La Nina Winter

I wrote last week about the interesting but unscientific prediction of a bad winter based on the acorn harvest which is one of many weather lore ideas. Someone contacted me to say they spotted “black deer” in their neighborhood and that predicts a bad winter. But on the more scientific but not always accurate side of predicting the weather, the NOAA has put out their notice on how La Niña may affect the winter of 2021-22 in America.

La Nina
A look at La Nina along the equator in the tropical Pacific Ocean in September 2021. (NOAA

In what is called a “La Niña winter,” the southern U.S. gets above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation. That could be bad news for the Southwest and areas dealing with a historic drought.

La Niña tends to have the opposite effect on the northern U.S., meaning lower than average temperatures with more snow and rain.

Even the NOAA folks add the caveat that a more exact forecast of temperature, snow, and rain isn’t possible until winter has arrived.

What is La Niña? It is when cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures along the equator indicate La Niña will develop. In September they saw it had developed and will extend through the second winter in a row according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. La Niña is a natural ocean-atmospheric phenomenon and is translated from Spanish as “little girl.”

In 2020, La Niña developed during the month of August and then dissipated in April 2021.

Indigenous People’s Day or Columbus Day


Today is Columbus Day which was first celebrated in the U.S. in 1792. President Roosevelt made it a federal holiday in 1937. It’s been seen as a day to celebrate Italian-American heritage and honor Christopher Columbus.

But Columbus Day has become controversial in recent decades since Columbus’ arrival kickstarted colonization in the Western hemisphere and led to millions of Native American deaths.

National Indigenous Peoples Day 2019
That is why in 1977, the UN formally recommended replacing Columbus Day with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

Currently, 17 states plus Washington, D.C. observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of, or in addition to, Columbus Day.

Read More


Will 2021 Be A Mast Year?

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

Acorns have been bombing my home’s roof and deck and pinging the roof of the metal shed in the backyard heavily since late summer. The quantity of acorns seems to vary year to year. This year might be what is known as a “mast year.”

I had to look up what a mast year means.  The fruits, nuts, berries, and buds produced by trees and bushes are called “mast.” Things like walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts, hard seeds, and acorns are called hard masts, and berries and fruits and buds are soft mast. A mast year is a year when the amount of that mast is unusually high in number,

Since my first association with the word “mast” is with a sailing ship, I had to check the etymology of this botanical usage. It comes from Middle English and earlier Old English mete similar to mæst in Old High German where it meant food. If you think of an acorn as food (many animals and some humans do) then inside that shell is the meat.

Can we predict these cycles of acorn plenty? Do we know why they occur? There are theories but it is still mostly a mystery.

These mast years seem to occur in irregular cycles of two to five years. An abundance of acorns is often said to be a nature sign of a bad winter. The folk belief is that squirrels, chipmunks, mice and other animals somehow know that they need to stock up for a bad winter and that nature somehow knows to increase the supply chain of acorns. But there’s no real science behind that folk wisdom and weather lore. that they need to stock up. The Farmers’ Almanac – which has lots of folklore around weather – seems to indicate that if acorn numbers mean a bad winter then almost every year is a bad winter.

But I continue and observe and write about signs of the seasons in nature and keep a nature calendar.

Squirrels, mice, chipmunks and deer feed on the acorns in my neighborhood.  When the trees produce smaller crops for a few consecutive years, they are in effect keeping the populations of these animals in check. But during a mast year, the trees produce more food than the animals can possibly eat.

This abundance causes a boom in the populations of the smaller mammals. It also guarantees that some acorns will survive and grow into new trees. Producing nuts slightly stunts the tree growth, but as it happens in cycles the tree gets a chance for growth in the non-mast years. Living things generally live to reproduce.

