Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Ecology Lab at RMSC

Second Saturdays are the perfect time to get out to the Roper Mountain Science Center, located right here in Greenville! On the second Saturday of select months, the learning spaces throughout the science center are open to the public, offering visitors an opportunity to enjoy experiences similar to those which engage students during the weekday lessons held in the center’s classrooms and labs. The Living History Farm, the Planetarium & Observatory, the Symmes Hall of Science... In addition to special activities geared towards that Saturday’s topic, there are also plenty of resident animals to meet and exhibits to explore - and if you’re a RMSC member, it’s free!

Red Eared Slider

Our favorite summer stop on Second Saturdays is Harrison Hall of Natural Sciences, and during the recent Blueberry Festival we spent some time exploring the Ecology Lab. Located right next door to the Marine Lab, the Ecology Lab showcases South Carolina habitats from the mountains to the sea. Oriented like a classroom, the center of the room is filled with long tables and chairs; on the Second Saturdays these are often filled with crafts and activities. The Butterfly Adventure was in its final day, and so thousands of butterflies had been created at one station to form an enormous hanging work of art that fluttered in a corner.


Four large “Living Habitats” line the far wall: a Mountain Trout Stream, a Beaver/Turtle Pond, a Cypress Swamp (with alligator), and a Salt Marsh. Murals, faux rock work, and aquariums with live animals & plants showcase these habitats, while a fifth terrarium with carnivorous plants highlights our Carolina Bay habitat.




Along one end of the lab is a mural of a forest, and a large window overlooking the pollinator garden which is often buzzing with the resident bees. A bench faces the window, offering a quiet place for observation.This is also where the live indoor honeybee hive is located; this brand new hive was installed in June of this year as an Eagle Scout project, replacing an older display without the convenient feeding station of the new one. The full pollen sacs on legs of bees returning from their foraging were clearly visible, and we watched in fascination as they performed the waggle dance, the figure-eights that instruct the rest of the hive where to find a food source. 


Meanwhile the other end of the lab has the Invertebrate Zoo, which displays native and tropical invertebrates. On Second Saturdays there is usually a volunteer, or two, who are more than willing to help answer any questions visitors may have; in our case it was concerning large snakes of the Upstate…


With the ‘don’t touch’ policy many science museums enforce with their exhibits, it is wonderful to see the hands-on approach that Roper Mountain takes with the Ecology Lab. In addition to the ‘touchable’ aspect of the Living Habitats (small doors to open to find answers to questions, and models of various animals) the Lab has an “In Touch with Nature Table” that allows kids (and adults!) to hold real artifacts; a snake skin, turtle shells, pieces of coral and seashells were scattered amongst beaver-gnawed branches, pine cones and various other objects found in the great outdoors.



Soon enough the kids had their fill and we headed outdoors to see what was new in the butterfly garden. The Living History farm also beckoned, but it was good to know that on such a scorching hot day we could always return to the cool labs of the Harrison Hall of Natural Science. For more information on the Second Saturday events at Roper Mountain Science Center (the next ones are scheduled in October and November) please visit the RMSC website, which will also have admissions info and hours. Remember, if you’re a member not only do you get free admission to Second Saturdays and Starry Nights, but you also gain admission to over 300 science centers and museums worldwide – for membership info click here and join the RMSC community today!



Monday, July 24, 2017

The Swamp Rabbit – from Furman to the Swamp Rabbit Café

It was a sunny day, albeit without the heat that has plagued the Upstate for the last month. We loaded up the bicycles and headed north to Furman with the goal of hopping on the Swamp Rabbit Trail for the day. Our goal was to bike the 4 miles from the south end of the Furman campus all the way to the Swamp Rabbit Café & Grocery (SRC&G), eat lunch, rest, and then make the return trip - for a total of 8 miles.


There is parking at both ends of this section of trail, though the dirt lot off Duncan Chapel Rd. is on the small side when compared to the extensive trail parking available at SRC&G. If the lot is full, try the visitor parking lot at the Trone Student Center on Swan Lake – it’s just another ½ mile north. While we unpacked the bikes the boys explored, admiring the old rail car to the side of the trail that pays homage to the trail’s origins as a rail line connecting Greenville with Travelers Rest. The trailhead also features a convenient map, water fountain and vending machines. 


