My husband Tom found a new vacation place for us this year. We stayed at a just-the-right-size cabin (courtesy of Airbnb.com) in Freeville, New York. Freeville itself is quite the small town (population 523, part of the larger town of Dryden). Our cabin is adjacent to meadow and trails, and that has been a soothing delight overflowing with colorful mushrooms, dragonflies, and wildflowers. But as nature-loving as we are, we might not have chosen the area if it wasn’t also close to Ithaca, home of Cornell, complete with interesting college town, and, more importantly to me, some impressive waterfalls and gorges. Hence the “Ithaca is Gorges” T-shirts, bumper stickers, mugs, key chains…Great slogan if you are a pun appreciator!!
We were determined to swim in a local watering hole, perhaps one fed by a magnificent waterfall. The first swimming spot we tried, at Buttermilk Falls park, turned us away—no swimming that day. We guessed why when we got to the Robert H. Treman State Park, which was supposed to look like this:
But actually looked like this:
According to Ithaca.com, spring-to-summer months (March through June) were the driest on record this year. Hence the wade in the shallows that was not even worth a bathing suit. What really redeemed our disappointingly knee-high dip were the nearby children, maybe 3 years old, who started to shout, “We see a Sunapee! A SUNAPEE!). At first I thought they had found a sunny, one of those common fish so often brought in by a line. But then my mind caught up: a centipede! The little one confided that there were “sunapee babies, too,” although I only saw a large specimen, trying its best to blend into the rock wall as these high-pitched children made their enthused examination, crouching to peer closer, then again shouting SUNAPEE!! In happy unison.
From there we took a short walk up the steps adjacent to the “falls” (or the spot where the falls should be). Maybe the kids helped us to tune in, because we delighted in a few more sightings: more millipedes (I only remembered the distinction later), an exotic-seeming caterpillar specimen, and a snake curled along a tree branch.
I’m not sure about this—our photo was blurry, but a very impressive online identification site worth bookmarking makes me wonder if we found the caterpillar of a sycamore tussock moth.
I’ve been reading Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, The Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness, and it is the kind of book I wish I wrote. Then again, maybe I did! My upcoming Book of Noticing is all about tuning in and looking more closely at what is all around us. Mine is not urban, and its title is not as much of a whizbang. But I feel that author Nathanael Johnson could be a friend. He wants us to see and appreciate the squirrels, the pigeons, even the weeds, and it turns out they really are all quite interesting. There’s so much more to learn than we might appreciate at first glance.
For example, did you know that both male and female pigeons create a sort of super milk, one that has their young doubling their weight in a day?(No, pigeons do not have nipples, in case you were wondering. You’ve got to read the book to learn more!). The book has also inspired me to get my own hand lens to, as Johnson puts it, “peer into the Lilliputian realm.”
Large sheets of rain fell from the sky here in Freeville as I wrote this, and it fell when we hiked yesterday, too. This may mean bigger waterfalls for the next occupants of the cabin. Whatever the forecast, I hope that they also enjoy looking closely. There is so very much to see.
Sunday morning I walked near the Connecticut River, and the ground was dotted with soft, white, female gypsy moths who had reproduced and then fluttered downward to die. Later Tom and I walked at Machimoodus State Park and saw scores more white bodies. We watched one female who was busy producing her egg sac on a tree trunk. A brown male hovered nearby, and it was hard not to anthropomorphize, imagining him akin to a pacing, proud, and concerned new human father. This guy had up to 1000 offspring to be proud of!
I remembered my writing residency at Trail Wood last August, when the female gypsy moths, dead and dying, peppered many trails. I had time to watch them and think about them, and I felt compassion for these much-maligned creatures.
I understand that this year is considered an “outbreak” year, as was 2015, and that these insects can wreak some serious defoliation. I’m sure this prospect would bother me more if I was an arborist. But it does sound like nature has its own tools for keeping this prolific population in check, at least partially. There’s a fungus that kills many of the caterpillars. And small mammals love to eat the moths! I’ve heard other nature writers say that often these overruns of nature have a way of limiting themselves.
It seems unfair to me sometimes that we decide to like, or not like, creatures, based on their appearance, or sometimes on their volume. I’ve met plenty of people who are just creeped out by the hordes of gypsy moth caterpillars, and not because the creatures are consuming leaves. I even got a little spooked when I walked through a particular grove and could actually hear them chewing the green leaves, en masse (someone told me I might also have been hearing them relieve themselves, an even ickier thought).
