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

 

A Trove of Seeds

Chestnut Oak acorn, courtesy of U of Kentucky's Department of Agriculture page

Chestnut Oak acorn, courtesy of U of Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture page

Last week, a coworker gifted me with a jumbo-sized acorn. She’d wanted to work outside for a little while, but had to come in because the oak tree above the picnic table was dropping these plump seeds in an urgent and generous rain. Even walking across the grass had become a challenge, as if navigating a small sea of ball bearings. I hadn’t thought much about it before, but a quick Internet search told me there are quite a few kinds of acorns—I think this one was a chestnut acorn. (Here’s a link to an iconic chestnut oak specimen in Clinton, CT–I hope it’s still there!). Our local oaks seem to be having “mast years,” dropping huge volumes of their offspring after a season of favorable weather and ramped up production.

Seeds buok imageMy acorn research coincided beautifully with my latest read—Seeds by Richard Horan. The author traveled around the country, visiting trees that inspired famous American writers as well as other notables. He scooped up samples of many trees’ progeny, sometimes on a solo journey, sometimes with family or friends. I’d like to ask him what became of the resulting plantings. Is there, somewhere closer to home than Monroeville ( Alabama’s literary capital), a Harper Lee chestnut that I can visit?

Chilly Walk photo from Chris Ford on Flickr

Chilly Walk photo from Chris Ford on Flickr

I liked what one of Horan’s friends said: “You know, when you initially arrive at a site, you think there’s nothing there, but after spending a little time looking around, trees begin to appear.” Of course, our silent observers are always there, often assuming a strictly background role. Many precede us, and many will survive long after we are gone, so I regard them as wise and infinitely patient, owing to their long lives and inability to walk away. I like what Willa Cather (one of the many authors featured in Seeds) had to say about them, too: “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.” I am not so sure (forgive me, Willa!) that I would have chosen the word “resigned.” Maybe, after all these years the resigning has evolved into accepting. John Muir was more optimistic: “I never saw a discontented tree.”

This season is often thought of as a time of winding down, but time outside reminds me that so many creatures are hurriedly proliferating before the cold and stillness of winter wreaks a time of suspended animation for many. I’ve noticed gypsy moth pupae in the trees around my office park, a bit concerned because I don’t think it’s the right season and I know they can fall prey to all manner of infections. I’m fully aware that these insects are considered pests, but observing them in recent years has made me more sympathetic. I like the moth-like shape of their felted egg masses and wonder how many will survive the winter.

Gypsies and their kids at Trail Wood

This, too, is the time for planting bulbs—something I too often forget to do. I am especially taken with one advertised: The Poet’s Daffodil. I like the haiku-like description on the American Meadows site (line breaks inserted by me!):

Flowers are pure white with
a yellow cup edged in red.
Sweet fragrance

Poet's Daffodil, from Klasse im Garten on Flickr

Poet’s Daffodil, from Klasse im Garten on Flickr

Of what poet was this bulb’s namer thinking? I’ve no idea, but it just so happens I have a Robert Frost anthology beside me. My mom, whose memory and hearing are so very poor now, came alive when we took turns reading from it last Tuesday, this treasured corner of her mind not unlike a bulb that’s overwintered finally flowering. I’ve flipped to this Frost poem today. It reminds me of the inevitability, and often hibernating gifts, of bleaker seasons:

 

In Hardwood Groves

The same leaves over and over again!
They fall from giving shade above,
To make one texture of faded brown
And fit the earth like a leather glove.

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.

They must be pierced by flowers and put
Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
However it is in some other world
I know that this is the way in ours.

Moths, Mushrooms, and Umwelt

Lately, I’ve been reading Central Park in the Dark, by the same author (Marie Winn) who wrote Red Tails in Love. Her reports of a robust animal and insect world thriving right in midtown Manhattan are such a comfort to me. And they remind me that, with nature, there is always much more going on than what we notice at a casual glance.

white mothTake moths, for example. They have always loved my porch, but this year they are finding their way inside more, to the grow light that overhangs my modest crop of hydroponic tomatoes. They flitter their way into the sink way too often—are they seeking hydration or just attracted to the water’s glimmer? In any case, I have made valiant, if not always successful, efforts to rescue them. The antique milk can on the porch has become a moth rehab facility–a place where they go to dry out. Bonus fact, which I learned after writing a poem about moths alighting on my arms: they crave the salt in our skin! We might not think as kindly of them if they found ways to extract it the way female mosquitoes, or ticks, access what they find to be our most alluring qualities.

iridescent moth

I was reminded, however, by the Central Park book that most moths’ lifespans amount to less than a few weeks. This greatly saddened Gavin, so I told him about something else that I had learned about: the idea of umwelt. A musty but lovely second-hand book I found, The View from the Oak (Judith and Herbert Kohl), talks about a term used by another nature writer “to describe the world around a living thing as that creature experiences it.” Imagine, for example being an ant, living your whole life in a particular corner of a field, pebbles like boulders to you and your vibratory sense your only means of communication. That experience, that way of living and perceiving, is your ant umwelt. I apply that same concept to time, too. The moth that lives its full few weeks is likely not comparing itself with humans and crying over its piteously short stay on the earth. We humans have our own time umwelt, so we don’t tend to bristle over the lifespans of Galapagos Giant Tortoises, who live for upwards of 100 years (or Ocean Quahogs, who can live for 400+!).

Another umwelt I found myself wondering about was the perspective of the slug. Of course, I’ve seen slugs here and there throughout my life, but only on a recent jaunt at Fountain Hill did I notice groups of them sitting on mushroom caps.

mushroom with several slugs

Can you see the 4 slugs feasting?

How long did it take them to climb up there? Was it like summiting a high mountain peak? It made me wonder if slugs eat mushrooms, and the article I found from a 2010 issue of Fungi was called What We Don’t Know About Slugs and Mushrooms—the scientists seem pretty clear that slugs eat fungi but not so clear on specifics. One of the problems is that it’s the mushrooms, not the slugs, that are usually the subject of any the available photos that might prove slug fungus consumption, and most of the time photographers don’t want to photograph the slugs at all. It’s not just with most photographers that slugs get a bad rap—and I understand that they eat our garden greens—but I do think that if they were better looking they might be treated better. Hopefully in their own little slug umwelt they don’t realize how their slimy looks count against them. But if they do, Gavin reminded me that there is an Ugly Animals Preservation Society that they can turn to for support.

July is such a rich, moist, spilling-over-with-abundance time in Connecticut. This morning I counted 13 rabbits on my walk down to Town Dock, and funnel webs from the grass spiders, highlighted by the dew, dotted nearly every lawn—an uncountable array of spider condo complexes. My own, personal umwelt is a happy one because of this.

I count at least 19 funnel-shaped webs in this small patch of lawn

I count at least 19 funnel-shaped webs in this small patch of lawn