The Joy of Nature Epistling

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These fungi remind me of a certain kind of tightly wrapped conch shell I used to find on Long Island beaches. I initially wondered here in the caption if these were lichens or fungi. Reader Laurie told me that they are the most common decomposer in our woods, Trichaptum biformus, sometimes known as Violet-toothed polypore.

I am not sure “epistling” is a word, but if not, I have coined a new, inflected verb.

I grew up in a churchgoing family, and “Epistle” in that context meant a letter from an Apostle. The other meaning of the word is simply, “a poem or other literary work in the form of a letter or series of letters.” The word Apostle, outside of the church-centric meaning, also means ” a vigorous and pioneering advocate of a particular…idea, or cause.”

So, yes, I am an Apostle who treasures her epistling, her love letters to the world. My cause is Loving the (natural) World, and I wholly attribute the best articulation of this pursuit to Mary Oliver, in her poem of the same title.

I relish writing about what I find on countless walks–coming upon compelling and intriguing creatures and landscapes, following an impulse to learn about and protect nature. I also relish hearing from my readers, who provide feedback, enthusiasm, and new ideas.

Of course, we humans are not really in a separate category from nature, but so many of us long for a deeper sense of connection with the rest of the natural world. Charles Siebert, in Wickerby, describes our race as, “the only ones who long to be a part again of that to which we already belong.”

My heart is full as I share these twice-weekly epistles. The subscribe link (it’s free!) to Loving the World: Visits with Nature and Deeper Connection is to the right. Here are some examples of recent entries:

Quaker Ladies, Venus’ Pride, and Bluets that Fly 

The Turtle and the May Apple

I hope to see you at Loving the World, and maybe I’ll bump into some of you outside, too, peering down at a little patch of moss or raising your head to follow the birdsong.

Today is Mother’s Day, and I write this from within the rumpled bed covers. My husband Tom, who knows me so very well, gave me this with breakfast in bed–a gift that combines my love for words and my love for the outdoors.

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From it, I remind you on this rainy Sunday that: “The Amen of nature is always a flower,” courtesy of Oliver Wendell Holmes,

My latest Amen, found curbside a block away:

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Meditation on a Locust

locust (Mercy) cropped

Look closely: I can’t swear this is a Carolina locust (no entomology degree here), but this well-camouflaged locust of some sort blended in beautifully at Mercy Center!

Somewhere in the soil, not doing very much at the moment, there is a tiny, kind of boomerang-shaped egg pod containing about 40 Carolina locust eggs. I am sure that if for some reason I stumbled on it, I might not recognize it as such. Here is a photo courtesy of the University of Wyoming:

Carolina locust egg pod U WYO

Carolina locust egg pod, courtesy of the University of Wyoming

The eggs will hatch when the soil warms. I learned that these insects have the potential to decimate large tracts of commercial crops, but where I encountered them they didn’t seem to be doing any harm. In fact, they brightened the place up.

Not too long ago—less than three months ago, in fact—I worked in grey, corporate offices. The last office was my workday home for about five years. Before that, it was another grey office for about the same duration. I work from home now, and although there are days when I feel practically glued to my computer and deadlines, I can walk to the window, pick up the binoculars, and watch the bird feeder. I can take Buddy out to get the mail and take a short walk to the dead end. Sometimes these little moments just makes me crave more of the same, but they are a step in the right direction.

In the office, I felt starved for the feel of the outside air and for naturally occurring color and movement, far from the closed windows and controlled temperature, from the whir of printers and copy machines. My schedule would only allow 15-minute walks around the perimeter of the office park, but those micro-jaunts felt restorative, like a few good gulps of water after a walk in the heat. I even found occasion to write about them, and they worked their way into my book, eventually. But I would have liked more of this quenching—gallons of it, actually, on any given workday. In the absence of that, I tried to find all of the things of beauty and interest I could.

On late summer days when I walked the sparse and parched grass behind a certain building, segments of the loose, dusty soil seemed to stir to life and levitate before me. Then a flash of yellow would beckon me from midair, suggesting a butterfly. The “butterfly” would land and disappear, closing its wings and seeming to evaporate. It took some real peering to find the dun-colored Carolina locust, sometimes referred to as a road duster or a Quaker, once it landed.

carolina locust sarah fuller (permission via linkedin)

This photo shows the yellow, but to my eye does not do it justice. When sunlight streams through it is especially eye-catching. Photo courtesy of Sarah Fuller; first posted here.

According to the Iowa State University Department of Entomology’s online BugGuide, Carolina locusts are likely the most familiar band-winged grasshopper to most people in North America, since they prefer disturbed and often dusty habitats like vacant lots, paths, and dirt roads. When seen in flight, they are sometimes confused with Mourning Cloak butterflies.

Members of the band-winged grasshopper family are conspicuous in flight. Their bands have been called “flash colors” because they distract predators, and the noises made in flight (males popping taut membranes between their wing veins) can add to the distraction. It’s a head-scratcher when they seem to meld with the dirt, wings tucked in again and any resemblance to a butterfly –if the watcher is lucky enough to even spot them –completely gone. The University of Wisconsin’s Field Station Web site explains the evolutionary advantage of this: “the pursuing predator suddenly can’t find anything that matches its search image.”

Edwin Way Teale’s September 22 entry in A Walk Through the Year muses about these “dancing grasshoppers,” which he describes as rising and falling irregularly “as though jiggled at the end of a rubber band.” He describes the yellow-bordered wings like “thin parchment in the air…rising, hanging, crackling, descending.”

