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A fresh-cut Douglas fir is the safest tree you can buy

Believe me when I say that not all Christmas trees are created equal. I know because I was assigned to set fires under the five most popular Christmas species.
    In 1995, I was asked by the Maryland Christmas Tree Association and the State Fire Marshall’s office to research the most fire-resistant species. I tested white pine, Scots pine, blue spruce and both Douglas and Frazier firs. The State Fire Marshall set the rules. I rolled a single sheet of newspaper into a ball about 10 inches in diameter. I placed the ball against the lowest branches of the tree, then set it afire.

Ancient Ailing Oaks

Q    I live in the St. Margaret’s area near the Bay Bridge. In my neighborhood, many, if not most, of the old oak trees are dead or dying. These are original trees in an area that was never farmed; I’m sure many of them are well over 100 years old. It is so distressing since they are beautiful and I love them and because it costs $2,000 to $3,000 to have them cut down. Do you know why they are dying? Is there anything I can do to save them? I think they are red oaks, though my tree identification skills are poor.
    Thanks so much for your help. I read your column every week and thoroughly enjoy it.
    –Linda Williams, Annapolis

A    There is no way that I can determine the cause of death without seeing the conditions in which they are growing. I have cherry bark oak trees in my yard that are over 150 years old. I keep them healthy by vertical mulching every four to five years. When I moved here 22 years ago, they were in a severe state of decline, but after being vertically mulched, they revived. I suggest that you contact Mark Emmel at 301-345-2981. Mark is a good arborist and is familiar with vertical mulching.
Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

    Fresh-cut trees of each species were delivered to me at Upakrik Farm and stored — some with, others without water — at 70 degrees with lights on for eight hours. Trees were held in storage for three and six weeks prior to testing.
    We set the fires in the Fire/EMS Training Academy’s burn building at Cheltenham, with several Christmas tree growers watching. Each variant of the experiment was replicated three times and videotaped for evaluation by fire marshals from three counties and from the state office.
    White pines generated lots of smoke regardless of the amount of time in storage. They were immediately rejected by the fire marshals.
    Frazier firs were also rejected. Stored without water, they burned readily after three weeks of storage. After six weeks, they exploded into fire.
    Douglas fir was approved as the most fire-safe tree because even after six weeks of storage without water, it did not ignite. Scots pine and blue spruce were also approved.
    We repeated the experiment in 1996 with exactly the same results.
    As a Christmas tree grower, I attribute the Douglas fir’s fire-safe performance to its low resin content. My knives and pruners remain clean even after days of shearing. This is not true with the other species tested.
    As a result of this study, the State Fire Marshal established COMAR 12.03.04, allowing only Douglas fir, Scots pine and blue spruce in public buildings. Each tree must be accompanied with a tag identifying the farm where it was grown, date of harvest and species. Before the tree is moved indoors, two inches must be cut from the base. Tree stands must hold a minimum of two gallons of water. The tree must stay indoors no longer than four weeks.
    To keep your house fire-safe this Christmas season, follow these recommendations.

The interloper visits Spica and Mercury

Mercury is putting on its best pre-dawn show of 2013, more than doubling in brightness this week, from +1 magnitude to –0.5 (each order of magnitude is exponential, so an increase from +1 to 0 is a doubling). Monday marks the innermost planet’s greatest elongation — its farthest point away from the sun as seen from earth and its highest point above the horizon. Mercury rises a little before 6am and climbs nearly 15 degrees above the southeast horizon before the sun rises more than an hour later. Ten degrees above Mercury is blue-white Spica, but even this first-magnitude star pales compared to Mercury this week.
    First discovered last September, Comet ISON is heading into the inner solar system for the first time, coming within 700,000 miles of the sun November 27. If the comet survives that close encounter, it could live up to the comet of the century billing. If not, the next two weeks are your best chance to spot this long-distance traveler.
    With binoculars or a small telescope, look for ISON one degree to the west of Spica Sunday before dawn and less than one-half degree to the east of the star the next morning. By next Thursday and Friday, ISON will be within 10 degrees of Mercury — well within your binoculars’ field of view. Perhaps by then it will be bright enough to see with the unaided eye.
    Sunday marks the full moon, the Beaver Moon and the Frost Moon according to lore. The full moon floats just six degrees below the miniature dipper-shape of the Pleiades star cluster, while Monday night it is even closer to Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull.
    The full moon’s glow washes out all but the brightest meteors in this year’s Leonid shower, which peaks between the 16th and 18th. Still, the Leonids are active through the month, so patience or luck will likely reward you with a few of these shooting stars.