For more on Furman and Swan Lake, please visit my post A Lake Hike at Furman University

Headed south you'll pass milepost 27.5, a small clearing with a picnic table, and then milepost 28 before coming to Watkins Bridge Road. Here the trail meets up with the Reedy River, mostly staying within a stone’s throw all the way to the southern terminus in Lake Conestee Nature Park. After crossing Watkins Bridge Road it’s smooth sailing; a straight, level, shaded cruise until you hit milepost 28.5 where the trail gets a lot more urban, with backyards and power lines paralleling the path. Right before crossing Little Creek there is a little wooden structure on the trail, providing room to pull off for some shade and a view of a small meadow.


After the Little Creek bridge there’s another pull-out, this one with concrete benches, a table and some rose bushes to sweeten the ride.


Milepost 29 marks the beginning of a not-so-scenic stretch, industrial/automotive businesses and fences on both sides. However not too much further and you’ll spot the green boxcar of Swamp Rabbit Station and you’ll know you’re halfway to SRC&G. I was happy to see that the pocket park is coming along – the Berea Community Mural Project dedicated “Looking Back” this past May.


For more on this pocket park, please visit my post Swamp Rabbit Station

The next portion parallels power lines and has less shade, but is pleasantly green and has various trees and shrubs planted alongside that will eventually help cool down cyclists. We cruised past the 29.5 milepost and before we knew it were back in the woods. The next mile is pleasant enough, shade and woods to both sides; we hit milepost 30, then 30.5.


Immediately after crossing Langston Creek the trail intersects with W. Blue Ridge Drive. We walk our bikes across all the road crossings on this section of the SRT as they involve wide roads that see quite a bit off traffic, but luckily there aren’t all that many roads to cross…

The last ¾ of a mile (from W Blue Ridge to Cedar Lane Rd.) passes by quickly. More power lines, then another short wooded section, with a Swamp Rabbit Grocery sign and then milepost 31 to let you know you’re almost there. The Reedy River has been to the right ever since crossing Watkins Bridge Road, but here you’ll cross over to the other side of the river, emerging to a large grassy area and an abandoned warehouse. It’s advised to decrease your speed as you maneuver the trail under Cedar Lane Road, but upon emerging on the other side you’ll see the Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery to your right.


In addition to a map, bicycle racks and restrooms, SRC&G is home to the Swamp Garden (an excellent natural play area for the kiddos), the new storage-container-turned-pizza-place, and of course the restaurant and grocery. The opportunity to purchase a refreshing King of Pops or enjoy a locally sourced lunch is definitely one of the benefits of cycling this section of the Swamp Rabbit Trail. Other positive aspects: there’s relatively low traffic on this section and it’s pretty level in elevation. Two drawbacks to this portion of the trail are the road crossings and the slightly monotonous scenery. Having rested, consumed a Swamp Pizza, and played in the Swamp Garden, we hopped back on our bikes and hit the trail north, back to Furman.

Related posts:


Crossing the Reedy River Bridge

Friday, July 21, 2017

On how to retire an American flag

I wrote Wednesday about our visit to Fort McHenry, the birthplace of our National Anthem. While composing the post about the “Star-Spangled Banner” I was reminded of our recent trip to Chester State Park, where we had the honor of attending a Flag Retirement Ceremony.


The United States Flag Code states, “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem of display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.” I knew that when a flag becomes worn, torn, faded or badly soiled, it is time to replace it with a new flag, and I also understood that the old flag should be "retired" with dignity and respect. However, I had never before witnessed the incineration of a worn flag, and didn’t know that the Boy Scouts of America accept old flags for retirement.


The simple ceremony was dignified; a solemn and respectful ritual that all three of my boys learned a great deal from. We had discussed earlier that they will have to be as quiet as they can manage during the service, and Lauris wore his Cub Scout uniform for the occasion. We gathered around a fire that had been specially stacked and lit for the occasion, and when darkness fell the Scoutmaster and Scouts proceeded to follow a Flag Retirement Ceremony script. If you are interested in sample ceremonials, you can find various examples here and here.


