800px-NIEdot311That facebook post about opossums eating 1 billion ticks an hour: Is it true?

The study that spawned this silliness is much more interesting. Researchers were asking which tick-bitten lawn critters are best at reducing your risk of getting Lyme disease. The answer: The more the merrier.

When larval “Lyme ticks” emerge in the spring, they scramble up a fern and then bite onto whatever small creature ambles past. Lately, they often suck up the Lyme bacterium with their blood meal. After a few days they drop off; grow a click; and then snag a new passer-by–passing along the Lyme bacterium when they bore into the skin.

But those initial hosts vary in their ability to discover and destroy tiny ticks on their skin. Opossums are compulsive groomers, and they locate and eradicate almost every larval tick that attacks them. So if you put 100 larval ticks on a variety of animals, and count how many ticks successfully eat and advance to the status of a human health threat, it looks like this:

Who's Chewing Who?

Who’s Chewing Who?

Half the ticks who take a shot at a white-footed mouse live to suck another day. Only about 3% of those who bite a possum can say the same.

So, two things:

One: No, possums don’t eat a billion ticks a minute. That was a silly extrapolation from a controlled experiment. But possums do kill and swallow a huge percentage of the ticks silly enough to bite them.

Two: Anyway, the point of this study is that biodiversity is (once again) the answer to all your household concerns. Each of those “hosts” are killing some of the ticks that attack them in your neighborhood. More = Merrier.

Three: To get more possums to hang out at your place, the secret is again biodiversity. They eat snails*, slugs*, mice, insects, dead squirrels, etc. They’re shy and nocturnal, so give them “hedgerows” of shrubbery to hide under, and keep outdoor lights off. I don’t water my crispy Freedom Lawn this time of year, but I do water my native creepy-crawlies: My naturally mulched native plant beds hold moisture that will see an insect through drying times.

Four: Yes, possums are essentially immune to rabies; and are extra cool in myriad other ways; and they don’t dig up lawns, wreck gardens, or give birth in your basement. You’re thinking of your dog.


OMG, just do the math, anyway: That poor possum would have to eat 24 ticks  an hour, around the clock. Every 2.5 seconds, day and night: Another tick. So, yeah: Just no.


*AKA “possum oysters”




Anthropologists and their hate crimes against cave people wear me out. “No other hominid species could possibly have been one-tenth as sophisticated and emotional and toolly as us, the amazing Homo sapiens.” That  is the working assumption of the average archeologist.

Homo erectus ate raw food,” they allege, “because they were too dumb to manage fire.” Oops. Erectus seems to have been barbecuing in Africa more than a million years before sapiens was a twinkle in the eye of Homo habilis.

“Paddling a boat 25 miles in a strong current is too intellectually demanding for anyone but us,” scholars assert, “therefor erectus must have spread through the Pacific islands by accident, like ants bobbing around on driftwood. Poor things.” Oops. Not only erectus, but also a second species of “hobbit people“, seem to have been exceptionally lucky floating ants, given that they first colonized the “remote” Indonesian island of Flores 700,000 years ago. (We sapiens are about 200,000 years old.)

Neanderthals knew nothing of home decorating,” the anthropologists sniff. “They just threw their bear skins down at the mouth of a cave and called it good.”

Oops. The recent discovery of structures laid out 300 meters deep in a French cave suggest neanderthalensis not only managed fire for cooking, but also managed fire for exploring 300 meters into the pitch black gut of the earth, and also hung out there in well-appointed rooms. The construction method: stalagmites harvested from the cave floor, whacked into uniform lengths, and stacked to form barriers. The novelty of this homemaking style was sufficiently unique to demand a new word: Speleofacts, from the Latin “cavemaking supplies.”

The bias that makes such discoveries surprising bothers me. Anybody who presumes only Homo sapiens appreciates a comfortable and attractive territory is crying out for an introduction to another species of talented home-makers. Allow me: The photos below are of huts made of sticks, landscaped with color-sorted stones, petals, bottle caps, etc. Scroll down to meet the artist.

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Satin bowerbird. Wikimedia commons pd


Hot water, olde school. Wikimedia pd

Hot water, olde school. (Bad dog, timeless) Wikimedia pd

The inherent waste in household water heating (and, yes, the carbon footprint of flushing an upstairs toilet) are the kind of things that cause me grave concern on a daily basis. Going to the Building Energy conference in Boston helped. Kinda.

