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May 17, 2009

Where the wild things are — in Washington, D.C.

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Long story short: Paula Smith (above), the subject of Nick Miroff's fascinating front page story in today's Washington Post, knows.

"'I've eaten my quota of dead road kill, trust me honey,' she said. 'As long as it's clean' and not too beat up, 'I'll cut it up and eat it.'"

Here's the article.

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The Potomac's Keeper

Paula Smith is Among the Wilder Things in D.C.'s Wilderness, and Also One of Its Strongest Champions

In the long tradition of American self-reliance -- that urge to eschew social conventions for a simpler life -- most refugees have headed for wilderness. Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond. John Muir to Yosemite. Then there is Paula Smith, who came to Washington about 20 years ago and has been pretty much living off the land ever since.

Not that Smith farms, hunts or freeloads. She is a forager and a scavenger. And among the assorted characters who roam the forests and streams of the Washington region and the Potomac River valley north of Georgetown -- a wilder place than many realize -- there might be no keener two-legged creature in the woods.

Smith knows when to look for fruit on the papaw trees, where the best oyster mushrooms hide and when the wild raspberries and wineberries are ripest. Also the easiest way to get free venison.

"I've eaten my quota of dead roadkill, trust me honey," she said. "As long as it's clean" and not too beat up, "I'll cut it up and eat it."

In a town known for backslapping bonhomie and double talk, Smith, 57, is brutally direct and totally unconcerned with appearance. Short, wiry and ill-mannered, she wears thick glasses and heavy boots and is rarely seen without her tattered bucket hat and a cigarette. Her salty language is as legendary on the river as her knack for finding deer antlers. Local outdoorsman Bill Heavey, a columnist for Field & Stream, once described her as "gruff and gravel-voiced," with "all the charm of a sawmill foreman." To many, she is the Potomac's unofficial riverkeeper.

"There's a lot of [stuff] that goes on in these woods that people don't know about," she said recently, at work on the docks at Fletcher's Cove in the District. This reporter was intrigued.

Cleaning up garbage and litter along the river has been Smith's obsession for a long time. But lately she has been consumed by a new concern: deer shot illegally along the river on National Park Service land.

"Poachers are going wild up there," she said, referring to the area south of Chain Bridge.

Poachers? In Washington, D.C.?

"I'll show you," she said.

To fishermen on the Potomac, and just about any weekend recreationist who has taken out a rowboat at Fletcher's, Smith is "the dock lady," running the boat rental program from a wooden shack stuffed with oars and life jackets. There, she works the angler crowd like a canny waitress at a truck stop, bantering with fishermen she calls "baby" and "honey" -- when she's not cursing at them -- and serving up shad and perch advice in turn for a little extra in her coffee can tip jar.

"We call her the empress of the docks," said Dan Ward, who has worked at Fletcher's Boat House since 1969. "Occasionally we get someone who complains because she has a bad habit of cussing in front of children, but she's worth the price of admission."

The boats are Smith's part-time job, an occupation reduced to a few days a week during the spring fishing season. But her full-time profession is in the forest. She spends most of her days alone on long peregrinations she describes as "just me [messing] around in the woods."

Deer antlers, old bottles, wild edibles and animal skulls are her pursuit on these outings, which can last all day and take her through Park Service land, private property and city parks. Because male deer shed their antlers at different times after rutting season, she keeps detailed notes to track their whereabouts. "Maryland has the biggest deer," she said. Langley has big ones, too, but Smith said she doesn't trespass on CIA property.

Over the years, she said, she has found magnificent antlers worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars, along with 19th-century whiskey bottles, stashes of rare coins and some not-so-pleasant things, too.

Twice, she said, she has called the police after finding human remains: once a missing kayaker, and another time the body of a drowned little girl.

Smith has no family nearby but lives in Arlington County with Gordon Leisch, her friend and a well-known outdoorsman. Leisch, who is retired from the Interior Department, said he asked Smith to move in about 10 years ago to help him care for his dying father. Today their living room is kept like a large tackle box, overflowing with fishing poles, nets and other outdoor equipment. Wild game abounds in the freezer: hunks of deer meat, perch and turkey shot by Leisch. Smith said she also likes squirrel and raccoon. "Young raccoon," she specified. She can't remember the last time she bought meat at a grocery store.

