Monday, May 26, 2014

Veterans buried in Ridgefield

For Memorial Day, we offer this list of nearly 700 veterans buried in Ridgefield cemeteries. The list is a work in progress, and by no means complete.

We visited every gravesite to confirm its existence and gather information and photos, all of which are online and available to the public on

This list represents three years of research, work that is continuing as we make our way through the various town cemeteries.

Cemeteries that have been completed include Mapleshade, Fairlawn, Scott’s (also called Ridgefield Cemetery), Titicus (also called Old Town Cemetery), Hurlbutt, and Seymour. St. Mary Cemetery is nearly complete, and work has also been done at Branchville Cemetery (the only cemetery with a military section).

The listings are based on information at the gravesite and/or information obtained from obituaries or town histories.

We welcome additions to this list at jackfsanders atsign gmail  dot  com

Here is the link to the cemetery list, which in turn has links to all the men and women listed.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A box of bluebirds

Nearly 15 years ago, the spirit moved me to build a bluebird box. Bluebirds were rarely seen in my wooded yard, but I was struck with hope that a nicely built box would attract a nesting pair.

Year after year, the box went unused.

Some years, we spotted bluebirds inspecting the box. Once or twice, they seemed to actually start a nest, but then would vanish.

Until this year.

A parent feeds the chicks.
A bluebird pair not only built a nest, but laid eggs and is now in the midst of feeding chicks that are about to fledge.

What happened? Here’s my theory.

Last year, another spirit moved me to clean up the back edge of the yard, a 10-foot-wide strip along a stone wall that was filled with fallen trees, rambling wild shrubs, tall wildflowers that others might call “weeds,” and piles of brush from years of cleaning up after hurricanes and winter storms, seasoned with discarded Christmas trees and wreaths. The area had been allowed to run wild and the brush piles to grow for decades.  The nesting box was on a post at the edge of this strip.

My excuse for allowing this mess to exist was to consider it a sort of backyard wildlife refuge. Indeed, many birds, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals could be spotted there — not to mention neighborhood cats in search of rodents. (Other hunters included Cooper’s and Red-tailed Hawks, and nice, long garter snakes.)

However, the wildlife also included House Wrens, mortal enemies of bluebirds. 
The wrens could often be seen hunting insects in and about the brush piles. They may have nested there, too.

House Wrens do not like to share their territories with other birds, and often chase away potential neighbors. Being cavity nesters like the bluebirds, they also might grab the nesting box for themselves. At the very least, they would chase the bluebirds away.

Sometimes, as they are wont to do, the House Wrens would fill up the inside of the box with sticks, making it unusable for nesting. Many was the autumn that I would clean out a box crammed top to bottom with twigs.

I believe that clearing the mess not only made the area less attractive to wrens, it also opened up the yard, making it more attractive to bluebirds. They like open fields for bug hunting — and, probably, for keeping an eye out for predators.

My backyard “wildlife refuge” may be gone, but I don’t feel bad. On the other side of the stone wall is an acre of woods and wetlands, full of wild things.

And my yard now has bluebirds.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Notes on knots

While some may say there is no such thing as a good knot, some knots are not as bad as other knots.

Two kinds of knots may pop up in – or out of – your wood: red knots and black knots.

Red knots
Red knots are formed by branches that were living when the tree was cut down. Black knots are the remains of branches that died – perhaps a hundred or more years before the tree was felled. The black is the bark and pitch that surrounded the once-living branch and was subsequently enveloped by the tree as the trunk grew wider.

Knotty pine, the paneling so fashionable in the 1940s and ’50s, owed its design to red knots, which are well-fastened to the wood around them. Black knots, however, tend to loosen and pop out.

To most woodworkers, especially furniture-makers, all knots are bad. Because they expand and contract differently from the wood around them, and may have different densities, they can lead to uneven finishes and often weakened structures. 

Black knots can simply fall out, resulting in knot holes, which can significantly weaken the wood and, in a table top or door, provide an awkward opening.

So especially if it’s black, you would not want a wood knot.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The stinky tree

The Bradford pear is a “street tree” that’s blessed with benefits and cursed with shortcomings.

A cultivar of an Asian tree, the Bradford is actually a Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana). Joseph Callery, a French missionary, “discovered” the species in China and sent it to Europe to be classified – and enjoyed. Today, it’s found along countless miles of American town and city streets. It laughs at pollutants like auto exhaust or road salt and needs barely a square foot or two of exposed earth as it rises from a cement sidewalk next to an asphalt highway.

In early spring, the Bradford produces thousands of showy, white flowers. Unfortunately, the blossoms reek – the smell has been likened to long-unwashed sweat socks. It’s a scent, nonetheless, that attracts scores of pollinating insects.

The tree has another disadvantage: It’s weak and it breaks. Sometimes, Bradfords split down the middle.

