Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Piping and bugs again

There is a certain time of year when the days go from short to shorter still, when the last leaves are clinging desperately to the trees, when you wake up (if you're the sort who gets up around the same time as the sun) to frost on the broken sticks of dead grass on the hill. That's about the time when I walk outside, notice that I can't feel my nose, and reflect that it is a lovely thing; not only is fall happily underway, but the mosquitos are happily out of the way. At the same time, all my neighbors, reading the same signs breathe a sigh of relief; the onset of cold weather takes care of pipers almost as nicely as it does mosquitos.

It isn't that pipers aren't tough. They're famous for being tough. In the late 1800's, for example, there was a piper named Findlater, a member of the Gordon Highlanders, who was sent with his company into a battle on some South Asian frontier of the British Empire. Findlater piped to encourage the men throughout the action until he was shot twice. Then he sat down and continued to pipe until he lost consciousness. He lived to receive the Victoria Cross; the battle (and his place in it) is comemorated in a lively and popular little march called "The Heights of Dargai".

As I was saying, pipers are tough. It isn't that cold weather scares them off. It is merely a matter of very simple physics; if you can't feel your nose, soon you can't feel your fingers either, and if you can't feel your fingers on the holes of the chanter you can't tell them to grip, birl, taorluath, crunluath or any of the other delightful things that pipers' fingers are supposed to do (besides your birling finger won't bend). It is just like having ten stones growing out of your hands. . .not that you can feel your hands for long anyway. To add insult to injury, wet weather causes reeds to squeal out in the manner of a frightened rabbit and finally to wheeze into silence.

Therefore, it is practicality which drives pipers indoors for the winter, praying that the family will need to make frequent trips to town and leave the living room to substitute for the hills and glens and driveways that are unfortunately covered with snow.
At last there comes a day in the spring when the first tender leaves of young plants begin to peer cautiously from cracks and crannies in the mulch. Pipers begin to peer hopefully from cracks and crannies in the house. The plants, however, have a slight advantage over the pipers. The plants grow freely in the full, fresh light of day; pipers generally have day jobs. It is usually not until dusk that the pipers begin to emerge, in company with the first faint stars, the first yodels of the coyotes, and fifty thousand mosquitos.

The piper takes a deep breath, his* mind suddenly cleared of the cares of the day. He strikes in the pipes, delighting in the smallest details of tuning, vaguely aware of thoughts that encompass past, present and future, the Great Music of the MacCrimmons who were, centuries ago, the best pipers in the world and who left a wealth of solemn tunes behind them, the delight of birls, odd, 7-shaped flicks of the little finger which, tonight are spot on, and the coming competition season which was what moved the piper outdoors this evening in the first place. The sun is setting behind the hill, silvering the sky and blackening the oaks before it until they match the shade of the polished drones which rest on the piper's shoulder. He is very content. The tuning and balance of the pipes is superb. The moment he has waited for all day--no, all winter--has come. With great care, he moves his fingers, caressing the first few notes of "Lament for Mary MacLeod." Then fifty thousand mosquitos appear out of nowhere and start to work.

The Great Music is deep and commands a piper's full attention. However, a mosquito's proboscis can also be very deep, and when it is boring into one's right elbow, it can be a slight distraction. The piper steels his mind, determined to weather the attack, but his elbow moves, almost of its own accord, tearing the top hand from its place on the chanter as it burrows into the piper's side. The "Lament for Mary MacLeod" stumbles, then moves on resolutely. The piper knows he is supposed to be thinking about the contrast between the he and the ho in the second line; it is, however, difficult not to be meditating on mosquitoes when there is one sitting on your nose. The piper tosses his nose magnificently. The mosquito eases away, and so does the cadence--the cadence that was supposed to be cut off so smartly. Perhaps the piper should be perturbed, realizing that his piobaireachd, in its early stages as it is, is already ruined as a classic performance. He is not perturbed, however, because he is too busy thinking about the mosquito on top of his head. He can feel it, settling in for a good long drink, and he grits his teeth about the blowpipe, thinking of the legendary Findlater, who piped through the pain of two gunshot ankles. A little thing like a mosquito--but then again, perhaps this mosquito isn't such a little thing. It feels as though it's through the scalp and down to the skull. But Findlater--The piper's right hand swings through the air, and a note which no MacCrimmon ever invented shrieks into the "Lament for Mary MacLeod". That is the last insect which will have the satisfaction of getting a rise out of the piper--he is now stonily determined to play through any number of attempts on his life and limb in the interest of playing the Great Music properly. . .what line was he on, anyway? Ah well, let's light into the second variation. A mosquito on the shoulder is nothing to glance at twice. Besides, you can get rid of it, if you'd just twitch the shoulder. . .and there goes a particularly beautiful phrase, all shot to pieces. . .Where was I?
The neighbors know nothing of this. They shiver at their dinner tables little knowing that the half-human, caterwauling creature in the driveway next door is sharing with them a basic human desire. He is wishing for winter.