Chipmunks hibernate in cold weather and so in Paradelle, they spend most of the winter sleeping in their dens. I read that one chipmunk can gather up to 165 acorns in a day.  But those cute little Disneyesque critters don’t just eat acorns. Along with seeds and fungi, they will eat grain, fruit, nuts, insects, and worms. I was surprised to find that though they don’t hunt for bird eggs and even nestling birds and baby mice, they will eat them when they find them. They also love to dig in my outdoor potted plants, so cute as Chip and dale might be, they are also pests around here.

In 2020, the chipmunk population locally was insanely large. This year I barely saw any – until the acorns started to fall in late August and now they are all over my backyard and deck. Where were they all spring and summer?


In reading the novel The Overstory by Richard Powers and some other research as a follow-up. I learned a lot about trees. For example, most people probably believe that trees compete with each other for sunlight, water, and nutrients. That isn’t true. In fact, in most settings, they communicate and cooperate.

With acorns, temperature and moisture are probably factors in these cycles, and now it is theorized that oaks might be sending chemical signals to coordinate their production. In my part of the country (Northeast) last winter and spring were generally mild winter and so white and red oak trees are able to produce more of them when they start creating seeds in the spring. A harsh winter or cold spring or freeze can mean little acorn production, or sometimes none at all.

There are still mysteries in all this. How trees communicate with each other is still being explored. We can’t predict when any one species will have a mast year.

but we do better understand what causes it. The weather certainly has a part to play. To produce a healthy crop, the trees need the right combination of temperature and rainfall in the spring.

Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events in relation to the weather. This is the scientific version of weather lore and the studies continue.

SIDEBAR: Can humans safely eat acorns? Yes, they can be used in a variety of ways. They can be eaten whole, ground up into acorn meal or flour, or made into mush to have their oil extracted. Once you’ve safely leached the tannins from your raw acorns, you can roast them for 15 to 20 minutes and sprinkle them with salt for a snack. I haven’t tried eating yet, but maybe this is a good year for it.

The Overstory: A Novel
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate
The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature


John Lennon In His Own Writing

Lennon cover

It’s the birthday of John Lennon. I was a fan of The Beatles from the first time I heard “Please Please Me” played at a local record shop. That came out as a single in America in February 1963 but wasn’t a hit. Vee-Jay Records (their label here at the time) re-released it almost a year later because “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was a big hit and they were coming to America.

At first, Paul was my favorite. When I saw that John had published a book, I turned my attention to him. When he turned into a grmpy Beatle, I turned to the meditative, introspective George. Through it all, Ringo seemed the most stable.

John’s death hit me hard. I vividly recall staying up into the morning hours watching the news about his shooting and death. I know that I was exhausted mentally and physically when I went into the faculty lounge in the morning. I knew my friend Bob Shannon was equally crushed. Another teacher made a flippant joke and said “Who cares?” about John’s death and I never forgave him for the remark.

John had the best sense of humor and loved puns and wordplay.  He said in interviews that his childhood favorite books were Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and the Just William stories by Richard Crompton. I also love the Alice books. I read Grahame later in life and still have never read any of the Crompton books.

In 1964, I bought John’s little book of line drawings and Carroll-like stories, In His Own Write. It’s not great writing, but it is amusing. The drawings reminded me of James Thurber and Shel Silverstein. The success of the book in sales and the attention critics gave it surprised John, though he should have expected it with Beatlemania in full swing.The cover of the book, featuring a picture of John Lennon
The following year I bought his second book, A Spaniard in the Works. (Both books are sold now in one volume.) It is very much like the first book. The book’s title is a pun on the expression “a spanner in the works.” It means a person or thing that throws of a plan. The American version is to “throw a wrench in the works .” This collection didn’t sell as well. Perhaps, the novelty of a book by a Beatle had worn off.

John read reviews of the books and critics suggested that he must have been influenced by James Joyce, but John said he had not read Joyce. In an interview, he said that he picked up a copy of Finnegans Wake and though he saw the reason they referenced Joyce, he didn’t make it past chapter one. I identified with that. Even as an English major, I  never finished any of Joyce except his short stories.