Still, I have liked the fuzzy caterpillars with their impressive spikes and jewel-colored dots since I was little. They molt 5 times, shedding their skin as they grow and finally curling up and becoming pupae (in cocoons). They only get to live as moths for 2 weeks or less, and reproduction is their final task.
I admire how the egg sacs, which are coated with hair from the female’s abdomen, are sometimes moth shaped. My viewpoint may be unpopular, but I find myself rooting for those tiny lives contained in the sacs. They will overwinter within the hard cases, cozy against the bark of their nursery trees. I want these creatures to make it to their next phase of life, next spring. Many are born because only a fraction will escape predation or illness, or in the case of the caterpillar carcass-littered parking lot at my job, the frequent comings and goings of mankind.
It makes me sad to see the continuing rain of white moth bodies on the ground. I don’t know what the moths think or feel, of course, but I hope they enjoyed their short lives. They have made mine more interesting.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that today I picked up a book called Saving Graces: Sojourns of a Backyard Biologist, by Roger B. Swain. In the essay I read, he was talking about wasps (as well as wolves), but I can apply the same sentiment to these not-always-loved moths:
If we can forget the few times we were stung, ignore the fearful warnings of friends, we can watch wasps catching flies and small caterpillars to feed their young. We can watch as they scrape up wood fibers into pulpy balls to carry back and add to the nest. In the fall…we can cut the big bald-faced hornets’ nest out of the lilac. Slicing open its many-layered paper envelope, we will find level upon level of comb, intricate architecture built without blueprints or a foreman.
Wolves howl in the boreal forests, but few of us will ever hear them. Wasps, on the other hand, still come to every picnic. Make room for them. We shouldn’t have to enjoy wilderness at a distance.
Okay, this whole foraging venture is new to me, so nothing you read here should be construed as advice to eat particular plants. And there is still a part of me that fears eating a poisonous imposter and dying a slow and awful death owing to my lack of attention to detail, groaning with deep regret as I lie in the woods, fading into unconsciousness.
That being said, I am cautiously inspired by two talks Gavin and I had the good fortune to hear about foraging for edible plants, both given by Karen Monger, author of Adventures in Edible Plant Foraging and one of The 3 Foragers.
At both talks, Karen’s husband served cold linden tea, and I learned that linden trees are often found in planted landscapes and parking lot medians/perimeters (versus more randomly, on walks through the woods). I will be looking for the yellowish-white flowers next spring, hoping to get my hands sticky with the harvest. (Of course, good foraging etiquette dictates that you ask before harvesting, but I am assuming someone will oblige). I imagine locally harvested linden tea in the winter would be a sweet reminder of greener times to come!
I have started to see daylilies everywhere, now that they are on my foraging radar. Shoots can be eaten in spring, and the flowers can be stuffed, similar to a squash blossom. (See this recipe from famous “Wild Man” Steve Brill). I am especially looking forward to eating the cooked, unopened buds, which reportedly taste sort of like green beans, but also slightly oniony. And the list of wild plant-eating possibilities goes on and on from there. (By the way, mushrooms are advised against for newbies. Consumption can be quite risky if you don’t know what you are doing, and that goes for plants as well as mushrooms! The Connecticut Valley Mycological Society is a great resource for the long, careful process of learning more about fungi.)
So far, I’ve nibbled on lemony-sour sorrel and grapey-tasting (no surprise there) grape tendrils on my own. I already know, without needing to have my hand held, that the wild berries are coming in soon (only now I will call most of them wine berries instead of wild raspberries). I even have a pie recipe at the ready.
What I am most excited about, though, is the jewelweed. The Indian Native Plant & Wildflower Society says that “the seeds are both edible and quite tasty. Unfortunately, they are very small. It is said they taste like Walnuts (Juglans sp.).” But what especially intrigues me is that they are a beautiful light blue on the inside, after the darker seed coat is removed. Long-time Saratoga Springs-based nature blogger Jacqueline Donnelly gave me permission to repost this image:
Jewelweed is so named because of the sparkly way the water beads up on it, I am told. But I am much more taken with this Tiffany blue, hidden gem that can be taken in and savored on the tongue—a small bite of sky captured within a “weed.”
(By the way, the term weed is pretty subjective! See The Heroic Milkweed for Emerson’s quote on same, and more info on the infinity of uses for plants! I haven’t yet delved into milkweed eating, although I am told it can be done!).
This piece on galls was published quite some time ago, but it seems timely especially now, since I keep seeing galls!
