Look Down


The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.
James Oppenheim

It’s become a bit of a cliché that people don’t look up enough; they don’t take the time to gaze up at the clouds, the stars, the echelons (you know, that V pattern!) of migratory birds.

But what about looking down? My recent early morning walks have yielded foot-level sightings of rabbit families, colonies of funnel web spiders, a scurrying vole, entire condo complexes of ants, and a visit with a stunningly decorated moth in the center of the brick sidewalk. The pattern she boasted was reminiscent of some of the fine, filigreed, turn-of-the-last-century marcasite you can find at estate jewelry counters. My Golden Guide told me she was a caterpillarworm moth. They are known to lay their eggs near wounds in tree bark. My find, if she is lucky, will live three or four years. I think I increased her odds by removing her from the flow of foot traffic.

Of course,  my casual observations don’t hold a candle to those devoted to looking down, probably at the risk of getting stuck in a stooped position. EO Wilson, Pulitzer prize winner known to many as “the ant man”, can’t stop waxing enthusiastic about his favored species and his newer, inspired project, the Encyclopedia of Life. In The Forest Unseen, David George Haskell spent a year observing all manner of tiny life in a meter-wide mandala. And a chapter in Alexandra Horowitz’ On Looking is devoted to “Flipping Things Over”, in which field naturalist Charley Eiseman is a vigilant and enthused observer of insect (and other small creature) signs—tiny larval trails in a leaf, slug teeth marks, and such. This is the kind of guy who spends five hours in a driveway turning over leafs and logs before setting out on the “official” invertebrate tour he’s planned.

Those of us of a certain age, especially, will hear Casey Kasem’s voice in our heads when we read the quotation: “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”It’s a phrase associated with American Top 40, but I think it’s okay to adopt it for much quieter time outside in nature, too. There’s a lot to see curbside, right alongside your sneakered feet.

Happy stooping!




Inchworms, Beach Worms, and Darwin

The best days are those that allow a long, thoughtful ramble in the warm summer air, but real life doesn’t always allow for such physical and mental perambulations. Today, I am settling for mostly “armchair” naturalist excursions—I grabbed what nature books I could stuff into my work bag, knowing I’d have a little interval between errands to flip through them.

Try this some time–pick up 3 random books on a subject you love and see if you can not find something in each that delights. For me, the first pick was a Golden Guide, not much bigger than my outstretched hand, to Butterflies and Moths. How many years have I been using the term “inchworm”–during my own childhood and later during countless forays into nature with children I taught or babysat, and eventually including my own child? Only today did I learn the more formal term: it is “geometer”—translating to “earth measurer”. And what knower of inchworms and lover of discovery couldn’t cherish the specifics of these descriptions: “UNADORNED CARPET is commonly seen in the larval stage in nests of wild cherry leaves…CURRANT SPANWORM is a pest of currant and gooseberry.” Who could begrudge these earth measurers their fine, colorful, and fruity choices, even if they do turn out to be pests to the farmer and gardener?

I chuckled at the silliness and synchronicity that greeted me when I randomly flipped the next book open: The top of page 51 in The Outer Lands, a natural history guide to local New York and lower New England coasts, told me that “Worms Can Be Beautiful” when “viewed without prejudice,” further flattering the reader by adding “they are only lowly when compared to the readers of this book, but their bodies and behavior are admirably adapted to the tidal world in which they live.” The author extols the iridescence of the clam worm, the castings of the lugworm, and the parchment worm’s homey residential tube. Would that I had a shovel and another hour and I’d be out on a nearby beach in Old Lyme, worming.

It was the comic book version that finally got me to read, at least in some approximate way, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This was the third and final book I got to peruse over coffee, and was a fitting followup to all of the gushing over the marvelousness of worms. I’ve never understood why some feel that a belief in evolution must negate a belief in God–couldn’t a higher power have caused it all to happen? I’m no expert on Darwin or creationism, but phrases like these lead me to think that Darwin had faith in something more than the increasingly upright ape (in the comic book, these words fall below colorful depictions of skeletons alongside full-fleshed animals–the scaffolds and the engineered marvels they support):

Can we wonder then, that Nature’s productions should be far ‘truer’ in character than man’s productions; that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life, and should plainly bear the stamp of far higher workmanship?