Where do the fish go in the winter? Do they hibernate? Do they bury themselves in the bottom of the rivers and ponds somehow? The fresh waters of Blackstone Valley have two types of fish: warm water and cold water varieties.
During the cold months, warm water varieties such as bass and sunfish slow down and lower their metabolism. They can go for long periods of time without eating, a good thing considering their food supply is extremely limited in the winter months.
Other fish such as the three Ps (pickerel, perch and pike) are still active in cold water. That means they are hungry and will go after bait. This works out well for the ice fisherman, not so well for the pickerel, perch and pike. Trout are the exception: they slow down in winter waters but can still be enticed to go for the bait of fishermen.
There is a scientific explanation. Fish are poikilothermous (cold-blooded); their body temperature follows that of the environment. While they are regulated by nutrition, photoperiod (daily length of light exposure) and water temperature, the reduction of temperature is what causes their metabolisms to slow, some species more than others. In fact, some species actually experience brief superficial freezing or super cooling (without freezing) and remain alive. Fish that are active or semi active in the winter usually seek areas of deeper water where only the top layer freezes into ice.
Come to think of it, one usually sees ice fishermen on ponds and lakes, never on a shallow stream.
Ever since New England was colonized in the early 17th century, dealing with the frigid conditions of winter has been a challenge. It was a startling change for settlers recently arrived from England to realize that their new home had more snow than they were used to but also much colder temperatures.
In February and March of 1717, “The Great Snow” covered southern New England in a series of four storms. It deposited nearly 4 feet on the ground and drifts were reported as high as 25 feet. Roads were impassable, communities were isolated and supplies did not move overland or along the coastal waterways. The only successful post runner from New York to Boston made the trip on snowshoes.
In November of 1798, the region was hit with “The Long Storm;” from Maryland to Maine nearly continuous snow fell between the 17th and 21st. Another notable storm in December of 1811, “The Cold Storm” of 1857 and the “Blizzard of ‘88” all made the record books.
Snow and how to handle it became a focus of communities large and small. In the rural towns, early snow removal depended on shoveling the white stuff out of the road. While it was not until the 1840s that the first patents were issued on snow plows, New Englanders came up with an earlier invention – the snow roller. It was a large wooden cylinder drawn by horses over roads to compact the surface and make the snow more or less uniform. It allowed sleds to proceed with fewer ruts and it was also safer for horses and riders.
Every time I look out at my yard I see juncos. They are the first ones to arrive and the last to leave. During the recent cold weather, I spent some time with a cup of tea watching these little visitors who had turned into roly poly balls of feathers accented by beaks and legs.
At first I felt sorrow for them until I realized that the temperature didn’t bother them in the least. As long as birds can feed, they will do just fine in frigid weather. Most species use the cover of evergreens or natural cavities to protect themselves and birds can lower their body temperature, heart rate and metabolism to adapt to the cold. Plus they have all that natural insulation. Juncos fluff up their feathers creating a layer of air between the feathers and the skin, a tiny down jacket that adds warmth and girth creating their ball-like appearance.
The little juncos may not have the glam of the cardinals or the audacity of the blue jays, but I think these little guys are the life of the bird feeder party. They rarely exceed about five inches in length. The dark-eyed junco, Junco hyemalis, is one of the most common birds in North America. There is much variation in color from one subspecies of junco to the other. The ones in my backyard are eastern dark-eyed juncos or the slate-colored juncos. There are dark slate gray feathers on the heads, chest and upper body and white feathers on the lower breast and abdomen. Their bills are pink and their distinctively long tails are very dark gray with flashes of white feathers on the outside edges. Of course, those are the males…the females are decked out in much less distinctive shades of brown and gray. Isn’t that always the case?
