Nevertheless, We Persisted: The Juncos, The Coffee, and Me

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Male Dark-Eyed Junco courtesy of Mike Chellini on Flickr

The wind was howling and at times the snow looked like a glistening white tornado. I was surprised that the Dark-Eyed Juncos were at the feeder. I wondered if the birds have a heightened instinct to feed when a storm is blowing, or about to blow—the same instinct that drives us humans to rush out in determined droves to get our bread and milk.

Have you ever held a bird? They are remarkably light! You might remember that they have hollow bones. But the Juncos didn’t stop feeding when the wind picked up, or when the flakes came down thicker. Nor were they blown off course. They seemed unperturbed, even happy, perhaps, to be in the snow and partaking of the seeds. I mused as I watched, noting how their design must-despite its fragile appearance-allow them to coexist with the wind, even master it.

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Female Junco courtesy of pumpkin ash on Flickr

Dark-Eyed Juncos don’t grab my eye the way Red-Bellied Woodpeckers and Cardinals do. But they have grown on me. I puzzle over their name (aren’t most birds dark-eyed?) while I admire the males’ “two-toned” appearance (dark grey and white). The females’ coloring is more subdued, dunnier, as is the case with many bird species. They sit in the shrubs surrounding the deck and take polite turns at the feeder. They are the birds that I see most in the yard, and I wonder how I had managed to miss them in my childhood yard on Long Island—I wasn’t aware of them until fairly recently!

As I watched the birds ride out the snow with uncommon grace, I was reminded of a friend’s favorite new T-shirt, which reads: “Nevertheless she persisted.” I only learned today that this is a reference to Elizabeth Warren’s recent speech that was cut short. The political world is far removed from the feeder, but I like the ring of these words. They were described by the Washington Post as a “battle cry” when it comes to Warren’s supporters, but the words take on a softer tone when I apply them to the Juncos in the snow. Nevertheless, they stayed near the feeder. Nevertheless, they dined heartily. Nevertheless, they are there to greet me daily. I have come to appreciate their steadfastness.

This morning at 3 AM, I was a bit vexed by a too-long foray into social media when I couldn’t sleep. But something good did come of it. My friend Melissa Gaskill, lover of (and writer about) sea turtles, reposted a reminder about how damaging all of our plastic use is—our straws, our bags, our cups, etc, are taking over, and that isn’t an exaggeration. Here are a few lines from the Sea Turtle Conservancy that sum it up:

Over 100 million marine animals are killed each year due to plastic debris in the ocean. Currently, it is estimated that there are 100 million tons of plastic in oceans around the world. It is expected that another 60 billion pounds will be produced this year alone. In some areas, the buildup of plastics is estimated to span 5 million square miles.

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Sea turtle courtesy of Norman Walsh on Flickr

I’ve been working on my plastic consumption slowly, in fits and starts. I bought metal straws last summer, and I have canvas bags in the car. Do I always remember to bring them with me? No. But today I felt more determined, and while I was out for a long walk I decided to buy a commuter mug along with my coffee (am I the only one that is constantly searching for lids to go with the mugs I already own?).

I asked the young lady at Dunkin to rinse my new mug out before she filled it, and she couldn’t get it open at first. It then dawned on me that my “mug” was a small thermos, complete with a screw-off cup a bit bigger than a shot glass and a button-activated mechanism that lets me unscrew a rubber cork. To drink my coffee as I walked, I had to unscrew the cup, pop open the inner seal, and try to take a sip (only to burn my tongue, since the thermos did an outstanding job of keeping the drink piping hot). Eventually I decided to pour my coffee at intervals into the little “shot glass,” and I must have looked especially comical when I tried to answer a phone call from my sister, adding another item to my “juggling act” while walking. I dripped coffee down my top and finally stopped to lean on a high stone wall, temporarily giving in to my frustration.