Here’s your recipe for making them into rich compost

Don’t bag those leaves for the county to collect. Use them in making your own compost. It takes about a bushel of leaves to make a gallon of quality compost, which contains more nutrients and fiber than peat moss and is less acetic.
    Yard debris compost is made by blending grass clippings with fall-harvested leaves. The compost is rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium and lots of important trace elements. Because the nitrogen from the leaves drains back into the stems of the branches from which they fell, yard debris compost contains less than one percent nitrogen, which is contributed mostly by the grass clipping.

Ancient Ailing Oaks

Q    I live in the St. Margaret’s area near the Bay Bridge. In my neighborhood, many, if not most, of the old oak trees are dead or dying. These are original trees in an area that was never farmed; I’m sure many of them are well over 100 years old. It is so distressing since they are beautiful and I love them and because it costs $2,000 to $3,000 to have them cut down. Do you know why they are dying? Is there anything I can do to save them? I think they are red oaks, though my tree identification skills are poor.
    Thanks so much for your help. I read your column every week and thoroughly enjoy it.
–Linda Williams, Annapolis   

A There is no way that I can determine the cause of death without seeing the conditions in which they are growing. I have cherry bark oak trees in my yard that are over 150 years old. I keep them healthy by vertical mulching every four to five years. When I moved here 22 years ago, they were in a sever state of decline, but after being vertically mulched, they revived. I suggest that you contact Mark Emmel at 301-345-2981. Mark is a good arborist and is familiar with vertical mulching.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

    Since grass clippings are not readily available in the fall, use this recipe to hasten the composting of leaves so that you will have compost ready for next spring:
    1. Build a compost bin that is at least five feet in diameter using snow fencing, turkey wire, pallets or such. The larger the bin, the better. Place the bin where it will not accumulate water.
    2. Fill a five-gallon pail with a shovel full of garden soil, one-half cup dish detergent and a cup of urea or ammonium nitrate fertilizer; top off with water. Stir thoroughly to create a soupy mud. The detergent helps wet the leaves, and the nitrogen-containing fertilizer replaces the grass clippings in providing the nitrogen microorganisms needed to build their bodies and digest the carbon in the leaves. The garden soil provides the necessary microorganisms, and the mud also helps wet the leaves.
    3. Place 12 to 18 inches of leaves on the bottom of the bin. First, pass the lawnmower through the leaves to chop them up and hasten the composting process.
    4. Use an empty coffee can or the like to wet the leaves with the muddy water. Before dipping into the muddy water, stir thoroughly to maintain a suspension.
    5. With a garden hose misting nozzle, wet the leaves thoroughly, washing some of the muddy water down through the layer.
    6. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5 until the bin is full.
    7. Check the bin weekly. The composting process can be hastened by dumping your dirty dishwater over the surface of the compost pile. The detergent and grease will help wet the leaves.
    If you need exercise to stay in shape, mix the compost pile by turning it inside-out. Turning the pile in late January or February provides additional aeration, chopping the leaves and eliminating dry pockets that can occur in the initial building.