Horsford was a Harvard professor who, in 1856, began his experiments to develop a leavening agent that was not yeast-based. A leavening agent causes a chemical reaction – it creates gas bubbles that softens doughs and batters, increasing their volumes and lightening their texture. Horsford wanted to invent a powder leavening agent that would release carbon dioxide, raising the dough but without the taste and odor of yeast fermentation.
Horsford set up his chemical works in the Rumford section of East Providence. He tested a number of substances before settling on a combination of calcium acid phosphate, sodium bicarbonate and, eventually, corn starch. His “recipe” was that one teaspoon of the leavening agent should raise a dough/batter of one cup of flour, one cup of liquid and one egg. He first marketed this new product as Horsford’s Yeast Powder. He was very successful. In 1869, because he wanted to package the powder in a tin can, he added corn starch to prevent moisture. Over the years, bakers throughout the world have become familiar with the iconic red can of Rumford Baking Powder, whose formula has remained unchanged in 1869. In 2006, Rumford Baking Powder was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Rumford Baking Powder remains the leading baking powder in the United States.
Pepper Pot Soup is also called the “soup that won the war.” That would be the Revolutionary War. On December 29, 1777, the Continental Army was freezing in camp at Valley Forge. Conditions were terrible and the army lacked sufficient warm clothing, medicines, and especially food. Fearing for both his men’s health and morale, General Washington instructed the Baker General, Christopher Ludwick, to use whatever food he could find to make a meal sufficient to feed all in the camp.
Ludwick was an interesting character, born in Germany in 1720, who ended up in Philadelphia where he started a bakery, gingerbread and confectionary business. The Continental Congress appointed him Baker General to the American army. Ludwick supplied bread for the army, baking as many as 6,000 pounds of bread in one day. Washington relied on his advice and sought him out regarding the provisioning of the army.
Perhaps Ludwick was just close at hand on the 29th of December, 1777. Or maybe he was the only person with some culinary experience in that dreadfully cold and desperate place. Washington asked Ludwick to provide sustenance that would warm the bodies and revive the spirits of a beleaguered army. The Baker General searched the area for scraps of meat, tripe, whatever else was available, and acquired some peppercorns. All the ingredients went into the pot, simmering into a thick mixture of nutrition and spice. It became known as Pepper Pot Soup – the soup that won the war, a tradition that is still observed today by those who remember the story.
You can give a gift to the National Heritage Corridor this year by reducing your carbon footprint during the holiday season. Consider these suggestions:
Purchase recycled gift wrap. You can identify it by the triangular “recycled” logo.
Reuse gift paper that was carefully unwrapped and saved. An iron set on the lowest temperature can make paper wrap look new.
Make your own paper. This is a great project for kids. Reuse brown paper bags and decorated with paintings, drawings, stamping or glue and glitter.
Use wallpaper left over from a home improvement project. A leftover quarter roll can provide sturdy coverage of items that poke through thinner papers.
Use a basket. It’s a great way to present a gift and it can be reused by the recipient.
Instead of bubble pack or Styrofoam peanuts (made from benzene – bad stuff!) recycle used paper through a document shredder to produce your own packing materials. Or fill a box with air-popped popcorn.
Recycle holiday cards you received last year into gift tags.
Use environmentally-friendly tape like Scotch Magic Greener Tape made from 65% renewable or recycled materials. It’s photo safe and non-yellowing.
Place your gifts in a reusable shopping bag that the recipient can use over and over.
Let the gift be the wrapping! Gardening supplies can be presented in a watering can or bucket, for example. A kitchen towel or napkin can become the wrap for a culinary gift.
December 21st is the winter solstice but it is also the 413th birthday of Roger Williams (1603). Known for founding what would become the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Williams was a man who believed in the separation of church and state, and in the inherent right to religious freedom.
Roger Williams spent most of his life trying to develop strong bonds with the Algonquian-speaking people of southern New England, particularly the Wampanoags and the Narragansetts. The Narragansetts deeded him the land which became Providence. Williams studied their language and those of associated tribes and published A Key into the Language of America in 1643.