Have you ever noticed, among the nuts the squirrels have left behind on the lawn, small, peach-colored, fuzzy balls? How about pocked-looking, speckled spheres at the foot of the oak tree out in front? If you look, you’ll see many other assorted shapes and sizes, hanging off trees, clinging to leaves, scattered along the curb. Galls are everywhere, but most people know little about them.
Galls are growths formed by the reaction of a plant to mechanical irritations or chemicals produced by insects, bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Insect larvae live inside the protective shells of insect galls, growing to adulthood over the winter before emerging to the outside. Insect galls are generally more benign than the other varieties, some of which can cause ugly and sickly results for the plant.
There are more than 1500 types of insects in the United States that form galls. Wayne’s Word, an online natural history textbook by biology and botany professor Wayne P. Armstrong, describes the vast, and sometimes outlandish, variety of these phenomena: “Galls may be smooth, spiny or fuzzy, and resemble everything from marbles and ping-pong balls to dunce caps, saucers and sea urchins.” (See some of his intriguing photos here.)
In 2007, gall wasps had a baby boom in southern Maine. Residents were perplexed by a sudden abundance of small, fuzzy balls in their yards. The wasps inside these spheres, not the stinging kind, emerged to procreate and die, leaving behind a new generation and a new crop of galls to protect the infants.
These tiny galls, commonly called “fuzzy oak” galls, are only one example of what insects and trees can do together. Oak galls as big as basketballs have also been reported. Willow trees can grow what appear to be “pine cones,” quite puzzling to passerby, which are actually galls caused by tiny gnats. Christmas trees may also sport “cones” that are not what they seem.
The benefit of galls to insects is obvious, but humans have also found ways to use these creations. Fisherman break open goldenrod galls to get to the tempting larvae bait. Tannic acid is a gall-derived product, and fine inks are also made from galls. Galls have also been used as a spice, (mostly in the Near East), and as food for livestock. A good tip for campers–dry galls make excellent tinder.
Once you start seeking galls, they “appear” everywhere. Wayne’s Word reported that almost every individual sand aster in one 50-acre grassland area in southern California had a swollen stem tip gall on it. It’s hard not to become a fan of these diverse creations, perhaps even more so if you get to see them “hatch”. You can bring them inside for viewing—be sure you provide a jar with some moisture—and see what (well, who) emerges.
The photos of galls below are my own–not the most beautiful or technically precise images, but literally home-grown!
Soon, I want to write about tent caterpillars and robins and nests and the soul’s ease that comes with long walks during lengthening days…But this post is just a short one, because I want to share great news!
I just signed a contract to have The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail published by Homebound Publications. So, this time next year I expect to have the bound book ready for release into the world! There may be Kindle and audio editions, too!
The Book of Noticing is a contemplative narrative on time in nature and the deeper truths that the experience reveals. It takes in the variety and beauty of many adventures in New England, weaves in intriguing facts from the natural world, and often steps back to look at broader subjects like family, a meaningful life, and the future of our planet.
(That being said, I need friends to help me perfect a really good “elevator speech” that can help me encapsulate what this book is about! I have less than a year to learn how to be a good marketer, and any and all tips will be genuinely appreciated).
When I spout reminiscences about the Hodgepodge Lodge show to other people my age, I get a lot of blank looks. I guess I should be grateful my mom steered me over to PBS. Because the Lodge was a big influence during my formative years. If you’ve never been initiated here’s a clip from YouTube.
I have fond memories of the kindly woman who starred in the show and her many lessons in the ways of wildlife. Miss Jean was very pragmatic also, and sometimes the wildlife -while clearly appreciated -got eaten. For some reason, the episode I remember most is one about cooking food (fish, I think) in a Dutch oven buried underground. I perceived the results as nothing less than magical. But most episodes didn’t center on cooking. I remember cocoons, frogs, caterpillars, kids with butterfly nets, and a meadow. I researched the show and Miss Jean and the actual Lodge just now, and was touched to learn that the original Lodge, built to be a set for the show, was restored and moved to a nature conservancy in Maryland. It also seems that Miss Jean is still an active contributor to the nature scene (and I have just written her an email fan letter, nearly 40 years after the show went off the air!).
Over the last decade or two, I’ve been returning to my Hodgepodge Lodge roots, which harken back to the days when I still wore many hand-me-downs, blissfully unaware of how I looked or why that could ever matter. When I show up at local nature events—at places like Connecticut Audubon Society or The Stewart B McKinney National Wildlife Refuge or the Flanders Nature Center, I am garbed in attire that might be described as anti-fashion. Practical, comfortable shoes; layered clothes that can get dirty; something to cover my head should it rain; back pack stuffed with more practical items. More and more often, binoculars dangle from my neck. I am nature nerd central. (Speaking of nature nerds, a fellow naturalist has a good blog named just that: Nature Nerd).
