Fighting seasonal depression with woollies

I do a lot of things to stave off winter depression. I walk. I spend time in nature. I spend time walking in nature. I move in other ways—taiji, lifting, stretching, running, parkour. I use my HappyLight™. I take vitamin D. But probably most important is finding things to take delight in.

Jackie doesn’t suffer with the dark days of winter the way I do, which is probably a matter of brain chemistry, but perhaps another factor is that she is very good at taking delight in winter as an opportunity to wear her woollies.

I’m trying to do the same.

It helps that I have new winter clothes, and old winter clothes that fit again. The photo on this page shows me walking in nature, wearing a purple sweater my mom knit for me years ago.

Besides my old sweaters and my new sweaters, I have a smashing wool vest that Jackie gave me, some wool pants that I bought as field pants (but that are perhaps too nice to wear in the field), and a vast collection of scarves that Jackie wove and knit for me. And that’s just the woollies. I also have a nice collection of moleskin and flannel garments perfect for winter, various fleecy things, and a range of jackets and coats to cover all possible temperatures from “slightly brisk” to “well north of the arctic circle.”

This year, I’ll try to take delight in my seasonally appropriate garments, especially the woollies, and see if that won’t carry me through to spring.

Collecting prairie seeds

As part of becoming a master naturalist, Jackie has been going on volunteer work days at local natural areas. A couple of times I’ve gone along as well, most recently on Saturday to Meadowbrook Park where we gathered prairie seeds.

Jackie is trying to learn to identify all the plants during all the seasons, so she made a point of gathering some of each of the prairie species that the organizers wanted.

I figured I’d just try and be productive, so I focused on a plant I knew I’d be able to identify, and just gathered baptisia aka wild indigo aka false indigo. Over the course of 90 minutes or so I manged to fill a big paper grocery bag about three-quarters full of seed pods. Apparently the crop is better this year than last year, when weevils consumed nearly every seed. (Although I did see a lot of weevils—kind of disturbing because their size and shape makes it easy to mistake them for ticks.)

It was pretty easy. I spotted a baptisia from the sidewalk and gathered its seeds (leaving about half behind, so that there will be some seeds to disperse naturally). Then I looked around, spotted another plant a few yards away, and moved to that one. They’re not very dense in the prairie, but I don’t think I ever harvested a plant without being able to spot at least one more to move to, and then another visible from that one.

The baptisia flowering stalks seemed to be a favorite of some medium-sized black wasp. I skipped those stalks. They are also a favorite of a large green and brown praying mantis, which blends in surprisingly well for such a large insect. I saw three of them, barely noticing two before I started harvesting, and not noticing the third until it scrambled off the stalk.

Such a handsome face

(That’s the same kind of mantis, although not taken in the prairie.)

These seeds are going to be used right in Meadowbrook Park. Over the winter, the mowed area in the southwest corner of the park will be turned into more prairie.

The workday shifts are nominally 2 hours, but they don’t work us very hard. Especially when we’re all off working in different locations, they start to try to get us rounded up again after just 90 minutes or so. (I think especially when it’s hot they keep the shifts short.)

This particular work day was in celebration of National Public Lands Day, and while the workers refreshed ourselves with water, lemonade, and snacks back at the starting point, one of the organizers read an excerpt from a proclamation by Barack Obama in recognition of the day.

Then they gave anyone who wanted one a certificate recognizing our participation, and let us go.

Humans evolved to see high-viz yellow

For years I was sure that blaze orange would be the most visible color—so sure that I bought all my shirts for bicycling in some approximation of that color. I simply couldn’t imagine that a greenish-yellow color would be more visible, especially against green backgrounds like corn and soybean fields.

Then one day while out riding in one of my orange shirts, I was passed by a pair of cyclists, one wearing just about the same color of blaze orange as I was, and the other wearing high-viz yellow.

They were riding quite a bit faster than I was, so over the course of the next few minutes they dwindled down to two small dots far ahead of me. And then they dwindled into one small dot: the high-viz yellow one. And that high-viz yellow shirt remained visible for a really long time after the orange-shirted guy riding right next to him had vanished in the distance.

After I thought about it, it made sense. Humans evolved as forest-edge creatures. Of course high-viz yellow stands out, even against a hundred different shades of leafy green. Picking critical detail out of dappled shade—where basically everything is a shade of yellow-green—is exactly what the human eye evolved to do.

All my new safety gear is high-viz yellow.

Huge spider

Well shy of Shelobian proportions, but still I think the largest spider I’ve ever seen in the wild.

Spotted in the prairie, along the lower path. I put my hand in there for scale, but really didn’t want to get it quite close enough for that to work.

Updated to add: A bit of quick googling reveals that this is a yellow garden spider Argiope aurantia.

Walking on the beach

Lake Michigan isn’t great for swimming—the water is still pretty cold even in August, it’s kind of polluted, it lacks the extra buoyancy that comes from the salt in ocean water, and there’s no coral. But if what you want is a beach, Lake Michigan has a great one.