The goal is to completely incinerate the flag; the Scouts maintained a vigil over the fire until all traces of the flag remnants were destroyed, and only then was the fire extinguished. The following morning only grommets remained as a testimonial to the formal observance that had taken place there the previous night. The Cub Scouts and their younger siblings each chose one to remind them of the ceremony and all it stands for, and then the ashes were buried. I also kept a grommet, as well as a few photographs to serve as a memento, though the memory of the brilliant colors of mingling flames and Old Glory will be with me each time I see the Star-Spangled Banner flying high.


A couple of questions I had that were answered by the Scoutmaster and a little research:
How do you know your flag should be retired?
If possible, mend a tattered flag at early signs of wear, but if the flag is unable to be repaired or is too tattered then the flag should be retired.
Who is authorized to retire a U.S. flag?
There are many local organizations that will take your flag for proper retirement, including (but not limited to) the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of America and the Marine Corps League. However, the Flag Code does not authorize any one organization with this duty - any one person or group can retire a flag.

And a few recommended precautions:
- When burning flags made of synthetic fibers, be aware that they may burn quickly and even emit noxious gases. 
- It is important that the fire be sizable in order to ensure complete burning of the flag, yet one should take precautions against bits of the flag being carried off by a roaring fire.
Make sure the fire is safely extinguished before leaving the location.
- Some communities/municipalities have regulations prohibiting open fires. In this case it is suggested to turn to a local organization that accepts flags for retirement.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Star-Spangled Fourth of July at Fort McHenry

Every so often our vacation plans align with the calendar in such a way that what would have already been an incredible experience becomes extraordinary due to the perfect alignment of date and place. Such was the case with our Veterans Day trip to Normandy, which included stops at Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery; it was a somber and emotional experience which has given new meaning to our Veterans Day remembrances. Our recent trip to Baltimore coincided with the 4th of July, and I immediately realized this would be another one of those occasions; Fort McHenry is the birthplace of the American anthem!


Many people don’t realize that “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t written during the American Revolution, and fewer still can name the war that inspired the words we all know by heart. It was the events of the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812 that prompted Francis Scott Key to write the poem that is today our National Anthem, and the Fourth of July was the perfect day for a visit.

Star-shaped Fort McHenry in center, visitor center next to red pin

A week before the battle, a young lawyer set sail from Baltimore along with Col. John S. Skinner, US Commissioner General of Prisoners. They were on a mission to gain release of a prisoner, Dr. William Beanes, and reached the British fleet on September 7th. After a few days of negotiations on the waters of the Chesapeake they had arranged for Beanes to go free, but because during this time they had learned of the British plan to attack Baltimore, they were detained.

View from bastions over harbor, Francis Scott Key Bridge on right in distance

Washington had already burned, but Baltimore was better prepared due in large part to Fort McHenry’s defensive position guarding the entrance to the harbor. The British attacked the Fort from the water at dawn on the 13th, simultaneous to an attack on the east side of Baltimore. 25 hours later, after some 1,500-1,800 shells and rockets, the bombships withdrew down the river. As the British sailed away the Americans fired the morning gun, hoisted the Star-Spangled Banner and played Yankee Doodle.


Fort McHenry served as an active military post for the next 100 years, although it would never again see enemy fire. A temporary prison for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and a hospital for WWI veterans from 1917-1923, the Fort became a national park in 1925. Today it is a national monument and historic shrine, the only park in the United States to have this distinction.


The Fort is accessible by harbor ferry, but we opted to drive, passing through Federal Hill and out through Locust Point. We had sailed past Fort McHenry in the dark a few nights ago on our Spirit of Baltimore cruise, a journey that brought us all the way to Francis Scott Key Bridge, the approximate location Key would have watched the bombardment from (about 4 miles out). Fun fact; the British had a range of about 2 miles with their mortars, while the Americans were effective only 1 ½ mile with the Smoothbore artillery. However the Americans only suffered two casualties – a result of a direct hit on the southwest bastion.