Aside for word nerd readers: the term hodgepodge “comes from hogpoch, alteration of hotchpotch (late 14c.) ‘a kind of stew,’ especially ‘one made with goose, herbs, spices, wine, and other ingredients’,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
When I look around at my fellow nature lovers, they are – almost without exception – fashion challenged as well. But the appeal for me is in their alert eyes and interested expressions. They are asking questions, or peering into the water, or trying to recall something they read. Sometimes, an expression of amazement surfaces, with the sighting of a creature or a prized new fact learned. These are my adopted people.
Recently, I was part of a small gathering of Edwin Way Teale fans. We met at Trail Wood, the place where I had my writing residency this past summer, and shared our favorite passages from his work. We sat in a circle surrounded by inquisitive (but not biting) may flies, reading aloud and pausing to comment or look up at a bird or wonder aloud if we might spot the various species Teale recorded on the surrounding land. It was nice to think of Edwin and his wife Nellie having their many adventures on the nearby trails.
The information shed on the Trail Wood property has its own Hodgepodge Lodge type of accoutrements that come and go over time, like a wasp’s next or feathers or the white board where visitors can note the creatures they spotted that day. A side room houses some taxidermy, and curious visitors can also thumb through the musty guidebooks and other nature-themed reads shelved there.(See this CT Woodlands issue for mine and a fellow nature writer’s pieces on Teale and Trail Wood).
I relish collections like this; the more eclectic the better. In an older entry I wrote about one enviable cache kept by an archaeologist and cartographer. The original name for my book – Cabinet of Curiosity (recently submitted to an interested publisher, now with a different title!) – reflected the happy collecting of talismans from nature. And a great read from Vermont Quarterly that my sister put aside for me, about Bernd Heinrich, included snippets about what he’s accumulated in his rustic Maine cabin. His laptop sits amid a set of watercolors, field notes, field guides, etc, with hawk feathers and binoculars nearby and a whole tree trunk holding up the ceiling. I love this part of the article:
On the way out the door, I stop to photograph three items on the window ledge: a pair of desiccated spiders pinned to a block of foam; a pile of animal poop which includes a bird’s claw; and an embossed circular medal. “Those barn spiders had just laid their egg clutches,” he tells me later, and the scat was probably deposited by a coyote who had eaten a grouse. “I saved it to quiz the winter ecology students,” he explains. “They should be able to tell me the season too—because a piece of toe skin has fringes.” Heinrich makes no mention of the medal sitting next to the poop: it’s the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in American natural history writing.
I am sure Heinrich must have felt honored by the medal and that its proximity to scat is not a reflection of his thoughts on John Burroughs or his namesake award. But I also think that Heinrich has his priorities in order. He needs to be outside, studying the denizens of the natural world. In his world, scat with a revealing history is just as important as accolades (and likely more so). I am guessing fashion isn’t high on his list, either. I would treasure the nature-centered hodgepodge in his cabin more than any decor or wardrobe that you could offer me.
Which brings to mind something I learned quite young, in Sunday School:
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. (Luke 12:27, NASB)
Spotted this nest today along the shore of one of the quarry ponds, near Plattwood Park
I don’t miss my single days—trying to look just right, the awkwardness of some conversations, disappointing dates, and being pursued by men who just seemed overeager.
Of course, that was a long time ago. And I don’t know for certain if it’s still the case that the men often take the lead—asking for a phone number, or a date, or trying to plan a “perfect” night. For all I know, the women are in complete control now! But, back in the day, I felt for these guys, with such an onus of needing to impress the girl.
Well, I’m here to argue that the American Woodcock (aka Timberdoodle or Bog Sucker) has a much more difficult time of it. For proof, if you are local, get to the Stewart B. McKinney Wildlife Refuge in Westbrook this Sunday for a repeat of this past Saturday’s American Woodcock event—a brief talk and then watching the male do his elaborate courtship display.
Scientists or other exacting readers, please forgive me if this summary is less than 100% precise. But the male’s courtship job basically involves:
- Calling out for quite some time (can you say PEENT?) while rotating in a 360-degree circle on the ground
- Shooting up into the sky for an erratic (or maybe to the female, it’s erotic) flight while making strange whistling sounds with your feathers
- Zooming back down while making another sound, described by some as “whimpering chirps” (is this desperation setting in?)