*Although the piper in the case study here is a "he", I know at least one girl piper who has had a similar experience.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Maybe more to the point. . .

My intention is to have some variety on this blog--honest, it isn't supposed to be all pictures of bugs! Here's a compromise: a picture of a bug (a true bug--family Hemiptera) looking at the music for "Crossing the Minch". The bug looks as puzzled as I did to see the ornamentation on the B. ("Somebody expects me to play all those notes?")
"Crossing the Minch" is yet another tune by Pipe Major Donald MacLeod. He wrote some tunes which are now classics in the pipe band world and he was also an authority on piobaireachd. There is a tiny article on him here:


Sunday, May 20, 2007

More Michigan

I'll bet this is the most-taken shot at Hillsdale College (I think they have a very similar picture on their entrance brochure, school catalogue. . .or somewhere) but that dogwood tree is so beautiful it was impossible to resist taking my own.

Last Weekend. . .

Last weekend Mom, Dad and I flew out to Michigan for my sister's graduation. Her Alma Mater is Hillsdale College, a private school in Hillsdale, Michigan. This was my first trip out that way, and it certainly was enjoyable, albeit a bit quick (we flew out Friday, attended the graduation Saturday, then Dad and I flew back Sunday).
Anyway, Michigan--or what I saw of it between Detroit and Hillsdale--is very charming country. At least 75% of the houses we passed were quite old with two stories, gables and big, comfortable looking porches. The picture on the left shows you a bit of downtown Hillsdale, also quite established, as you can see. I wondered aloud why Tehachapi, which is at least close to the same age, looks so much newer; Dad cleared that up by reminding me of Michigan's lack of earthquakes!

This is a view of the clock tower at Hillsdale College. The statue in the front is a Civil War memorial; the college has been there for quite a while and some of its students fought for the Union during the War Between the States.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Very Green Salad

This is a recipe I made last night; mint may not be an easy-to-get item in the grocery store, but it's taking over our herb garden and I wanted an excuse to cut a little of it out (one whole stem--wow!)
1 English cucumber (the kind that comes wrapped in plastic; you don't have to peel 'em)
A handful of snap peas
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
1 lime
A pinch of salt
Dice the cucumber. Mince the mint leaves. Mix cucumber, peas and mint and dress with lime juice and salt. Serve chilled.

And if you still have mint left over. . .
A few weeks ago they gave a bridal shower for my cousin. There was chopped mint in the fruit salad, which was very nice indeed.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Another bug. . .really a bug this time.

Above is a Small Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii) looking at a wallflower. Usually these insects are found on--milkweed (below). It is a funny thing, but the majority of insects which hang around milkweed tend to be orange. One interesting exception is the monarch caterpillar which is striped in black, light green, white and pale yellow; it is not until it matures that it becomes a very orange butterfly.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

And a bug (of course!)

This little fellow is a moth I found in the dogs' water bowl this afternoon. It's a tiger moth (Arctiidae)
Up-close of a California Poppy, the state flower.

California Poppy and my favorite "Baby Blue Eyes" (Nemophilia menziesii) with a bit of a wallflower in the corner.
A lot of sky and some more poppies.

Looking north from about the same spot as the previous picture. The mountains here are the Sierra Nevada.

Looking south into the Tehachapi Mountains. The tallest mountain (about 7500 feet) is Tehachapi Peak.