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A toast to persistence and fumbling and more persistence

Nevertheless, I have persisted, in my own quiet and clumsy way, with a sincere attempt to take better care of this earth and its seas. My thermos might not be the best choice for sipping while walking, but I’ve been downing shots of warm decaf since I got to my creative office, which has no coffee pot. I see hope for my metal thermos and straws and canvas bags, realizing that I can create a plan for using them in just the same way I make sure my teeth get brushed each morning (speaking of, the article recommends bamboo toothbrushes. The plastic kind  never, EVER, disintegrate! How many must be in our landfills and waterways!).

From juncos to Elizabeth Warren to thermoses and toothbrushes—you would think that thermos must have had some actual caffeine within to have me bouncing around like this! Actually, though, these connections make sense when you stop to think about it–birds persisting, Warren persisting, attempts at helping the world persisting, my clumsiness persisting. John Muir, said it well, and his words grace the first pages of my book:

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.

To me, there rises a whole new layer of hope when I am conscious of this simple but inevitable fact.It is best to keep the quiet persistence of the Juncos close to me, even as I venture out and buy coffee and consider the larger world.

 

Owl Envy

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Saw Whet Owl courtesy of  David Mitchell on Flickr

I’m surprised I don’t have neck cramps more regularly, and that I don’t fall over more often. I spend a lot of time looking up when I walk, and this time of year there is a lot to see. Yes, most trees are bare, and, yes, a fair number of birds have migrated, but the bare trees also mean that there is a chance to see what’s obstructed by foliage for at least half of the year. There are some gorgeous wasp nests and dreys, to start with, even if you never see a bird. But, of course, you will see birds, seemingly oblivious to the cold and going about their day-to-day lives finding food and exploring and preening and seemingly undertaking great acrobatics to avoid our binoculars. While you wait for the birds, let the squirrels entertain you.

I have been obsessed with the idea of spotting an owl in a tree for quite some time now. I even wrote to the Facebook group I am in, Connecticut Birds, and was advised to try going out in the evening. Ah hah! I am a morning walker 98% of the time, which may explain the complete lack of owls spotted during my excursions. Apparently they are noisier at night, which now that I think that through is a fact probably obvious to any second grader. Still, I know that owls sleep in trees during the day. I know that they have been known to perch in tree hollows. Every dark hole in every tree is a target for my binocs. Where are they all hiding?

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Eagle Owl silhouette courtesy of Peter G W Jones on Flickr 

It may be Central Park in the Dark that started this obsession for me. Marie Winn describes coming upon a sleeping Saw Whet owl roosting in the Shakespeare Garden. The first sighting is no easy task. She writes:

You can scan a tree with your finest binoculars and swear there’s no owl there. Only if you know an owl’s in a certain tree…will you continue the excruciatingly careful, inch-by- inch examination necessary to know that a certain bump on a branch is actually a perfectly camouflaged sleeping saw-whet.

But, even knowing that patience and luck and perhaps some insider trading of owl intelligence is required for such an achievement, I became absolutely jealous when I read Mary Oliver’s piece “Owls” in her profoundly inspiring collection of essays, Upstream. First of all, I am jealous of Oliver’s writing prowess! Take this swoon-worthy prose:

And I search in the deeper woods, past fire roads and the bike trail, among the black oaks and the taller pines, in the silent blue afternoons, when the sand is still frozen and the snow falls slowly and aimlessly, and the whole world smells like water in an iron cup.

It only gets better after this sentence, but best to just buy the book so you can swoon, too. When I read it, part of me wants to give up on writing altogether, and my better half wants to pick up Oliver’s torch and write better, write more. These two sides continue to war.

I’m not only jealous of Oliver’s writing. I am jealous of the content of this particular essay. This statement, for example: “I have seen plenty of owls.” A bit later: “I have seen them in every part of the woods.” Still later: “But the owls themselves are not hard to find…” If I didn’t know that Oliver is a kind soul  I would think she was mocking me personally.

Maybe I need an apple tree. Gavin gave me The Birds of John Burroughs for Christmas, and he writes about a “little red owl” in an apple tree, its presence made apparent to him by jays and nuthatches who loudly proclaimed their wish to see it gone. He writes, “After accustoming my eye to the faint light of the cavity for a few moments, I could usually make out the owl at the bottom, feigning sleep.” He knew the sleep was feigned because on one occasion when he had to cut into the tree, the bird continued to “sleep” until Burroughs physically pulled it out of its spot! Then it freaked out and became quite menacing. Tricky beasts, these owls.