Eight years ago my brother convinced me to come to St. Croix for a family reunion sort of thing. We stayed at Cottages by the Sea. The meticulously kept grounds invited barefoot walking, and I was surprised to discover that a week walking barefoot in the grass and the sand cured my plantar fasciitis. (I’d been keeping it under control with Birkenstocks, supportive shoes, rationing the amount of standing I did on hard floors, and strictly limiting the amount of barefoot walking I did. Discovering that barefoot walking on natural surfaces helped rather than hurt was a key early step in my move toward natural movement.)

lake-michigan-beach-2_29188771842_oThe Lake Michigan beach has some rocks right down in the surf, but they’re not an obstacle to comfortable walking, because they’re resting on sand and push right down when you step on them (unlike the rocky beach in St. Croix, which seems to be exposed bedrock with a little sand on top). And anyway, just a few feet up the beach from the surf, it’s just sand.

looking up a duneRather a lot of sand, actually. Whole dunes of it. It’s beautiful along the lake.

Champaign-Urbana is a great place to live, but it is lacking in beach, so I was glad to get a chance to visit the beach while visiting my dad last week. We drove to South Haven, visited a small nature preserve, and then went to the Van Buren State Park just south of the preserve. I did some beach walking both places.

I loved walking in the sand—soft, comfortable, hot (up where the sand is dry), cool (down by the water), and mildly abrasive. My feet enjoyed it even though my plantar fasciitis is long gone, cured by the taiji practice (standing meditation turns out to be a great way to learn how to stand), and by plenty of barefoot walking on natural surfaces.

feet-in-the-sand_29219114001_oIt only occurred to me recently that my feet being shoe-shaped (rather than foot-shaped) was a bad thing. I’d some years ago started down the path of “barefoot” running (that is, running in minimalist running shoes), but I’d been focusing on improve my running gait, rather than the shape of my foot.

Once I started walking actually barefoot, I quickly developed an odd callus on the pad of my left index toe. And, looking at my feet, you can see why. Just the bit of barefoot walking I’ve done over the past couple of years has almost normalized my right big toe, which now comes out almost straight from my foot. My left big toe is still canted over at an angle so that it presses up against my left index toe. No wonder I use the toe oddly in a way that produces the odd callus.

Well, something to continue working on.

Ankle dorsiflexion turns out to be useful

For going on two years now, I’ve been working on recovering the ability to squat. I’m not talking about the exercise called the squat, although I do that too. I’m talking about the ordinary human resting posture of lowering your butt down near your heels and relaxing there.

The reason I’ve been working on it for two years is that I haven’t been flexible enough to get into a proper squat. My flexibility has been improving pretty slowly, but it has been improving—I can now get down into a pretty good squat if I have a bit of heel support.

The change that’s been driving the improvement, but (as needing heel support shows) the area where I still need to improve, is ankle dorsiflexion. (Dorsiflexion is pulling your toes up toward your knees. It’s the opposite of plantarflexion, which is pointing your toes away from your knees.) To improve my ankle dorsiflexion I’ve been doing a variety of calf stretches with both straight and bent knees.

I don’t really have a before picture, but my ankle flexion used to be just about zero. That is, my ankle would bend 90° (as in standing up straight) no problem, but bending it up further simply didn’t happen. I used to think that was normal, and didn’t really try to stretch my calf to go beyond that range.

Now that I’ve been doing my stretches for a while, I can manage a bit of dorsiflexion:

Ankle dorsiflexion while walking uphill
Ankle dorsiflexion while walking uphill

The thing that prompted me to write this post, though, is not that I’m a few degrees closer to being able to squat, but that this added range of motion turns out to be useful for other stuff. In particular, as demonstrated in this picture, walking uphill.

There’s not a lot of call for walking uphill in east-central Illinois, but you can find places where it’s possible to go up a hill. Jackie and I visited one a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself putting my new range of motion to good use.

See, if you can dorsiflex your ankle, then the heel of your back foot can stay on the ground as you stride uphill. This lets you use your glutes to drive yourself forward and upward.

If you can’t dorsiflex your ankle, then your back heel comes off the ground as soon as your front foot goes forward. Now you’re stuck pushing yourself up with your relatively wimpy quads and calf muscles.

I’m not surprised, I just hadn’t though of it. This natural movement stuff turns out to have all kinds of side benefits.

First very long walk in a very long while

Last summer we were doing lots of very long walks, getting ready for our day hike of the Kal-Haven Trail. This year, without that motivating event, we haven’t done nearly as many.

We’ve done plenty of walking, of course. We’ve even taken some long walks. But since our big hike last summer, we’d only done one very long walk, back in October last year. (A very long walk is one longer than 14 miles. That post includes the explanation of how I picked that distance.)

With this lack of very long walks in mind, a couple of days ago I suggested to Jackie that we should go for a 15-mile hike, and we agreed that Saturday looked like a good day for it.