"She's like no other you've ever met," Leisch said. On the river the week before, Smith had severed the head of a dead beaver -- she wanted the skull -- and accidentally broken Leisch's fishing line with the carcass, causing him to lose his only shad lure. "Most people don't have a fishing partner like that," he said, laughing.

Washington may seem an odd place for this type of frontier lifestyle, but since Smith doesn't have a car and never learned to drive, she's pretty much stuck here. She depends on Metrobus to get to the parks and other places she roams; most days, that means catching a bus at 5 a.m. and transferring to other routes until she's able to get close enough to the woods to start walking.

"People think you're weird if you wander around in the woods," she said. "But that's okay if some people think I'm crazy. Most river rats are crazy."

Smith grew up in and around Chicago, and her hard-drinking father managed a trailer park for a time, she said. As a kid, her grandfather took her on walks in the woods. "He knew every bird, every plant," she said.

Smith said she left home for New York City before finishing high school, and for almost 25 years she worked in a printing shop before eventually running one of her own. But when she fell into tax problems and the business failed, Smith lost everything and came to stay with a friend in the District. She has no children and never married -- "The one mistake I haven't made," Smith said. She showed up on the docks at Fletcher's one day like a castaway washed downstream in a storm.

"She asked for work, and originally I had my doubts she could handle it physically," said Ward, her co-worker at Fletcher's. Smith quickly proved him wrong. "She's the only employee I can remember who I have to get to work less hard. She'll get down on her hands and knees to get every little bit of sand out of the boats. She takes these things so personally," he said.

Smith quit drinking years ago, she said, but still smokes two packs of cigarettes a day (Marlboro Menthols when she can afford them). And mostly it's animals, not people, whom she prefers to spend her time with. Just as there are certain fishermen on the river she doesn't care for, there are a few species she's not a fan of: cormorants, which eat too many herring in her judgment; catfish, which she deems "nasty"; along with darn "yuppies" and their dogs, which harass the forest animals, she said.

Then there are her favorites: deer, of course, but also snakes, turtles and vultures, since she is just as interested in what's living in the forest as what has died there.

"Don't ever get too close to a vulture's nest," she cautioned this reporter, following her along the Potomac through muck and underbrush on the search for dead deer. "They'll vomit on you. And you don't want nothing to do with what they've been eating."

Washington's riverbanks may not be far from human settlement, but they can be wild and dangerous in ways having little to do with nature, Smith said. When the weather warms, homeless men with nicknames like "Big Eddie" and "The Crazy Drummer" set up camps in the woods along the river. A few are dangerous, Smith said, and she is careful to avoid those she considers most unstable.

As she cut a roundabout path through the forest, Smith followed a pack of circling vultures to a rocky outcropping 100 yards south of Chain Bridge on the District side of the river. There, a pregnant doe had been butchered so recently that its discarded remains had no odor.

"You see this [mess]?" she said angrily, poking at a pile of entrails. "Since October I've probably found 20 dead deer out here. Most years I find one to six. I think they're taking them out and selling the meat."

Smith said that while there's an overpopulation of deer in the region, the animals are supposed to be protected on parkland. "I don't want no commercial venture wiping them out in here," she fumed.

Two wild turkeys appeared on the way back toward Fletcher's, and Smith [below]

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followed them for a little while through the bushes, seeing how close she could get. She said the poachers would probably hunt them out by the end of the summer. Of course, she didn't exactly use that language.

May 17, 2009 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Glyptodont Shell


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The glyptodont was a now-extinct cousin of the armadillo.

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Its shell (top) is part of the exhibition "Extreme Mammals," which opened yesterday and will be up through January 3, 2010 at the American Museum of Natural History (amnh.org) in New York City.

May 17, 2009 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Fujitsu Color Electronic Reader


The video up top was posted two months ago.