Much of time in nature is, for me, time in faith. Faith that I will learn something. Faith that I may encounter a surprise. Faith in quietude and in cycles and in the mundane noises. Faith that I will return to this spot again, and also find new spots. Faith that goes deeper than just the trail and the wild itself; the kind of faith that Emily Dickinson described so famously and well 

Yes, Emily, we are cut from the same cloth, in that we both believe that “instead of getting to Heaven, at last”, we are “going all along.” In many ways, my walking shoes are my pearly gates.

Wishing you the deep faith of looking for owls, and the peace that comes with the path. (Photos here courtesy of luckier walkers with better cameras and Flickr, until I can supply my own firsthand owl snapshots).

Transformation: Holiday to Holy Day

IMG_1456.JPGThe day could have been one of near-panic. Despite a decade of efforts to simplify Christmas, each year it still boils down to many items piled onto my already overflowing to-do list. Even tasks that carry genuine meaning for me – like creating a photo card that will celebrate our treasured son and reach out to friends old and new – threaten to sap my time and energy. It’s a matter of simple math—more to do, but no extra time to do it.

But then there was this: after my doctor’s appointment I challenged myself to brave the cold for a bit, just 5 minutes down the block to Starbucks in Old Saybrook, where I could sit with a caramel macchiato and consolidate my monster list. My face hurt in the wind, and my leather gloves suddenly seemed too thin.

After my coffee-list mission, I started my chilly journey down Main Street to the car. I was going to be all business from there on out—so much to do! But I glanced down a long, straight side street (Coulter Street, I think) and saw what looked like water at the end of it. It drew me like a magnet. My tingling face and fingers were forgotten as I let the tree-lined block and the water draw me—my curiosity had a happy, warming side effect.

IMG_1345 (1).JPGI looked up at the bare trees as I walked, taking in long-abandoned birds’ nests now exposed and trying to remember what squirrels’ nests are called (dreys!). I examined the varied barks of this tree and that—some smooth, some wrinkled, some like alligator skin. I felt appreciation for older, craggy trees that are allowed to age with dignity and must be homes to many a grateful creature. For the gazillionth time I wondered if I might look up and see a sleeping owl in some tree hollow or on some high branch (it hasn’t happened yet but I keep hoping). I remembered reading about how some trees hang onto their seed pods all winter, poised for the chance to drop them into the soft, fertile spring soil.

IMG_1453.JPGThe marsh came into full view as I strolled, and I simply stood there watching it for a while. I admired the fat, feathery cat tails swaying in the wind. I saw some sparrows or juncoes darting about.

Then I looked up the hill to my left and saw what I thought might be a cemetery. I had never been down this block before, and it turned out my “cemetery” was a long line of boulders on the border of Founders Memorial Park, a 2007 creation built on a former landfill and overlooking North Cove. The vista I found there gave me a sense of deep contentment, and the sign about the park’s bird life had me wishing I’d toted my binoculars along. No doubt many have migrated away for now, but when they come back I will come here, too, looking for a Clapper Rail or a Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow.

IMG_1455.JPGIn the meantime, the cold doesn’t seem so very harsh any more. It was a Christmas gift tailor-made for me—this moment of being reminded that simply stepping out, simply stopping to gaze and wonder, even in the harsh cold, even shoehorned in between the gazillion waiting tasks, can reveal a world that’s been waiting patiently all along. The bench placed there by a local church seemed to be placed there as a fitting caption:

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Gift Ideas for the Nature Lover

Some gift ideas for those who prefer meadows and mountains to malls and mass marketing:

A great read or two on nature. Tastes and preferences vary, and “nature books” can be everything from a detailed field guide to poetry to essays to travel writing to fiction. Expand your search beyond this year’s bestsellers, too. Some of the best reads have had limited distribution, or come to us from distant years. (For used books in Connecticut try  The Book Barn or Bennett’s Books–or places like Powell’s and Abe Books online). A few favorites from my own list:

A course or educational walk in nature. (Live events are in CT but will hopefully spark some ideas for remote readers, t00)

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Golden Grove Bridge near Baltimore, Courtesy of Nicolas Raymond on Flickr

Equipment! (few links in this section, but local, chain or online retailers are easy to find). For locals as well as online shoppers, remember Harris Outdoors:

  • A hand lens for up-close observation (idea inspired by Unseen CityANOTHER awesome book)
  • Binoculars–this may be the best gift my husband ever gave me
  • Trekking poles or a walking stick
  • Warm clothes for walks in the cold–Under Armour, wool socks, etc.
  • Items for the backpack: granola bars, water bottles, emergency kit, etc.
  • Budget conscious and bountiful: birdseed and bird feeders can be super reasonable and are truly gifts that “keep on giving”
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Water droplets in web courtesy of Sara Ward on Flickr

Membership. Society memberships keep on giving, too–often including magazines, free or reduced admission to events or courses, etc. There are too many to name, so here are a few of my own favorites:

Charitable giving. Many of the above-named societies (and more!) accept donations and will often send a small gift in return. Here are a few more:

If your nature-loving friend collects artifacts and mementos from their time outside, consider supplying a special box, display case or shelving, or other container to house their finds.

Last, but not least, spend time with your loved one in nature–even if it’s not your thing! Plan a visit to a special location they haven’t experienced yet. They will relish the adventure and be grateful for your support.

For those of you who celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, you have about 12 days. Hit the gift-finding trail!

If You Fill It, They Will Come

On Thanksgiving Day I dug the bird feeder out of storage and filled it with a fresh mix of seeds. I relished the happy anticipation of visitors to the buffet.

I stopped feeding the birds when the spring came (with the exception of nectar for the hummingbirds—they get the royal treatment). I read that this is a good idea in something by Edwin Way Teale, I think. The premise is that they our avian friends have tons to eat without our help in the warmer months, and it’s best not to encourage too much dependence. But of course, berries, worms, and bugs are much harder to find when the temperature drops. Plus, I want to support the most stalwart of birds—those who stick around and don’t migrate South when the going gets tough. They grace my winter days.

I know some people who keep the feeder stocked all year. Either way, the winter makes birds more noticeable in many ways. We can see them more readily now that the trees are bare, and they may be more apt to come by for breakfast or supper when their natural supplies start to diminish.

Once the feeder was stocked, I waited for the birds to find it. It took a few hours before the word got out. My first visitor of the season was a nuthatch. Always, this bird’s feathers remind me of a grey coat I once had, with handsome black piping. And his/her habit of standing or walking upside down so effortlessly is one that helped me, as an amateur birder, help to identify this species. (My knowledge is not yet sophisticated enough to tell the genders apart, hence the “his/her”).

Not long after the nuthatch came titmice, sparrows, black-capped chickadees, and dark-eyed juncoes, and today I saw two mourning doves on the ground below the feeder. The downy woodpeckers have dominion over the suet cake, although I’ve seen the nuthatches pecking there, too. The same crowd as last winter, except no cardinals yet. I’ve seen them around; just not at the feeder, for some reason.

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Mourning Dove courtesy of Harold Neal on Flickr

I’m reminded with a little Internet research that more and more robins are overwintering here and not heading South. But they don’t tend to visit feeders—they don’t eat birdseed. Plus their behavior changes in wintertime and they flock more, working together to watch for danger and look for food.

Robins may have been my first birds, ever. I mean, the first birds I became aware of as a small child. I remember watching them pull worms with great vigor from our front lawn. Their presence thrilled me, as it does today. And they still mean spring for so many of us, because even those that have been here all along seem to “reappear” as the weather warms, hopping about on our softening lawns and starting to contemplate raising a family.

Hal Borland wrote that “birds are independence itself.” He explained: “they live uncluttered lives with no possessions to protect, no homes to maintain, no family responsibilities once the nesting season is ended…” Maybe that is part of their allure for me. I am not sure—all I know is that refilling the feeder also fills my heart, and then my heart is lifted by the visitors that come, again and again.

PS: In my case, there is so much more to learn. I am considering signing up for some of these courses–the most basic, about shape and color, are quite reasonable.

The Squeaking is Real: Chipmunk Baby Boom

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Courtesy of Mark Moschell on Flickr

So I haven’t imagined it!

I am not sure when I first noticed it—maybe June? Any walk in the woods, or even down many of our local streets, is peppered with frequent small squeaks followed by the sound of tiny feet skittering through the leaf bed to safety. Often, a chipmunk will run across the trail ahead of my approach, maybe 20 feet hence, tail high. Noticing chipmunks is, of course, not new. But this many? It turns out the favorable weather and food supply this year has led to a bumper crop, according to the DEEP.

Characteristically timid, these creatures can be bold when they want to. My neighbor Susan watched them eating her garden tomatoes. Maybe she was anthropomorphizing, but to her they seemed to be doing it with a sassy defiance in their eyes. They got one or two of my tomatoes, too—didn’t even bother to eat the whole fruit!

Various articles online warn about the potential for garden mayhem or even structural damage. But fears of a chipmunk home invasion don’t keep me up at night. Mostly, I just enjoy them. I assume the squeaks I hear as I walk are squeaks of alarm—a human is coming! Somehow, it amuses me that they would be so fearful—of me? I try to talk to them sometimes, putting on my most soothing voice. But they freeze, every muscle tense, ready to run frantically if I get any closer.(Here’s some audio of their sound repertoire, courtesy of WiIdlife of CT).

I call every chipmunk I’ve ever met Chippy. We have one or two Chippies that live within a stone’s throw of our front door. They seem to love to dart in and out of our stone walls, and I love the liquid black of their lively eyes, the defining stripe in their fur. But that, along with my recognition of their characteristic squeaks, has been the extent of my knowledge on these critters. I decided to learn more.

According to Live Science , chipmunks are the smallest member of the squirrel family. This makes sense—similar behaviors, similar characteristic stance, standing on two feet. But I hadn’t really thought about it before. There are 25 species in North America. Apparently they are pretty much loners, except during mating season, which happens once or twice yearly (late spring and fall).

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Courtesy of Sarowen on Flickr

Okay, here’s a quote from Live Science that really makes me want to see a baby chipmunk:“Pups are hairless, blind, pink creatures the size of a jelly bean.” Of course, those pups would be hard to spot, and it’s reported the mothers are very protective. I’d also like to see a chipmunk who’s just about met his capacity for filling cheeks with food—their cheeks can stretch to three times the size of their head!

Acorns seem to be their big thing, but they will eat nearly whatever they find, including baby birds and birds’ eggs. And this is useless information, perhaps, but I was quite pleased to learn that they possess very tiny thumbs.(Thanks for the factoid, Lakeside Nature Center!)

I think there could be copyright issues with picture reposting, but if you want to see some heart-melting photos of these creatures, check out National Geographic’s slide show here.

 

A Walk to Essex: Happy, Achy Birthday

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Before my battery waned, I was determined to document that I’d made it to the town line!

Continue reading

What I Learned About Sunapees on My Summer Vacation

 

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:

Robert H Treman promo

 

But actually looked like this:

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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.

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Factually, a millipede. Forever remembered as a sunapee.

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.

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Fuzzy photo of a fuzzy caterpillar

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Gavin’s sharp eyes found this creature catching the breeze over the rocky ascent

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.

looking down at Treman park pool

The snake’s view

Fallen Gypsies

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!

Gypsy nursery

Gypsy nursery

 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.

Excuse Me While I Taste the Sky: A Nibble on Foraging

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.

Adventures in Edible Plant Foraging: Finding, Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Native and Invasive Wild PlantsAt 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.

wine berries beginning

Beginnings of bristly blooms in the yard promise tasty desserts later

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:

jewelweedblue

The inner jewelweed seed, as depicted on the Saratoga Woods and Waterways blog

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!).