A moving Veterans Day tribute to World War II wives

Mid-20th century, the weekly magazine was the premier delivery of news, culture, values, information and all things current. Photo-laden Life Magazine was one of the stalwarts. The Cover of LIFE — written by Louisiana native R. T. Robinson in 1992 — recalls that era.
    In 1943, three newly married brothers from rural Louisiana enlist in the war effort on the same day. In a not uncommon tradition of the time, all three wives move in with the brothers’ family. LIFE Magazine assigns a female overseas correspondent to cover the story as a fluffy woman’s piece. The allure of a cover story is too irresistible, so offended hard-boiled New Yorker Kate Miller travels to Louisiana.
    She finds a story more nuanced and complicated than she expected.
    Robinson’s play is not perfect, but it is often funny, with well-written dialogue and a surprisingly strong after effect.
    Caity Brown as Tood, wife of the youngest brother, and Diane Sams as journalist Kate Miller carry the emotional intensity. The best scene features these two at a picnic, discussing their hopes and ambitions. Different as their values are, each displays touching empathy for the other.
    Sams plays her reporter all Rosalind Russell: quick, sharp and to the point, but with a touching vulnerability. Brown plays Tood as a family peacemaker who longs for grander vistas.
    As Aunt Ola, the mother of the three sons, Kathryn Huston is utterly believable, in both routine and crisis. One wants to see another play about Aunt Ola and her life.
    The other two wives are Weetsie (Rinn Delaney) and Sybil (Terra Vigil). Weetsie has funny lines, but her religious nature and capitalist tendencies could be better defined. Sybil is depicted as a happy party-girl. She should, but does not, change at the end of the second act.
    Whisper Washington’s performance as local reporter Addie Mae would be enhanced by more vocal projection.
    The southern accents are well done. Speech rhythms are not quite slow enough to be accurate, but the inflections are correct and appropriate.
    Director Bob Sams also collaborated on stage design, which is sparse and effective. On the other hand, quick, two-person scenes are not so successfully staged, and scene changes slow the pacing.
    It was a nice directorial touch to give a curtain call to the unheralded theater workers who place props and move furniture.
    At intermission a British World War II bride introduced herself. The banter, easy laughter and obvious fondness she shared with the five friends who brought her to the show made a life mirror to The Cover of LIFE. On opening night, real life imitated theatrical LIFE.

Playing FSa 8pm Su 2pm thru Nov. 23 at Bowie Community Theatre. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 301-805-0219; www.bctheatre.com.
Director: Bob Sams. Set designers: Sams and Gerard Williams. Producer, Joanne Bauer. Stage manager: Jeff Eckert. Sound designer: Dan Caughran. Lighting designer: Costume designer: Brigid Lally. Hair and makeup designer: Maureen Roult. Props: Faith Leahy-Thielke. Garrett Hyde. Theatre techs: Walter Kleinfelder, Peter Dursin and Al Chopey.

The scariest part is knowing you paid to see this ludicrous sequel

Picking up where the last film ended, Insidious: Chapter 2 begins with the return of the Lamberts’ son Dalton (Ty Simpkins: Insidious) from The Further, a spirit realm filled with evil ghosts and demons. It’s great that Dalton is back in this Earthly realm, but a price was exacted for his return: A malevolent spirit has possessed Dalton’s dad, Josh (Patrick Wilson: The Conjuring), causing him to strangle the family’s psychic aide Elise (Lin Shaye: Crazy Kind of Love). The demon abandons Josh, leaving the Lambert
family ghost-free, but with a dead body in their living room.
    Don’t you hate when that happens?
    Luckily for the Lamberts, the police called to get rid of the body don’t seem to care about finding the murderer or locking up Josh. With no sign of those pesky spirits, no criminal charges and no need to visit The Further again, the Lamberts seek a fresh start. They leave yet another haunted house and move in with Josh’s mother.
    The only problem? The house wasn’t drawing the evil spirits. The Lamberts were.
    Not-so-friendly ghosts return. They harass harried mom Renai (Rose Byrne: The Turning), who squeals helplessly. They spook Dalton and threaten to take the youngest Lambert, baby Kali.
    The family tries to ignore the ghosts, hoping the evil otherworldly entities will get bored with haunting and perhaps take up Sudoku. Unfortunately for the Lamberts, these haunts are committed to making their lives hell.
    To make matters worse, Josh is apparently no longer possession-free. He spits out bloody teeth, has heated arguments with no one in particular and looms in doorways like a suburban version of Jason Vorhees. To stop the haunting, the family must delve into Josh’s past and find the source of their ghostly troubles.
    This sequel to the mildly chilling Insidious is a nonsensical film that offers poor writing and ridiculous plotting in place of genuine scares. Sure, there are jump scenes (loud noises and suddenly appearing entities), but they play on the reflexes and not the psyche. Insidious: Chapter 2 isn’t the type of film to make you lock the doors and check under the bed; it’s the type of film you forget about as soon as the credits role.
    The problem with the sequels to successful horror movies is logic. How many bad things could possibly happen to the same characters? Much like the Paranormal Activity films, the Insidious franchise started off with a decent idea that gets progressively more ludicrous with each installment. This weekend’s box office success ensures that you’ll be seeing more hauntings from The Further.
    Don’t feed the beast. Instead, see Wan’s much more sophisticated haunted-house yarn, The Conjuring.