Caroline locust by Fred Bentler with permiss

Carolina locust photo courtesy of  nature photographer Fred Bentler  

I had fun reading up on this creature that is likely often unnoticed and under-appreciated. But that wasn’t what drew me to the locusts, what made me look forward to spotting my jumpy, shape-shifting Carolina friends during my office park walks.

My job and all its trappings felt drab, and, by extension, so did I. But every time I saw that flash of yellow I was reminded how there is so much more to life than meets the eye. How there is so much more to me than meets the eye. Those micro-moments on the hot, dusty path brought me little capsules of hope and wonder.

It’s good to step out more often and feel more connected with the world again–it feels like a gradual but welcome convalescence. But, like the Carolina locust nymphs and many other insects, who go through several phases of growing and shedding their skin before full maturity (these phases are called instars), I feel there are many increments of growth I have yet to undergo, to get to a much deeper and more faithful place of deep connection.

 

Images of third and fifth instars, courtesy of the University of Wyoming

I am so glad I took those walks. I am so glad the Carolina locusts were there.

The Generous Naturalist, the Generous Reader

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Fledgling Swallows by Steve Herring on FlickrSteve Herring on Flickr

I’ve been taking a Master Naturalist class with the Goodwin State Forest and Conservation Center. The formal classes have finished, and when I finish the required community work and research paper, I will be considered an apprentice Master Naturalist. If I can manage it I’ll take part 2 next summer, and if I complete that I will be full-fledged.

That term “fledged” recalls the young birds (fledglings) that leave the nest and learn to fend for themselves, with the goal of flying off and living on their own. As an apprentice there is SO much to know and of course I will never know it all. But I have learned, like the famed Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, to depend on the kindness of (now former) strangers to help me along my way.

Cattails by Elliot Margolies flickr

Who knew cattails were so tasty? Photo courtesy of Elliot Margolies on Flickr

Each teacher has gone out of his or her way to create a welcoming atmosphere, and to help in practical ways. Ed made several concoctions for snack break from his foraging finds—there was knotweed pie (great use of an invasive) and cattail soup (an asparagus-ish tasting delight). He was quick to point out any interesting new finds along the trail, as were all of our teachers.

Brad pulled me up from the ground when I fell on a recent hike, and pointed out chestnut oaks and the skin of a newly molted rat snake after I dusted off my jeans and dignity and panted my way up rocky inclines. That shiny, freshly molted creature (so black it was blue!) stole the show away from our guest expert geologist for a few minutes, while we followed it to its rendezvous with other snakes in a nearby crevice.

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Photogenic, resplendent Eastern rat snake on Ragged Mountain

Jasper kept our whole group up to date on what was going on, and patiently advised me on the hours I needed to log. Juan made the long drive from his distant home to Deep River to give me a tutorial about lichens at Fountain Hill Cemetery. We got on our hands and knees with hand lenses, and he pointed out the Lilliputian wonders wrought in these algae/fungus (and sometimes cyanobacteria) combinations. Later I paged through the trove of books and pamphlets he had brought along to lend me. He didn’t hold it against me when I decided lichens were too difficult, given the limited time I have to research and write my paper.

LICHENS TOMBSTONE

Many lichens LOVE tombstones! I was focusing on brownstone obelisks

Stretching my fledgling wings a bit more, I contacted Lynn, a Master Naturalist program graduate who is busy using her knowledge (and retired teacher skills), leading talks and hikes. She took the time to meet with me and to let me tag along on her hikes, teaching as she went and giving me the opportunity to bring forth my burgeoning knowledge. I now use the crinkly, paper-like feel of the leaves to help me identify the American beech, and she helped me realize that witch hazel may very well be named after the characteristic witch-hat shaped galls on its leaves that house a particular kind of aphid.

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Witch hazel leaf with gall courtesy of Danielle Brigada on Flickr

What is it about naturalists that makes them so remarkably generous, eager to share time, discoveries, and information? I am sure I bring my own biases to the theory, because Mary Oliver’s iconic line, “My work is loving the world” guides all of my time in nature. But could it be that all of these naturalist hearts have expanded because of their love for the world and its creatures, because of the generosity they themselves have received from nature (and other lovers of it)?

Readers are a whole other set of generous folks. An attendee at my nature writing exploration yesterday took the time to write me a complimentary note and share her new piece with me. She later wrote an Amazon review, too! Another recommended haikus written by Richard Wright. Librarian Laurie led me to Brainerd Library’s enchanting butterfly garden and did some research that informed me we were seeing milkweed tussock moth caterpillars (not monarch caterpillars–they look nothing alike!) on the milkweed plants. The list goes on and on. Same theory here for me. Reading, when done faithfully and thoughtfully, has the potential to expand not only the mind, but the heart.

milkweed tussock moth caterpillars (Brainerd)

Milkweed tussock moth caterpillars

And being with these people, naturalists and readers alike (even better if they are BOTH!) has expanded my own heart. It was serendipitous timing that I ran across a 2005 birthday card from Mom tucked into one of my nature books, even more precious now as she can no longer share quotes like she used to. What she shared with me was prescient, because it preceded my full-throttle return to time in nature and time in books about it. Here is what she wrote (and I found the quote on the Internet so have included the full attribution):

A certain philosopher asked St Anthony: Father, how can you be happy when you are deprived of the consolation of books? Anthony replied. My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God,
the book is before me.

Anon.Verba Seniorum (Adhortationes sanctorum patrum) ciii (4th – 8th cens. CE)(Greek original lost; Pelagius I and John III, Latin transl.; T. Merton Engl. transl.) in: The Wisdom of the Desert p. 139.

Of course, I am NOT deprived of the consolation of books, and because I can, I want to embrace both–finding meaning in the books and in the spectacular green world. How delicious to know that this possibility is before me!