- Landing in about the same spot, often to do it all over again (and again) (and again).
All of this is based on the assumption that there must be a female woodcock camouflaged in the brush, just waiting to meet you!
Here’s a good account, complete with audio, from Miracle of Nature.
If you can get to the local event, it is so worth it. It’s led by Patricia Laudano, president of the local Potopaug Audubon Society. She’s been developing her very specialized expertise in this species for many years! (If you don’t hail from Connecticut, it might be worth researching if there’s something like this going on in your area.)
It is a truly a treat to learn about these amazing creatures, their upside-down brains, and the labor-intensive ritual that makes human dating look like a cake walk! Plus, to me they are uniquely enchanting. Bonus: they are an ungainly, endearing, persistent, and often unnoticed sign of spring!
Time moves differently when you are holding binoculars. Or maybe it’s when you are taking a bird census. All I know is that my total of 4 hours watching my feeder (broken up into 4 one-hour sessions) went quickly and amounted to a heartening experience of curiosity and delight.
How welcome and rare, in this day and age, to sit still and be entertained by something that doesn’t plug in or need charging! You can learn a lot by simply watching the birds in the yard, and be completely entertained, too. Some take turns, others take over. Some favor picking through the seeds that fall, others relish the suet cake or commit to a particular feeder hole. There are those who “dine in,” chowing down right on the perch, and those who “take out,” carting their seeds to an undisclosed location. Dimming sunlight looks especially lovely when reflected off of a mourning dove perched nearby.
I started to notice things like beak shape and gorgeous tail feather design and who likes to fly to what branch. Also, that you have to pay close attention to tell sparrows apart! The term “little brown job” was invented for a reason!
Later on I flipped through the Sibley field guide Tom bought me, poring over details to make sure my identifications were on track. The whole exercise was a great reminder of how much there is to notice, how much there is going in nature that can just (literally) go right over our heads. Here’s a snapshot of my count from one of the sessions:
This was the second year I committed to report my feeder eaters to Project FeederWatch, and I still have time to do a few more counts before the April 8 cutoff. I am hoping the next count will boast some robins. I swear I saw one fly by me on Route 154, but I’ve seen nary a one in the yard.
In fact, I felt a bit dumb when I had to admit that I had no idea where robins go during the winter. I mean, the consensus seems to be that they are a major sign of spring, but I was pretty sure that they didn’t fly south with the geese. Well, apparently I am not the only one who didn’t realize that robins often remain nearby when it gets cold, simply changing their habits. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology , in the fall and winter robins roost in trees and eat fruit, so we are much less like likely to see them. I would however notice if I saw a QUARTER MILLION birds in a roost! Apparently this kind of robinpalooza is a documented occurrence. Here’s some audio of a mere 1000 robins or so chattering in Arizona.
I don’t look at scrappy, scraggly trees tangled in the brush the same way anymore. I look for shriveled apples that have hung on, wondering if they will sustain a robin until he finds the ground soft enough for worms again.
What delight it gave me to find deer hoof marks in the snow by Edwin Way Teale’s cabin:
Days before, I had snapped a photo of what I assumed must be rabbit tracks in the snow of our yard. But it turns out they belonged to the ubiquitous grey squirrel:
I am starting to realize that the squirrel is relegated to “only” statements unfairly. Why only a squirrel? They have whole, busy lives that go mostly unnoticed right outside our door–gathering food, meeting friends and “significant others,” avoiding predators (and in our case for many years past, chewing their way into cozy attics).
Did you know it is the first of two yearly squirrel mating seasons? Consider this when you are vexed by these bullies of the birdfeeder–the next squirrel you see may be expecting!
I am sure that without Gavin I would never have spotted the snow fleas aka springtails by Teale’s cabin. All that hopping is because they don’t use legs or wings to move—they are propelled by an abdominal appendage (thank you Backyard Almanac!). The fleas, too, are in or approaching mating season, which depends on relatively warmer temperatures.
Love abounds in the creature world, just in time for Valentine’s Day. How blessed we are when we slow down long enough to notice all of this amorous buzzing about in the snow! New life is not as far off as it seems. (PS: if you have somehow missed the famous Byrd’s pop/folk version of Ecclesiastes 3, see the original here—attribution to King Solomon makes this the pop song with the oldest lyrics). Beautiful poetry, and certainly rings true when you observe the cycles of the natural world.)