The hot water thing: We tend to heat a tank full of it, then spend more carbon-based energy keeping it hot even when nobody needs it. Each time we open a hot water faucet somewhere in the house, we draw that hot water from the tank and into cold pipes. Heat is lost. The farther the water travels through the pipes, the more heat it loses. And after you’ve received your hot water and you shut off the faucet, then all the hot water still in the pipeline slowly sheds its carbon-costly heat and returns to room temperature. *

(You rightly imagine that the hot water pipes in my basement are insulated with foam tubes. I got the tubes at Home Depot on clearance for 1 cent apiece, which spared me a ton of math on the financial arm of the equation.)

The old solution to this soul-killing waste was the “on demand water heater.” Fired by gas or electricity, it replaced the big tank in the basement, and heated water instantly** when you opened the faucet. But the heated water still had to navigate the same old heat-shedding pipes.

So at the trade show I was intrigued by a display of POUETs: Point Of Use Electric Tankless. point-of-use-water-heater

Stiebel POUET

Stiebel POUET images

These are sized for each faucet, or “point of use.” There’s a tiny one for the powder room sink; a medium one for the kitchen; and a big one for the shower. The size is driven by physics–the faster you ask for water, the faster the element inside the box has to warm it.***


I love this, particularly for remodels or additions on a house. Yes, you’re using electricity to heat water, but you’re wasting approximately none of that energy. For a deeper analysis of the carbonaceous tangents, read this geek’s story of converting his household (and his grumpy family) to POUETs.

My quick recon finds no plug-in versions of POUETs, probably due to the meddling of “life and safety” regulators who will go to any lengths to prevent water and electricity from hanging out together.

Got any experience with these? Is my enthusiasm warranted? Can I stop worrying about this?


*If you recapture that heat to keep your house warm, good on you. But even in the winter, space-heating via pipes buried in walls and basements is a pretty weak method.

**”Instant” is a relative term, according to anyone who ever lived with an on-demand water heater. So is “on demand.”

***Yes, the carbon footprint of these many boxes of electric heating elements is starting to spread a little. It bothers me, too. I suspect “clustered plumbing” is the answer: designing homes where the bathroom backs up to the kitchen backs up to the laundry machine.



Image: UMN Extension

Looks like time to re-post this classic, after all: Last year, half the houses in the neighborhood developed ice dams. Part of the reason? This neighborhood has tons of bungalows.

The bungalow is native to sunny India, where the deep overhang of the eave acts like an awning.

Maine and India have little in common beyond the bungalow. Here, that overhang gets very cold, because it’s not heated by warm air rushing upward through the ceiling and into the attic.

That fleeing warm air does heat the roof over the attic, however, and melts the snow thereon. Water runs down the roof as god intended. But then it hits the unheated overhang and promptly freezes. Over time, a ridge of ice forms atop the eave. Now running water backs up behind a growing ridge of ice, seeps between the shingles, and enters parts of your house previously reserved for dryness.

The slanted ceiling of a bungalow’s second floor makes matters worse: You can’t add much insulation there to slow the flow of heat.

The outdoor angles compound the problem, as intersecting roof lines direct a lot of water toward the valleys.

What to do? Don’t do this: In a fit of freezing pique I once took a pickax to my ice dams. It tore that ice right up! And the roof under it, too!

Prevention, as usual, is the sensible thing. Maintain a clear path for water to take off the roof. Rake snow off the eaves before the cycle sets in.

And if you must build a bungalow in Maine, insulate the heck out of it.

Why do we sleep upstairs?


Queen Mary’s Bedchamber: Intimate it’s not.

This question came to me when I came across a study claiming that people who live in the upper floors of apartment buildings feel more secure at night. Duh, right? A territory that’s hard to invade is a plum territory whatever species you may be. But then I got to wondering if this is why we also tend to sleep upstairs.

Duh again? Probably.

The history of bedrooms is pretty brief: Until quite recently, we slept on the ground, on crumpled up plants or animal skins. To say we were vulnerable in our slumbering state is an understatement. The invention of walls allowed us to harden the defenses during this perilous overnight period. But windows were only adopted about five minutes ago, historically speaking: In the long, dark era between the invention of the wall and the invention of the window, to accomplish much of anything besides sleeping, we had to go outside where we could see.

