admittedly, I did a little research before starting. Even more than the Internet,  Sasha Duerr’s book on the subject has been the best resource I’ve found to date. It turns out there are several steps you have to take just to prepare a fabric for dying, and Duerr explains these very thoroughly. Unfortunately, she does not let you cut any corners. I was scouring and boiling and mordanting my little pile of fabrics for days before they were finally ready to go in the cauldron. There was a kitchen scale involved and I had to use math.

Normally I may not have gone to all the trouble but truth be told I really felt that I could not let Sasha Duerr down. Read the book and you’ll understand.

Anyway, so far I’ve dyed fabric using:

  • Queen Anne’s Lace
  • Oak hulls
  • Pokeberries
  • Blackberries
  • Turmeric
  • Black Beans
  • Madder Root


For my latest project I ordered powdered dyestuff from Maiwa because I don’t know how to forage for madder root in the dead of a Cleveland winter.


I dyed a small batch of vintage linens from Lithuania that had seen better days. And look how nicely they turned out:


For one of the pieces, I added iron powder to my dye as an “after mordant.” A mordant is an agent like tannin or alum that helps bind plant dyes to the fiber. But you can change the color of a dye pretty significantly just by adding iron. In the case of my madder root, the iron powder turned the dye a plum purple color, which ended up lilac gray after it dried.

I made this bird with it.

lilac swallow front_edited-1

lilac swallow in flight_edited-1

I just love the idea of turning a tattered piece of vintage cloth into something like that. You know?

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Some kind of a red bird from the Field Museum in Chicago

Something is currently happening to me, apparently much later than it does to normal human beings: I’m suddenly fascinated by birds.

It’s not that I ever held birds in contempt like I did watercolor painting, it’s just that they were part of the background, flitting about in the sky and leaving turds on the windshield. I knew there were a lot of birds in the world and that they were somehow an integral part of the ecosystem, though I could never be bothered to put up a bird feeder, say, or pause for a long, contemplative look at a bluejay.

But recently I’ve been really noticing birds and totally staring at them.

They are tiny dinosaurs. They are quite beautiful. And they can fly. How do they do that?

Do they have internal compasses? Where do they go during thunderstorms? How do they produce so many different sounds?

And what’s up with woodpeckers?

Mind, I still think birds are disease-riddled and the other day when my kids found an interesting feather in the backyard, I made them wear surgical gloves to pick it up. On the other hand, I’m currently reading the memoir of a woman who sets about training a goshawk and I sense the inevitability of a future in which I’m at a bird sanctuary wearing khaki shorts and binoculars and toting a watercolor sketchbook.

Which brings me to the other thing I’m mysteriously drawn to here in middle age: watercolor painting. I used to think it was a wimpy sort of medium. It brought to mind ladies in straw hats, wicker furniture, glasses of iced tea, and grade school. It was timid and flavorless. It was oil painting’s spineless and feeble-minded cousin.

But something about the grace and fluidity of watercolor painting is becoming increasingly attractive. I guess I appreciate subtlety and nuance more than I did in my younger years. And ever since taking a watercolor class while on vacation last week, I see that though it is quite approachable, watercolor is also a difficult and unforgiving medium.

Naturally, I am now impelled to wed my newfound love of birds with my newfound love of watercolor. So far I haven’t had much success, which is okay because according to Malcolm Gladwell, it’s going to take about 10,000 hours to master. In the meantime, I got myself a bird feeder and a second-hand ornithology lab notebook.



A page from my ornithology notebook


Fossil from the Field Museum in Chicago

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This One’s for the Birds

Lately I’ve been obsessed with trying to catch birds in the act of flying in the wrong direction. Specifically, north instead of south for the winter. So far I haven’t been able to bust even one flock and frankly, I don’t know what I’d do if it ever happened. I guess it would just give me a sense of personal satisfaction, knowing I’m not the only one who gets lost.

I asked Facebook for the answer earlier today and one friend told me that some birds can sense the Earth’s magnetic field, while others know where the sun rises and sets. Another friend said she thought the one in the front had a compass.

Anyway, I was at the mall today. I was there with my mother because we were going out for lunch. Well, my mother and I had a nice lunch at the newly renovated Nordstrom cafe and when we went back out to the parking lot, someone had moved our cars. Both of them!

We looked and we looked and we looked some more, but our cars were nowhere in sight. We had to walk back and forth through the north, south and east exits before we located them a great distance from the spot where we swore we had parked.

I chalked it up to the Car Moving Fairy, but I have a nagging suspicion there are some geese up there, laughing.

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When Animals Attack: Part Two

Warning: This post contains a photo of a skeleton and a clown.

I don’t normally spend a lot of time thinking about wild animals, but lately they’ve been forcing my hand. For example, last week Ohio made the news when a crazy person released his entire menagerie of beasts plus a monkey into the surrounding neighborhood. It was a sad episode in my state’s history. All of the animals were shot (but not before eating the monkey), and as a result I started to second-guess my plan to take the kids to the circus.

We were supposed to go as part of the V-meister’s 8th birthday celebration, but I felt that perhaps I should take a moral stand against circuses in general. Plus I worried that PETA might show up and torch the place. But I had purchased really good seats and I’d been looking forward to the circus, so there was no turning back.

The circus is no longer under a tent. Instead, it’s at a venue called the “Quicken Loans Arena.” But I have to hand it to those Ringling Brothers – they really know how to put on a show. All of the usual circus suspects were represented, including clowns, acrobats, tightrope walkers, and a human cannonball. Jonas was so enthralled by the clowns that I’m holding the Ringling Brothers plus Barnum plus Bailey personally accountable for his decision to become a clown when he grows up. He wants to put on “The Funniest Show on Erf.”

But I must admit I was conflicted about the animals. On the one hand, they were fascinating to watch; on the other, they seemed out of place at Quicken Loans Arena.  A whole herd of elephants came out and did tricks, like standing on their hind legs and rolling over. Ponies and zebras also performed, and there were many ferocious tigers, though they stayed inside their cage. During the pre-show, an elephant painted a picture with his trunk, though I have to tell you it wasn’t anything to write home about, talent-wise. It made me a bit uncomfortable that that elephant was on a basketball court and not in the Saharan plains. And that he was wearing a headband

The next day we headed to Lithuanian camp in Michigan for a weekend of fall fun, and guess who was there?

A roving pack of wild coyotes.

Longtime readers may remember that during last year’s Fall Camp Weekend, me and my friend V were almost killed by a deer.

This year, the only evidence of deer ever having roamed the campground was a pile of bones next to the lake.


Despite all the fun things we did – including a costume party, trick-or-treating, and a hayride, going for a walk past the deer bones was probably the high point of the entire trip.

"Let this be a lesson to you, kids."

This one was probably uncalled for.

But those deer bones got me thinking (again!) about animals and the circle of life. Was the deer’s predicament, I wondered, any worse than that of the circus elephants?  Should I be eating hamburgers and wearing leather belts? And why the hell were there coyotes at Lithuanian camp?

Later that night there was a Halloween party. The P-Dawg and I dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Coyote Wolf.

Me and the P-Dawg in costume

Very “full circle,” don’t you think?

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