The connection to Lewis Carroll is more obvious. The counterculture of the 1960s latched onto that absurd, psychedelic aspect of Carroll’s writing. I mean, you have a hookah-smoking character and Alice takes a drug that makes her larger and smaller. Songs like the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” are illustrations of that fairly superficial reading of the Alice stories. I have written elsewhere about John’s connections to poetry and literature and Lewis Carroll in particular. I noticed that the edition of his two books noted above says on the cover “The Writing Beatle.” I wonder what John might have been writing today, besides songs.

There is a scene in the movie Yesterday (directed by Danny Boyle) where the protagonist, who finds himself in a world where The Beatles never existed, meets John. At 78, John lives alone in a little coastal home. He had had a good life but it had nothing to do with music. I don’t know that we would know the name John Lennon if his life had gone another way. Of course, we don’t even know if he would have made it to age 81 this year. But I believe if he was here with us now, he would be writing and making art more than making music.

Still, his “words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup” and my own “thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox” as I think about John and all the hours of pleasure and introspection that he and Paul, George, and Ringo brought to me and continue to bring to me.

Follow the River

The river of my childhood imagination

I grew up in the very urban Irvington, New Jersey. It borders the state’s biggest city, Newark. As you went west from town, you entered suburbia.

There is the South Mountain Reservation about 4 miles west and as a kid growing up in the 1960s my friends and I often rode there on my bike to “get into nature” and looked for adventures. It has Hemlock Falls, a mill pond where we fished and lots of trails in its more than 2000 acres. It was the closest thing I had to wilderness.

My only neighborhood oasis from urban life was the Elizabeth River which ran along the bottom of my street. I probably passed it almost every day. We called it “The Brook.” I don’t think I knew it was actually the Elizabeth River until I started getting into maps when I was 10 years old.

We played along and in that river all the time. We threw rocks. We made dams. We made little boats and tried to see which one would make it the furthest downstream. I imagined that some might someday make it to the ocean and to some other country. I put messages in my bottles asking the finder to write to me. I even included a self-addressed and stamped postcard in a few of them. No one ever responded.

Our parents always warned us not to go there. The water certainly wasn’t very clean and after heavy rain, it was full of rainbow eddies from gas and oil runoff from the streets. There were no fish for anglers, though were very small fish in some sections that attracted some big birds, such as night herons.

In my childhood days, there were several times when we read stories in the local newspapers about a kid getting drowned along the river because they were caught by stormwater. We imagined a wall of water gushing down the river. I would go there when it rained and stand on the bridge over Allen Street watching for a wave. I never saw one. The water just gradually rose.

The Elizabeth River isn’t a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn kind of river. When it passed through my town it was captured by concrete walls.
It is confined all along the way in this artificial channel that was built in the 1920s and 30s and as part of the WPA projects.

When I was in sixth grade, I had a fairly detailed map of waterways in the state and decided to try to find the source of the river. The headwaters of the Elizabeth River are actually buried beneath East Orange in Essex County. I assume it is fed by underground creeks and streams. It doesn’t see the light of day until it is at the border between Irvington and the Vailsburg neighborhood of Newark. From there it goes pretty much in a southern direction through the center of Irvington.

My neighborhood was near that place where it emerges from underground. You could enter the underground tunnel part to the north when the water was low. I tried it with a few friends but the fear of the darkness, crazy rats, maybe even bats, and that sudden wave of floodwater prevented us from ever going very far underground.


I was happy to walk the full length of the open sections, In a dry summer, the water was restricted to an even smaller channel at the center, so you could walk most of the way on either side. We slipped on slimy rocks and got our sneakers and pants wet many times. There were places that had a kind of metal ladder to climb in or out but for most of the way, it would be tough to climb the walls.