Start your tour of Fort McHenry in the Visitor Center. After paying admission and picking up Jr. Ranger booklets we headed into the museum where the film soon started. This was one of the highlights of our visit; as the movie ended the Star-Spangled Banner sounded out from the speakers, the enormous screen rolling up to reveal the Fort with American flag flying proudly directly behind. The words of our anthem came to life, watching the fort and flag revealed in a similar fashion to what Francis Scott Key would have seen in the early hours of September 14th. After jotting down notes aboard the truce ship, Key returned to Baltimore and wrote a poem titled "Defence of Fort McHenry." Published the next day, it was soon sung to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven" and is now known as "The Star-Spangled Banner." 


From the Visitor Center we headed out into the heat of the day to explore the fort. During the bombardment the guns were manned by 60 artillerymen – the remaining 70 were sick, had deserted, or were under military guard. We entered through the Sally Port, passed the Civil War guardhouse, and one by one explored the barracks, the officer’s quarters, the powder magazine and finally the bastions under the flag waving crisply in the harbor breeze. The original flag (which measured 42 by 30 feet) that inspired Key was made by Mary Pickersgill, and today is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.


A second highlight of the Fort McHenry trip was watching reenactors fire a cannon. As commands were issued and orders followed, the whole firing process was explained to the spectators. Afterwards visitors could get an up-close look at the weapon and ask questions. We continued our tour by descending to the sea wall, circling the peninsula and enjoying the view of the harbor, before finally returning to the visitor center and starting our journey back to South Carolina.


The Fort had a special schedule of activities on our visit in honor of Independence Day, but normal summer activities include daily flag changes, interpretive programs, living history features and of course, the self-guided tour of the star fort and grounds. Fort McHenry is also on the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail (which tells the story of the events, people, and places that led to the birth of our National Anthem), and is located in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network and the Baltimore National Heritage Area. For more information about the fort, operating hours, special events, fees and more, visit the official Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine website.


Monday, July 17, 2017

Echoes of the song festival / Dziesmu svētku atskaņas / Part 2

(This is part two of a two-part post on the Latvian Song & Dance Festival in Baltimore. You can find Part 1 here…)

The Šmidchens clan represents in Baltimore
The Līdz Auseklis Lec dance party was underway when we returned from our Inner Harbor excursion aboard the Spirit of Baltimore. Organized by the American Latvian Youth Association, DJ Ai-Va kept the tunes flowing long into the early morning. Check out this video via #niceonequipment to hear ALJA’s Dziesmu Svētki beat.



The next morning we grabbed the kids and joined Iļģi once more, this time sacrificing Rakstnieku cēliens in return for bērnu rīts. I’m not sure who enjoyed the morning more - the kids, or the adults that had joined them - for what turned out to be a foot-stomping, bagpipe-wailing, kicking-up-a-fiddle-storm type of concert. We sang along, we danced and we even learned about some of the traditional Latvian instruments; the morning was over far too soon.

  
Two more events we had to skip: the Kamermūzikas concerts at the American Visionary Art Museum and the Ceļā uz mājām theater production which had traveled all the way from Latvia. There just wasn’t much choice, as we wanted to be able to enjoy the main event of the entire festival – the Kopkora koncerts – and needed some down time in between. Before long we were boarding one of the shuttles that would take us to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the perfect venue for what is the climax of the song festival.
 

The festival choir explored the centuries-old tradition of song in Latvia in a heart-stopping, emotion-evoking crescendo of 28 songs. The tears started with the first two, the American and Latvian hymns; as the audience stood up and joined in, it was clear that we were not to be an audience for this concert, but sentimental līdzgājēji on the journey through over a hundred years of the Latvian Song Festival. From there, 400 voices singing as one took us through the prayers of our forefathers, Pauls Berkolds conducting Tev mūžam dzīvot Latvija and a little later in the program, Vizma Maksiņa with Lūgšana. Again and again the audience leapt to their feet with applause, but somehow the conductors maintained their forward momentum, raising the bar with each additional song instead of caving to audience demands to repeat favorites. I couldn’t breathe during the last four songs before intermission, the pride in our national identity overwhelming during what was a finale that shattered expectations and left the audience trembling: Saule, pērkons, Daugava (conductor Kaspars Ādamsons), Jāņu dziesma (conductor Laura Padega Zamura), Tēvijai (Kaspars Ādamsons) and Lec, saulīte (Krisīte Skare).