A number of cultures have paused house development right there. The Korowai people of Papua, New Guinea, build their one-room houses in treetops, where extended-family members hang out with pigs and whatever else is valuable enough to haul up the ladder. During the day they descend to tend gardens, hunt, gather, and let the pigs stretch their legs. But their down-time is spent in the safety of the tree-fort. The igloo and the tee-pee are similar: They’re not good for much beyond sleeping.

But with the rise of “civilization” and economic disparity, a class of folk emerged who didn’t have much need to go outdoors. These people delegated their food-chasing and enemy-spearing to others. In the great halls of medieval Europe, great walls protected a heated space where the upper class could plot, play, and sleep en masse.

Further income disparity produced greater domestic stratification, as the cream of the crop now built a fort-within-a-fort over the great hall. Like the great hall this was a multipurpose space, where business, pleasure, and sleep took their turns.

So this seems to be the nub: Sleeping was a fairly public, or at least social, activity for most of human history. And as humans gain wealth, we often seem to spend it increasing the privacy and security for our sleeping hours.

And like many other creatures, we seem to understand intuitively that the higher you climb, the safer you are.




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It’s time for my annual appeal for disorder, chaos, and Mother Nature’s right to winterize her home as she sees fit. Your contribution? Stay out of the way.

Leaf-raking must hearken back to the origins of the lawn. Today’s lawn evolved from the broad sheep pastures that surrounded English country estates: Just as every suburban American deserved a “castle” of her own, she also deserved a miniature field of grass. Lacking micro-sheep to maintain these micro-pastures, homeowners were vulnerable to misguidance on artificial perpetuation of this artificial landscape. Like raking leaves.

Full disclosure: I do rake some leaves. If too many gather in the hollows and wind shadows of my Freedom Lawn, they’ll create dull spots in my springtime tapestry.

But I don’t pick them up, and I sure as shootin’ don’t put them in a bag made of pulverized trees and haul them to the curb for a diesel-powered truck to collect. My carbon footprint cannot afford that lifestyle. I need to conserve all my discretionary carbon for transporting chocolate from the tropics.

But more importantly, those leaves are needed here in the yard. Curly and crisp, the leaves trap air when they stack up, delivering a substantial R-value. Frogs, native bees, voles, beetle-bugs, and a trillion other little critters have evolved a lifestyle that depends on locating a wind-stacked heap of those leaves, and crawling under it for the winter.

Carting your lawn’s leaves to the curb is like breaking into your neighbors’ house during a blizzard and stealing all their blankets.

So I rake, but all the beastie-blankets stay within the confines of the yard. Along the fences, under trees, on top of gardens, those leaves will spend the winter providing creature comfort to creatures.

In the spring, I used to pluck the flattened leaf-carpets from my flower beds. But this year I experimented with skipping even that step. For mature beds of native plants, it was exactly what the lawn doctor ordered: I didn’t have to thin the obedient plant or bee balm, because only the hardiest made it through the leaf mulch; and the mulch kept the soil damp. It was almost like Nature had planned it that way.




Thanks, Arab States. Here’s a nifty illustration of how the “Arab oil embargo” of 1973 threw a cold bucket of moderation over an oil-drunk nation.

I well remember when the Arab members of OPEC stopped selling us oil. Wood stoves sprouted all over our leaky old farmhouse. Well, not quite everywhere–the Mason jars of boiling water we used to warm our beds still froze if we kicked them out onto the floor in the night. But the living room got a giant airtight stove with Nordic deer prancing on its sides, and Dad’s study got a small Jotul, and he glued panels of blue Styrofoam insulation to the inside of that room. Plastic sheeting went up over the windows, and never really came down again. I guess that had less to do with the Arabs than it did with intensifying conflict within the Organization of Petroleum Importing Holmeses. Anyway, the embargo made an impression.

And it left a mark on our national petro-gluttony, too. The red lines in these graphs track total energy use in residential buildings over the years. That hiccup in the early 1970s represents the the time oil jumped from $3 to $12 a barrel. People insulated their houses. They replaced old windows with double-paned ones. Building standards improved. We did better. We consumed less. Thanks, Arabs.

(The top graph is less impressive, because it tracks total energy use, to run refrigerators, water heaters, clothes dryers, massive TVs, etc. The lower graph tracks energy per square foot of house.)


Screenshot (95)If you bought a house at the peak of the real estate bubble and then watched your value tumble, congratulations: You’re back in the black.

Well, if you’re in Greater Portland. In fact, in Greater Portland, you’ve probably soared somewhat over what you paid back in the previous bubble. Here’s the graph for the past ten years of average sale prices in Portland.