Jackie has signed up to be a Master Naturalist, and because it’s an endeavor of the Urbana Park District (among other groups), she wanted to visit some Urbana parks. So, we made a point of hitting a few as we walked, including Carle Park, Crystal Lake Park, Busey Woods, and Meadowbrook Park. We’d thought to hit the newish Weaver Park, but to do so we’d have had to go a long way along one of two rather uninspiring, somewhat busy streets. We decided to save it for a day when we were out in the car.

We did some casual route planning, but basically we figured we’d just walk to (and around) parks until we hit our 15 mile goal, and then catch a bus to home. And that would have worked great, except that we really wanted to visit Meadowbrook Park, where we had volunteered in a stewardship work day last week. And that would have been fine, except that the Sunday bus service to Meadowbrook is pretty limited.

Once we’d seen the parts of Meadowbrook that we particularly wanted to see, we’d hit our 15 mile goal (or nearly), and I sat down to check the bus timings. Asked for the best way home by bus, Google Maps suggested that we just walk home—about 3 miles, along Race Street and Curtis Road. I suggested to Google Maps that we might want to walk to First and Gerty, where we could catch the Yellow bus home, but that would be almost as far as just walking home—and end up taking longer, because we’d still have the bus ride ahead of us.

In the end, we just walked home. It was okay, even though there aren’t any sidewalks along Race or Curtis. A good bit of the way we had wide swaths of recently mowed grass along the side of the road, which gave us a nice place to walk well away from the traffic. Other places we had to walk right on the edge of the road, but the drivers were all good about steering clear of us (and we had a ditch we could have bailed out into if necessary).

Some of the stretches were pretty weedy, which made for some harder walking, and some places the weeds hid uneven bits in the ground. Those might have been a problem last year, when nearly every long walk we took was further than we’d ever walked before, meaning that our feet and ankles tended to be tired and sore for the last few miles, which is no good for walking over uneven ground.

This year, it turned out to be no big deal. Despite this being our first very long walk since October, our feet and ankles were totally up to it. We were glad to get out boots off and sit down at the end of it, but we could have walked several more miles if that had been necessary.

The total walk came in at 17.78 miles, rather longer than I’d intended, but comfortably over the threshold for a very long walk. And we got to see some very nice parks.

I neglected to get any pictures along the walk, with one exception: I took a picture of the house where Chuck used to live in Urbana so I could send it to him. And, since that’s the only picture I took on this walk, it’s all I’ve got to illustrate this post.

Here you go:


Free tai chi group practice

img_20160530_091940035_27254416212_oEveryone is welcome to join me and the folks from the tai chi groups I teach for free practice sessions this summer.

We’re planning to meet Monday-Wednesday-Friday 8:30–9:30 AM in Morrissey Park. (If we meet later it gets too hot before we’re done.)

These group practices sessions have no teacher or leader, so they’re free.

These sessions tend to be much like our usual classes:

  • A few minutes of opening exercises
  • Half an hour of moving Qigong
  • Ten minutes of standing meditation
  • A short tai chi form
  • The 48-movement form

This means that most of the hour is accessible to anybody, even complete beginners.

We’re starting Wednesday, June 1st. I’ve promised to show up for the first couple of sessions to help students from my beginner class get started on the longer form. (After that I’ll miss several sessions in a row because I’ll have family visiting, but there are lots of other friendly people there, many of whom know tai chi as well I do.)

Join us!


Deliberately hilly walk

I think Champaign-Urbana is great. The university gives it cultural and scientific amenities far beyond its size. It’s a cheap place to live, which not only enables my lifestyle, it enables the lifestyle of any number of clever creative people who choose to live where they can make enough from their art to support themselves.

Just about the only thing that CU really lacks is relief—that is, a variation in height from one place to another.

What I mean to say is: it’s really, really flat. Take for example, this image:

Looking toward Yankee Ridge

That’s the hilly direction. I’m looking toward Yankee Ridge, which is about three miles away from where I’m standing. It may not look like much, but that hill in the distance is a big deal when you’re on a bicycle. At least, it is if you’re used to riding in Central Illinois.

Given the terrain, we don’t get enough hiking on hills, unless we make an effort to go to the hills. So, that’s what we did yesterday. We drove to Fox Ridge, a nearby state park which has some hills.

I remember hiking in Fox Ridge last summer, shortly before our big Kal-Haven trail hike, and finding that we were in pretty good shape for dealing with the hills, despite our very limited practice. That was less true this spring. I was a bit tired from my unexpectedly fast run the previous day, and we were both a bit out of shape from a lack of hills over the winter.

Still, we did okay. We saw some spring wildflowers, like these dutchman’s breeches:

img_20160416_101623469_26401844861_oAnd this buttercup:


And this solomon’s seal:

img_20160416_110056171_26401892471_oTotal hiking was probably only a little over 3 miles, but the hills made it a very different sort of hike than our much longer hikes closer to home. Plus, we got to spend time in the woods.

So, that’s another bonus of Champaign-Urbana: We’ve got Fox Ridge State Park just 50 miles away.

Prairie burn

They burned the prairie behind Winfield Village this afternoon. While I was out for a run, I got some pictures: