The Book of Noticing VEXATION!

 

tent caterpillar moth Andy Reago

Malacosoma americana (tent caterpillar moth) courtesy of Andy Reago & Chrissy McClaren on Flickr 

I live for watching nature, hearing its embedded poetry, and waxing enthusiastic about it, hence The Book of Noticing. But on one of those hot days recently (before the chilly, rainy snap returned), I was at a loss for conjuring picturesque images with clever turns of phrase. Mosquitoes found me and buzzed about the delectable main course that was me. They dug in with gusto. ICK! (insert expletive here).

I’ve been sympathetic to other maligned creatures, most recently the marginalized gypsy moths and tent caterpillars. After all, they are just chewing what they were meant to chew, aren’t they? Observing the mother gypsy moth’s carefully fashioned egg cases, often moth-shaped and fuzzy with hair from the female’s abdomens, made me more sympathetic. I also like to watch the tent caterpillars over time, as they grow by impossibly fast leaps and bounds in their gauzy nests. And both types turn into something that flutters gently about, soft and benign if not an especially stunning photo-op.

K Yamada mosquito.jpg

Perhaps the most flattering portrait of a mosquito, EVER, courtesy of K Yamada on Flickr 

But I can’t feel very sympathetic about the mosquito moms. According to the DC Mosquito Squad, our blood is “the perfect prenatal supplement for growing mosquito eggs.” Even though I know what it’s like to need a prenatal supplement, and to have babies (well, baby), all I can think is ICK!! I am not willing to scratch and grow welts and possibly contract a disease in the name of mosquito reproductive heath. Factoid: I learned that the very trait that makes me such a desirable blood donor, an O positive blood type, is apparently a real draw to mosquitoes, too. At least they don’t call me as often as the American Red Cross does.

Gavin had a picture book called The Naming when he was little, about the Garden of Eden. We brought it home from the beloved Niantic Book Barn. Each creature in the book was given a name, and a prophetic description. The lion was described as “splendor,” and the fleas that came along later (right after the dogs, of course!) were dubbed “vexation.” (Aside for the book lovers: this book’s author and illustrator were both prolific producers of some wonderful stuff!)

The Naming

Ah yes—vexation in nature! We’ve all experienced that—the mosquito and the tick, the copious sweat on our faces during a humid day, the blisters that well up as we walk that trail that would have otherwise been blissful (not blisterful). What about the roots we trip over; the cobwebs that greet us like a succession of invisible, sticky finish lines; the sharp pebbles on the bottom of the cool stream bed?

You might wonder if I am aiming to send would-be nature lovers back inside for some air-conditioned binge watching. Have I converted from nature writer to nature reviler?

Actually, I’m writing about genuine love. If you really love someone, especially over a long period of time, you come to see that person in a true light that is not always flattering: you know they get cranky, even mean sometimes. You know they have this blind spot, and that one. And a maddening tendency to tell the same stories ad infinitum. And they pick their nose. And they laugh too loud in restaurants. And there are some super-weird tendencies in their family tree. But you also know that they are tender and generous and funny and sweet and a fine specimen of a human. And they would do just about anything for you, if you wanted them to. You sign up for the whole package, because, when you take all of it together, it’s a stupendous gift.

For me, loving nature is like that. It is loving the mix of it all, even the parts I don’t understand or like. As with human relationships, there has to be common sense—it’s not smart to stay in harm’s way, and we can’t let ourselves be victims. And, also as with human relationships, I often find loving easier when I’ve developed a deeper understanding.

Wolf at Yellowstone Michael McCarthy.jpg

Wolf at Yellowstone courtesy of Michael McCarthy on Flickr

Even the least – and least attractive –  creatures play a part in the ecosystem. Here’s an example from Yellowstone National Park, about how the reintroduction of wolves continues to have reverberating effects on so many creatures.  I’ve written about how we are often more sympathetic to bigger creatures, versus gnats, mosquitoes, voles, mice, etc. Somehow it seems we can feel, or at least imagine, the pain that wolves or bears or other, fairly sizeable creatures might feel. Could it have something to do with being able to look them in the eyes?

While we are working on being more Zen, more all-knowing and all-magnanimous, like this guy…

Buddha by Kaysha

Buddha courtesy of Kaysha on Flickr

 

…Maybe it’s easier, with the teeniest, and the more “icky” creatures, to think about what would happen if they were not around, with our interests in mind. This piece talks about how the ecosystem would actually suffer without mosquitoes. Ticks, also, are an essential food source for many creatures.

That’s today’s food for thought, even as we remain potential food for many of our co-inhibitors of the planet. And now, because I can’t quite muster the generosity and equanimity to post a picture of a tick, here’s a happy photo of a decidedly non-biting rhododendron.

Photo May 28, 6 28 29 AM

 

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In Praise of the Small: Swallows, Dune Toads, and Caterpillars

purplemartin by Rich Leche.jpg

Purple Martins courtesy of Rick Leche on Flickr

Today I checked off a longstanding item on my bucket list of local endeavors. I jumped into my jeans and hurried out of the house to be in Madison by 7:50, where I met with fellow bird lovers in The Audubon Shop parking lot. I met author/illustrator Patrick J. Lynch, and he autographed my new copy of A Field Guide to the Long Island Sound. I’ve lived on both sides of the Sound, traversing many of its rocky beaches, and it seems only fitting that I should, at long last, own a detailed manual about its non-human inhabitants. The group formed a caravan at Hammonasset Beach State Park, driving short stints to favorite bird haunts in the park and learning from Lynch and shop owner Jerry Connolly.

The Purple Martins filled my heart. The sheen on the males caught the light, and the couples seemed to be performing a musical for our benefit, flying to and fro as we stood with our “opera glasses” and took in the spectacle. I learned that they winter in South America and come back to the exact same “condo” bird houses every spring, where they nest in great colonies. When I looked them up later on All About Birds, I learned that man-made Martin houses used to be really abundant. John James Audubon used them as a gauge for his lodging prospects when traveling, noting: “Almost every country tavern has a martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be.” Should we start a movement to bring back the universal Martin box, especially at inns? Wouldn’t looking for the birdhouses be infinitely more fun than hotel ratings Web sites?

Fowlers frum US fish wildlife.jpg

Beach bum Fowler’s toad courtesy of USFWS on Flickr

I was taken with a modest, marshy pool adjacent to the pavilion’s parking lot. Although we only spotted a few tadpoles, Lynch gave us a lesson on Fowler’s toads, which, unlike the better-known American toads, like to hang out in sand dunes. His book says that they bury themselves in the sand to escape the heat. How many Fowler’s toads did I unknowingly step over as I roamed around Jones Beach and Point Lookout and Caumsett and Welwyn Preserve in my youth? As we learned about the toads, a flurry of bright blue tree swallows stole center stage, appearing to perform for us but in actuality chasing insects. The morning brought more finds, including Least Terns (endangered) and American Oystercatchers and Brants. I couldn’t work my phone camera by the end of the walk, as my hands were surprisingly numb from the wet chill. But it was worth the temporary paralysis.

tree swallows Michael Mulqueen.jpg

Embarrassment of tree swallows courtesy of Michael Mulqueen on Flickr

On the way home on Route 9, warming alternate hands over the heating vents, I once again noticed a particular, still quite bare, tree, which boasts the most tent caterpillar abodes I’ve ever seen in one place. I looked up the Eastern Tent Caterpillar, and found what I expected on a college entomology site: Malacosoma americanum is described as a pest with “unsightly silken nests” that feeds on (but doesn’t usually defoliate) trees, going on to say that “they are a nuisance and can create a mess when they are squashed on driveways, sidewalks, and patios.” Those lucky enough to survive our feet and cars and predators (which I bet they consider a nuisance, at the very least!) transform into rather ordinary-looking moths.