We returned from the intermission with tissues stowed, thinking ourselves ready for the onslaught of sentiment. The concert continued with a celebration of East Coast Latvian composers, rejoicing in the return of the song festival to the east US in the first time in 40 years. Exciting arrangements of popular favorites – Ziedi, ziedi, rudzu vārpa, Dod dieviņi kalnā kāpt and Pērkonītis ducināja – rolled over the audience in waves, bringing the end of this portion of the concert far too quickly. As the final farewell approached, we were taken on one more voyage of passion: the reverbrations of Gaismas pils (conductor Kaspars Ādamsons), Šķind zemīte, rīb zemīte (conductor Krisīte Skare) and Pūt Vējiņi (conductor Laura Padega Zamura) cut clear to the soul, and will stay with me long after the final echoes of applause have died away.


The most unique event at this Dziesmu un deju svētki might have been the Festival Dinner. The menu for the banquet was created and produced by Māris Jansons, head Chef of Bibliotēka №1 Restorāns in Rīga, Latvia. We knew we were in for a treat when we arrived to an epic spread of finger foods, all traditionally Latvian but with a contemporary twist: Rīga sprats on rye bread with horseradish cream, goat cheese with cloudberry (lāceņu) jam and onion pickled in beer, grey peas with bacon, herring on rye bread with sour cream, and my favorite, salmon in beet roots on toast with hemp butter.


Once we had been seated the feast continued, albeit with less emphasis on the Latvian and more on the modern. The mixed green salad with raspberries, candied walnuts and crumbled goat cheese was topped with a red wine vinaigrette. The salmon was accompanied by wild rice, asparagus puree, asparagus mélange and pickled fennel. The third course was pork tenderloin seasoned with Old Bay, smoked corn puree and heirloom tomatoes on the side. As sated as I was after the third course I should have known there would be two desserts: A melt-in-your-mouth strawberry shortcake, and the Latvian counterpart of sweet rye bread and red bilberry (brūklenes) trifle!


Chef Māris had produced the entire meal in the hotel kitchen, working alongside the (American) hotel chef and a local team. The festival dinner was an event to remember, and I’m excited for the chance to someday dine in his restaurant in Rīga. As a final coup de grace Chef Māris had arranged for Rīgas Melnais Balzams to be served alongside the coffee and tea, and we emerged from the banquet thoroughly sated.


The final event of the Svētki was the Festival Ball. Toronto-based Latvian rock band Penzionāri had a deal with the attendees – we keep dancing, they keep playing! It was a final hurrah, and an energizing night with friends; ballējam, neguļam!
The cousins (with husbands, kids and significant others!)
Thank you for joining me on this journey to the Latvian Song and Dance Festival in Baltimore! For those of you already looking forward to the next festival, next year Latvia is hosting the XXVI Vispārējie latviešu dziesmu un XVI deju svētki during the Latvian centennial celebrations. Tickets go on sale in January of 2018; for more on that and the Latvija 100 celebration, visit the official LV100 website


However if you’re looking for the next festival on this side of the Atlantic, you will only have to wait until 2019 when Toronto will be hosting the XV Latviešu dziesmu un deju svētki Kanādā! The dates have been set (July 4-7), and a preliminary calendar of events is already available; please visit their website and follow them on facebook, twitter and Instagram to keep up to date on all the latest.

Māci man dvēsles mieru, māci debess spēku,
Kā pati Laima lika, tinot mūža rakstu.
Lec, saulīte, spīdi spoži, torā puisi, rotā meitu,
Lec, saulīte, tumsu šķel, vieno visu Latvju tautu.
(Lec, saulīte - Raimonds Tiguls)

For more memories from the Baltimore Song and Dance Festival, make sure to visit festival Reviews and Reports page as well as the Smugmug page which features photos available for download. One of the articles I think best captures the essence of the festival is the Latvians Online article “Baltimore Latvian Song Festival– a resounding success.”

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