However, a rarely mentioned benefit of the Bradford pear is its tiny, marble-sized fruits. Birds love them, especially in the middle of winter when food is sparse. Even in January, it’s not unusual to see robins, cardinals, Blue Jays, even flocks of Cedar Waxwings, wandering its branches, snacking on the fruit, right in the middle of a town or city.

For that alone, we’ll deal with the spring stench and the risk of being beaned by a branch.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Windy names

April showers may bring May flowers, but March’s winds bring April’s windflowers.

At least, that’s what old-timers believed, not only calling our early spring anemones “windflowers” but scientifically naming them after anemos, the Greek word for wind. In fact, in Greek mythology, Anemone was a breezy nymph who hung out with Zephyr, god of the west wind.

Wood Anemone and Rue-Anemone, two white buttercups of our April woods, could thank the wind for more than their names. Lacking much color or scent in a chilly season when few insects are about, they rely on the wind to disperse their pollen.  

However, the naming gurus seem to have gone awry when labeling our common Rue-Anemone. The plant was long called Anemonella thalictroides, which literally means “a little anemone that looks like a thalictrum” – thalictrum being meadow rue, a summertime wildflower. But two decades ago, scientists reclassified the plant, deciding it really is a meadow rue and calling it Thalictrum thalictroides: “A meadow rue that looks like a meadow rue.”


Monday, April 21, 2014

April’s origin

April has had a bad time of it. Songs bemoan its showers, a poet calls it the “cruelest month,” its length has been cut, and its first day is for fools. Even the origin of its name is uncertain.

In the early Alban calendar, April was the longest month, with 36 days. Various Roman emperors fiddled with its size until Julius Caesar chose the 30 days that stuck. Because April is the time when trees and flowers come to life, many scholars believe its name came from the Latin, aperire, which means “to open.”

Others have pooh-poohed this idea, pointing out that no other month has been named for a condition of nature. Instead, they say, the likely source is a goddess.

These scholars, steeped in dusty mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, maintain that the Romans dedicated this month to Venus, the goddess of love, because April is the month when nature begins its myriad methods of reproduction. The Greek for Venus was Aphrodite, and, the scholars say, that is the root of the name – from Aphrodite to Aphrilis to Aprilis to our April.

Aperire seems so much simpler and more reasonable.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Scilla season

Late March and early April is the season for scilla, a pretty wildflower import that is hardy enough to survive freezing nights and conservative enough not to make a weed of itself.

Scilla siberica is a native of the woodlands of Eurasia. A century or so ago, planting its tiny bulbs was all the rage and today, many old homesteads have sections of lawn that, in early April, turn blue with thousands of small flowers that have spread from those old plantings. If the weather remains cool, the blossoms can last for weeks, providing not only beauty for the eye but nourishment for bees.

Scilla, also known by the rather unattractive name of squill, used to be more common, but some modern owners of antique houses spread weed killers on their lawns, wiping out the old colonies.

They did to scilla what scilla might do to them if they ate it. The word is from the Latin, “to harm,” reflecting the fact that most species are somewhat poisonous – which is actually a boon to gardeners.

It explains why, when so many other flowers are gobbled by the hungry deer, scilla blooms brightly and plentifully – as long as lawns remain poison-free.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

'Ducks' without feathers

A Wood Frog sounds like a duck
You’re walking along a wooded road or a forest path in early spring and off to one side, you hear ducks quacking. Dozens of them, chattering away.

You look, but there are no ducks in sight, though there is water.

But if you look closely, you’ll see small, brownish frogs. Those are your quackers: You are hearing the chorus of spring mating calls of the Wood Frog.

These hardy amphibians crawl out of the earth as soon as the snow melts and the ground thaws. They head for the nearest water, usually a vernal pool surrounded by woods. There they mate and their eggs are deposited underwater.

Vernal pools provide ideal mating grounds for these frogs and Spring Peepers. These ephemeral waters have the advantage of being around in the spring, but are usually gone by late summer. Consequently, they can’t support fish, which would eat the frog eggs and tadpoles. And they last long enough to allow eggs to become frogs.

Scientists say many amphibians seem to be in decline. The good news about Wood Frogs is that their populations appear to be in good shape, even increasing, especially as the former farmlands of our region return to forest, allowing for more vernal pools.

This trend could continue, as long as wise land-use officials see the life-giving value of vernal pools and protect woodlands in which they appear.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Peeper keeper

Peep. Peep. Peep.

Choruses of spring peepers have risen from the woods. But how did those inch-long amphibians deal with the vagaries of New England weather that can swing temperatures from the 70s to the 20s in April?

To peepers, a sudden freeze or even a spring snowstorm is no sweat. Cold air triggers the frog's liver to create glucose. Blood brings this antifreeze to the vital organs like the brain and heart, keeping them from freezing. But the rest of its body — more than 60% of it — can freeze for weeks without harming the frog.

So on a walk in a wood on a cold spring day, you may find a small, frozen frog. If you put it in your warm hand, the iced peeper will simply melt and hop away, no doubt with a song in its heart.