The tree caterpillars reminded me of gypsy moth caterpillars, another one of God’s “creatures great and small” often viewed as an outcast, despite the fact that ominous sounding “outbreaks” are very often limited by nature, such as the fungus that counters the gypsies. (I wrote more about gypsies here).  Both tree and gypsy moth caterpillar eggs overwinter under ingenious protective coatings, and it seems miraculous to me that they make it to spring at all. In The Book of Noticing (officially launching Tuesday!) I wrote about peering and tracking and researching “even the common gypsy moth,” and this reminds me that, despite my generally sympathetic attitude, I don’t necessarily fully value the lives of the moths who lay their eggs and flutter to the ground to die each summer, at least not on par with other, usually bigger and more visually pleasing creatures. This is something for me to think about. Can I cut off the branch of my neighbor’s tent caterpillared-tree and bring the innocents, just doing what they were born to do, off into the woods somewhere, far away from the garden, sparing them from destruction?

Tent caterpillars.JPG

New life amid new life

Caterpillars are not pretty in the same way that Purple Martins are. But they fascinated me when I was a child, their suction-cuppy feet traversing my arm, tickling its tiny hairs. Can we make more room in the world even for creatures who don’t make us want to cuddle? Even for those creatures, like many-eyed or hairy-legged spiders, who sometimes make us want to run? They are living their lives, too, and have their place. They, like us, can be so misunderstood. Could they teach us more about compassion?

As I wrote this I kept hearing a small vibrating noise and assumed it was rapid raindrops riding the edge of the gutter. But my eye caught a white moth here inside, fluttering her wings at an impossible speed. Was she trying to dry off? She rode my forearm for a while, then lifted off to the windowsill. Another small creature who so often goes unnoticed, and this one has already been through several stages of her life, like me. She catches the light beautifully. She craves it just like I do.

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:

Robert H Treman reality.jpg

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.

millipede

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.

sycamore caterpillar

Fuzzy photo of a fuzzy caterpillar

tree snake

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.

Once Around

Both this weekend and last, I suffered from painful cases of the Shoulds. My long scroll of a TO DO list seems to be ever lengthening, and at the top are household chores by the dozen.

So I compromised last Sunday. I would walk Molly for 1 hour only. It takes an hour to foot the mile to town and back with this beagle who follows her nose, who strains with vigor and passion at the leash whenever a new smell beckons.

We set out at sunrise, treated to a Hallelujah Chorus from (mostly unseen) birds in the thick pines that line our yard. I admired a garter snake on the asphalt and right after that the prolific leavings from a neighbor’s cottonwood tree (it looked like snow was lining her driveway!). I later learned that “nuisance” cottonwoods have a lot going for them, and a proud history. I also read up on why birds sing at dawn, or at least the latest attempt to explain this mystery. (Science fully respected, but I think I’ll always experience the chorus as the ultimate hymn of joy and praise).

bobwhiteMy compromise morphed into a substantial ramble when I learned that Tom and Gavin were also up early. They met Molly and me at town dock, where we had breakfast and gazed out at the water. We watched a heron and tailed a pair of Northern Bobwhites ambling along Kirtland Street. We climbed the gradual hill to Mount Saint John, a stately fixture of Deep River since 1904. Tom photographed a bluebird peeking from its house on the grounds.

BluebirdHouse

MollyonWall

There were still Shoulds to return home to. In the hours following this happy indulgence, I caught up with the laundry and restored some sanity to our household environs. But I am so glad I took that 1-hour walk that turned into a 2-plus hour walk. And that later, we all took the drive to Middletown so we could learn about caterpillars and gather some phenology (the study of what happens, and when, in nature) data, courtesy of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. Phenology matters, much more than housekeeping and crossouts on the daily To DO list, and here’s a brief article that gives examples of why.