Recall Amazon's unveiling two weeks ago of its Kindle DX, without color capability and set to ship sometime this summer.

The Fujitsu FLEPia reader (time for remedial naming school, methinks), according to this weekend's Financial Times "... the first commercial color e-reader..." sells for $1,000, about twice the price of the DX.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: Fujitsu's reader has WiFi and Bluetooth built in, touchscreen and button controls, an SD card slot and USB.

I wonder if by the time Amazon's ready to start selling its new one, other color readers will start to pop up here and there.

In a couple years you won't be able to buy a black and white reader at any price — except on eBay.

May 17, 2009 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Soap Knuckles — 'Molded from real brass knuckles'

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100% glycerine; 5"W x 3"H x 0.75"D.

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2 soaps; 2 oz. each.

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$15.

[via noquedanblogs and Gizmodo]

May 17, 2009 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud'

Verlyn Klinkenborg's above headlined essay appeared in the "Editorial Observer" feature of yesterday's New York Times, and follows.

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Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud'

Sometimes the best way to understand the present is to look at it from the past. Consider audio books. An enormous number of Americans read by listening these days — listening aloud, I call it. The technology for doing so is diverse and widespread, and so are the places people listen to audio books. But from the perspective of a reader in, say, the early 19th century, about the time of Jane Austen, there is something peculiar about it, even lonely.

In those days, literate families and friends read aloud to each other as a matter of habit. Books were still relatively scarce and expensive, and the routine electronic diversions we take for granted were, of course, nonexistent. If you had grown up listening to adults reading to each other regularly, the thought of all of those solitary 21st-century individuals hearkening to earbuds and car radios would seem isolating. It would also seem as though they were being trained only to listen to books and not to read aloud from them.

It’s part of a pattern. Instead of making music at home, we listen to recordings of professional musicians. When people talk about the books they’ve heard, they’re often talking about the quality of the readers, who are usually professional. The way we listen to books has been de-socialized, stripped of context, which has the solitary virtue of being extremely convenient.

But listening aloud, valuable as it is, isn’t the same as reading aloud. Both require a great deal of attention. Both are good ways to learn something important about the rhythms of language. But one of the most basic tests of comprehension is to ask someone to read aloud from a book. It reveals far more than whether the reader understands the words. It reveals how far into the words — and the pattern of the words — the reader really sees.

Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body, which is why there is always a curious tenderness, almost an erotic quality, in those 18th- and 19th-century literary scenes where a book is being read aloud in mixed company. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading.

No one understood this better than Jane Austen. One of the late turning points in “Mansfield Park” comes when Henry Crawford picks up a volume of Shakespeare, “which had the air of being very recently closed,” and begins to read aloud to the young Bertrams and their cousin, Fanny Price. Fanny discovers in Crawford’s reading “a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with.” And yet his ability to do every part “with equal beauty” is a clear sign to us, if not entirely to Fanny, of his superficiality.

I read aloud to my writing students, and when students read aloud to me I notice something odd. They are smart and literate, and most of them had parents who read to them as children. But when students read aloud at first, I notice that they are trying to read the meaning of the words. If the work is their own, they are usually trying to read the intention of the writer.

It’s as though they’re reading what the words represent rather than the words themselves. What gets lost is the inner voice of the prose, the life of the language. This is reflected in their writing, too, at first.

In one realm — poetry — reading aloud has never really died out. Take Robert Pinsky’s new book, “Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud.” But I suspect there is no going back. You can easily make the argument that reading silently is an economic artifact, a sign of a new prosperity beginning in the early 19th century and a new cheapness in books. The same argument applies to listening to books on your iPhone. But what I would suggest is that our idea of reading is incomplete, impoverished, unless we are also taking the time to read aloud.

May 17, 2009 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

What are they?

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May 17, 2009 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

5,770,000 Free Manuals

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There goes the day.

Does David Pogue know about this?

[via Milena]

May 17, 2009 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Immersion Scarf — 'For those really important text messages'

111111122222223333333 Brought to you by The Play Coalition.

May 17, 2009 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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