There were times when older kids and even the police would see us down there and chase us out.

at Civic Square
Through Civic Square

Past my neighborhood, it flows past our area park and Irvington High School and along the east side of Civic Square with the library, town hall, and police and fire departments.

Further south, it forms the west boundary of the 19th century Clinton Cemetery. I always found this to be a creepy section, and then at the southern end of the cemetery, the river passes under the Garden State Parkway near Exit 143 and disappears as a surface waterway again. That was the end of the river for most of my young life.

going underground
The river goes back underground

When I was able to drive, I consulted maps and did some research and I decided to complete my river journey to the end of the river. It reemerges just south of the Union County line near the Parkway again.

By car and foot, I was able to track it to the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait between Staten Island, New York and New Jersey’s Union and Middlesex Counties. That strait is a major navigational channel for the Port of New York and New Jersey. The river’s mouth is Raritan Bay which is fed by the Passaic River, Hackensack River, Rahway River, and Elizabeth River.

Perhaps a few of my messages in bottles actually did make it along the river carried by heavier rains to this heavily used marine channel where you can see ocean-going tankers. They went out into the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe they are still adrift, searching for a shore to land upon.

The oddly-named Arthur Kill is an anglicization of the early 17th-century Dutch achter kill meaning “back channel.” It probably referred to it being located “behind Staten Island.” During the Dutch colonial era, the region was part of New Netherland. The Dutch kill comes from the Middle Dutch word kille, meaning riverbed, water channel, or stream. The area around Newark Bay was known as Cull Bay during the British colonial era. and the sister channel of Arthur Kill is called Kill van Kull which refers to the waterway that flows from the col (ridge or passage).

bridge in Elizabeth
South Front Street Bridge at the river’s mouth at the Arthur Kill

The channel is not a pretty part of the Jersey coast. It is primarily edged with industrial sites and is sometimes referred to as the Chemical Coast. The Staten Island side is primarily lined with salt marshes and is home to the Staten Island boat graveyard. It creates a border for Fresh Kills Landfill and Freshkills Park.

The Passaic River is the New Jersey River that gets the most attention. Its headwaters are in the Great Swamp which was once Glacial Lake Passaic as the Ice Age melted and the waters found their way counterintuitively north. It is still mostly unchanneled and above ground. It flows over hard, black volcanic basalt cliffs at the Great Falls in Paterson and empties into Newark Bay.

Still, my Elizabeth River holds a much stronger hold on my memory and imagination. To a small boy, “The Brook” was Twain’s Mississippi River even if I never was able to float on a raft downstream.

face in the wall
A strange “face in the wall” along the river

Teachers on the Screen

Mr. Keating

This past week, a friend who is in the education world asked me if I could recommend a movie that shows some teacher:student engagement or student:student interaction.  I came up with these titles first: Dead Poets Society, Freedom Writers, The Emperor’s Club, and Dangerous Minds.

I also came up with a few that are not as serious and not always as positive – but are funnier: Teachers, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Rushmore.

I taught for four decades and in that time saw plenty of depictions of teachers and classrooms on screens big and small that were unrealistic and often downright insulting.

I crowdsourced the request via email to a few fellow educators and was surprised at how quickly they responded and how many I had not thought of right away.  Here’s the list we collected with a few comments and clips. What did we miss? Add a comment.

Dead Poets Society
Freedom Writers
The Emperor’s Club
Dangerous Minds
The Paper Chase

Professor Kingsfield on the Socratic Method of teaching

Mona Lisa Smile
The Miracle Worker
Stand and deliver
October Sky
The Wonder Years (TV Series)

Boston Public (TV)
To Sir With Love
Mr. Corman

Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Animal House

School of Rock
Bad Teacher (hmmm…)
The Breakfast Club (more for student:student)
numerous Hogwarts scenes from the Harry Potter film series
The Karate Kid

Comedy is a good teaching tool.

Jerry Seinfeld plays a history teacher having problems teaching WWII

from Key and Peele – the substitute teacher