After founding the new colony of Providence, Williams and his friends established a society where all religions were tolerated, where Quakers, Baptists, Jews and others were welcome to live according to their traditions. A century later, the idea of a separation of church and state would be incorporated into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Roger Williams also founded the first Baptist church in America.
Visit the Roger Williams National Memorial at 282 North Main Street in Providence and learn more about this fascinating visionary.
On night flights into Green Airport from the south and west, the contrast is amazingly clear. How the glow from urban centers, shopping plazas, industrial parks and suburban housing projects light up the landscape like uniformly placed holiday ornaments. How that glow intensifies in major metropolitan areas. And how suddenly it is gone as one looks to the north across rural landscapes and protected open spaces. That’s the dark sky country where one can do some serious star gazing.
There will be a great show in the night sky this week, weather permitting. The Geminids Meteor Shower starts slowly in early December but is expected to peak on the December 13th and 14th. After midnight, showers of shooting starts will occur until dawn in the northeastern sky at a rate of 50-80 per hour. That’s a spectacular show.
The Geminids seem to emanate from the constellation Gemini, near the stars Castor and Pollux. Trace a shooting star back to its point of origin and see if it falls in this sector to verify you are viewing the Geminids.
I always think of my Mom this time of year. She used to start writing notes to friends and addressing Christmas cards the first week in December. She had the most beautiful handwriting, having been schooled in the Palmer Method. Even her quick “scribbling” was an attractive conglomeration of swoops and flourishes.
The history of the National Heritage Corridor is captured in small details by letters written over the centuries and carefully preserved by families, historical societies and museums. I wonder how the history of our new 21st century will be preserved. The handwritten letter has become an object of art, as well a document, a rarity in this day of texts, emails, blogs, electronic postings and printer-generated communications. None of those emails or texts will be carefully bound with a ribbon and packed away for their memories.
Handwriting itself is fast becoming a thing of the past. Almost no one writes in a cursive hand any more. Whether graceful or blocky, beautiful or illegible, each person’s handwriting is so distinctive. We give up a part of our identity when we opt for the speed and immediacy of a machine.
The handwritten letter has become the dinosaur of communication. Why? It takes time and care to write a proper letter. There is a cost involved for stationery and postage. Most of all, handwritten notes lack the immediate effect of emails. That’s regrettable because emails are notoriously poorly written and not deserving of the status of historic document.
As it happens, December is Write a Friend Month, highlighted by National Letter Writing Day on December 7th. I think this provides a nice incentive to create our holiday communications manually. Think of the future historians in the National Heritage Corridor who will thank you.
There is an invasion in the National Heritage Corridor. Whether a house is old or new, updated and renovated, there’s no way to avoid it – the mice are moving back in. House mice or field mice are very small and the most troublesome rodent in the U.S. Mice are also incredible climbers. They will run up vertical surfaces and can manage thin horizontal surfaces wires. They are nocturnal and their presence is obvious from droppings and a slightly musky odor in their vicinity.
Mice typically have between 5 and 10 litters each year with 5-6 young in each litter. Little mice are born about 20 days after mating and begin to reproduce themselves in only 6 to 10 weeks. So if my calculations are correct, one pair of mice entering a house at this time of year could potentially create an enclave of hundreds more mice in a few short months.
The little critters damage structures, contaminate food supplies, shred paper and other materials, often chewing up items humans consider valuable. Worse, mice can carry pathogens like salmonella and their dropping contaminate surfaces.
Professional exterminators that will offer up baits and traps. It is advisable to close up any cracks that mice can use, although this is very difficult in the average size house. Eliminating sources of food may be more effective: keep food stored in tight containers and don’t forget the dog and cat food, and bird seed. Playing on their acute sense of smell, good peppermint or spearmint oil (not extract) applied to cotton balls and left in areas that mice frequent will overwhelm their sense of smell and they will leave that area alone.