Poor Horror • PG-13 • 105 mins.

Do you think watching three men silently eat olives would be funny? In Art, it is hysterical.

Dignity Players opens its 2013-2014 season — dedicated to the Power of Art — with Yasmina Reza’s 1998 Tony Award-winning comedy Art.
    Art is a 90-minute one-act comedy about relationships, truth, white lies and, of course, the meaning and value of art.
    Serge (Kevin Wallace) has splurged (wildly!) on a piece of modern art. His friend Marc (Tom Newbrough) is appalled, both by the price and the work, an entirely white canvas decorated with white lines. Yvan (James Gallagher), another friend, tries to mediate the conflict between them but gets caught in the middle.
    Director Clarice Clewell, who has an affinity for productions of thoughtful comedies populated by small casts (she directed Stones in His Pockets at Dignity Players and Trying at Colonial Players) has assembled an experienced, versatile and talented onstage crew. Off-stage she has also nurtured other talents as some volunteers take new theatrical off-stage roles joining others who are veterans.
    The single set by Laurie Nolan is sparse as it has to represent all three men’s apartments. The single change made to connote differences in the apartments is the choice of one piece of art, representing each man’s different sensibilities.
    Sound designer Jim Reiter (whose program notes are so whimsical they deserve mention) noted that the three actors in this production are “the Mount Rushmore of actors in Annapolis.” The reference is accurate in terms of craggy faces but misleading in terms of stoic stoniness.
    All three are keenly adept at using takes, double-takes and audience asides to highlight the comedy of words. Expressions run the gamut and amok. Do you think watching three men silently eat olives would be funny? In their hands, it is hysterical.
    Kevin Wallace shows us a Serge who is by turns mesmerized, delighted and awed by his new artistic purchase. He is hurt and pained by his friends’ lack of appreciation and understanding of why this piece of art is so important to him. Wallace conveys all this with expressive facial contortions and by a stance with arms constantly akimbo or crossed.
    Tom Newbrough’s Marc is a more tightly coiled character. But watch out for those arching eyebrows that give away his true feelings and bring us into his world. While Newbrough is the catalyst of the conflict, he is also the stabilizing center of this swirling trio.
    James Gallagher’s Yvan, who has the flashiest monologue, transcends emotions as he gallops from disbelief to confusion to patronizing agreement to hurt angst, landing on pained bafflement until all ultimately ends well. Gallagher gives the most introspective and self-absorbed performance, punctuated by the funniest of droll expressions.
    Together they make Art both thoughtful and funny.

Playing Th-Sa Sept. 19-21 & 26-28 at 8pm; Su Sept. 22 at 3pm at Dignity Players, Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis: $20 w/age and Th discount: 410-266-8044 x 127; www.dignityplayers.org.

Ten ways to help our planet and your purse

On the village Earth, we have many neighbors. As Earth Day turns 44 on April 22 — Bay Weekly’s 21st birthday— we propose 10 bright ideas to make our time in Chesapeake Country more Earth-friendly and our future more sustainable.
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Jan Miles was bred to captain Maryland’s ­historic clipper ship

The man who grew up to be the captain of Pride of Baltimore II, one of the great tall ships of our age, started his sailing career in Annapolis in the late 1960s.
    Jan Miles grew up in a family that sailed for fun, mostly overseas where his father was stationed as a foreign service officer. When the family retired to Annapolis, the teenage Jan had trouble adjusting to life in the states.
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Once over lightly

Minimum-wage earners, marijuana users and safe drivers came up winners in the Maryland General Assembly, which wrapped up its session this week. And environmentalists are scoring a win — among many defeats — in fending off 20 bills to take back earlier action to control stormwater runoff.
    But seafood lovers lost their legislative fights.
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Tuition just got cheaper at St. Mary’s College in Maryland

College is more likely to impoverish the family than get the kid a job. At least that’s what parents of this year’s high school graduates say.
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