The bubble is busting on the left side of this graph; values wallow for a few years; and then jump out of bed in 2012. Now we’re at a point where most people’s values are a click above the previous peak. In Greater Portland.

Let’s count our blessings. Here’s how other parts of the state are doing:

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Here’s Bath, just up the coast. Bath is juuuuuust breaking even.


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Bangor: Just a little bit more…

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But Lewiston!


Local economic conditions, that’s the big lever on price of real estate.

So what do we do, as Maine’s agrarian and manufacturing economy continues to crumble, taking down communities that have stood for two hundred years? How does a society manage that? I find the question fascinating, in a painful kinda way.

We Euro-humans distributed ourselves across the landscape in a pattern dictated by water power and sheep pasture.

But we have outgrown water power, and synthetic fibers cost a fraction of what it takes to grow sheep. Our old patterns of living off the land are recorded in the houses of Washington County and Lewiston. But those old patterns don’t match the new economy.

Something will have to move.


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Lincoln County: Land of Lincoln, slowly sinkin.



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Washington County: Where is the bounty?



mreis data


Coloured_Figures_of_English_Fungi_or_Mushrooms_-_t._126There have been fewer foreclosed houses on the market lately, so when one popped into the MLS today I popped over to take a peek. Emphasis on pee. Or puke: I popped over to take a puke.

Here’s some frustrating background: It takes an average of 600-plus days to foreclose a house. And a whole lot of sh*t can happen in 600 days. Especially if the occupant goes away mad on Day 242 without draining the pipes.

So, in my experience, most foreclosed homes have been through a winter of frozen pipes, and a springtime of indoor flooding. The furnace is often defunct from flooding, freezing, or both. The baseboard pipes may be split in a number of secret locations to be revealed only when the new owner opens a new account with the Portland Water District. The wood floors are buckled; the stench of mold and heartbreak hangs thick in the air.

(In the best cases, the bank that now owns the house has hired someone to drain the pipes, dump antifreeze in the toilet, and return every few months to pull the pin on a Glade grenade the size of a pineapple. I actually prefer the scent of sewagefungus.)

Anyway, foreclosure often sets water free, and free-range water is almost never helpful to the inside of a house. Mold happens. If sewage is stuck somewhere when frost sets in, that too can spread a fantastic feast for fungi. Today’s house had that scent — sewagemold plus heating oil.

People are increasingly freaky about bunking with mold, our species’ cave-sleeping past notwithstanding. Aint no bank gonna lend normal people money to buy a mold house. The only person equipped to purchase a fungusy foreclosed house is generally a renovator. A flipper. A professional fungus jockey.

And so today’s foreclosure, which I had hoped might fit my artistic and modestly-budgeted clients, was a disappointment. The burgundy shag on the stairs they could handle. The blue bathroom they could manage. But mold won’t fly. A Glade bomb had been detonated, but it came nowhere near drowning the smell of waste and heartache.




Although the real estate market in Southern Maine is hot, it’s the kind of hot that can leave behind the odor of singed dreams. The Portland area is unique in some awesome ways. But our painful housing crunch isn’t one of them.

With approximately one trillion American Baby Boomers making a collective decision to downsize and/or flee the suburbs for a closer-knit community, the whole nation (and other parts of the world, as well) is feeling a peculiar population pinch.

Seared by the “nursing home” twilight of their elders, Boomers are determined to “age in place.” That means they’re looking for low-maintenance, stairs-free, affordable housing close enough to a yoga studio and a coffee shop that they can carry on Booming with less driving.

But this housing does not exist. It just doesn’t. Ranches are pricey to build because the expensive roof and basement are amortized across a small living area. High rises with elevators don’t exist because nobody really wants one next door. Plus, to a Boomer, “high-rise” is synonymous with “ugly-*ss box with no outdoor space and I don’t have time for elevators.”

If I had a million dollars (or ten million) I’d build a high rise condo in Westbrook. That town is affordable, it’s quickly evolving into a cool and manageable community, and a river runs through it. I love Westbrook. And my high rise would be special: Every horizontal surface would be planted or solar-paneled, and there would be a lot of horizontal surfaces. Nine-foot ceilings would banish the “flat” feeling of the old-time flat. My buildings would be carbon-neutral and cheap to own.

Did you see how that turned into plural buildings? I have big plans for Westbrook.

Want to live in my buildings, Boomers? Can you deal with an elevator? Txt me.

Good report on housing demographics here.