Visitors in Vinegar Hollow: Bee and Bear

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Vinegar Hollow on a late July morning.

 

I am back in the hollow and there is ongoing news as usual. For me, it is a self-imposed writer’s retreat with the dog and the cat as I rework a book on primroses and nurse a collapsed ankle. The latter is good for the book and, as it turns out, natural history observations.

Sitting on the terrace with a cup of tea near the end of the first day of my visit, I heard a busy buzzing at my left elbow. My tea cup was to the left on a low stone wall that separates the terrace from an overgrown garden bed. The buzzing came from a straggily maple sapling that loomed over my tea cup. It was a compact bee, with yellow markings, its wings about as wide as the length of its body, not one that I recognized. It had business with the maple sapling. It buzzed away abruptly but in a minute or so was back and I watched as it snipped a piece of leaf from the edge of a maple leaf. Years ago I had seen leaf cutter ants marching across the jungle floor in Panama, snippet of leaf overhead like a sail.

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Leaf cutter bee at work just left of center.

There were five visits that day. The bee fell onto the surface of the leaf on two visits but mostly worked quickly and efficiently. Each snippet had a smooth, tidy edge and was about the size of the bee, though there was variation. The bee would zoom off to the left with the snippet held underneath the body. That night I was looking at natural history sightings on my Twitter feed, and there from @GranthamEcology was the report of a leaf cutter bee in the UK. I had never heard of such a bee, but soon was reading online about the Megachilidae, a group of solitary bees that includes the masons and the leaf cutters. Masons use soil and the leaf cutters use leaves to line their nests. The Megachilidae are said to be “gentle” and “charming,” qualities that I felt instinctively. I was inches away and the bee attended to its purpose calmly and industriously.

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View of maple sapling from above. Leaf cutter work somewhat camouflaged.

I kept a log of the bee visits for several days. On July 28:

5:25 the bee is back, 2 visits with no snip

5:28 the bee is back but buzzes off quickly; thunder

5:29 back but off quickly

5:30 back but off quickly; more thunder.

I couldn’t decide whether the thunder or the shiny lid of my laptop distracted the bee from its leafcutting. In the past tens days I have observed that the bee visits from noon on and the leaves of the maple now look like the crafting of a fanciful cutout artist. One website has posted videos of a leaf cutter bee at work.

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Maple leaves showing leaf cutter activity.

Solitary bees receive more attention these days because they are efficient pollinators. One alfalfa leaf cutter, for example, can do the work of 20 honey bees. With honey bee populations struggling, it’s important to encourage solitary bees by placing a bee hotel or two on one’s property. There are a number of models available. In nature, leaf cutter bees nest in hollow cavities, so placing hollow canes or logs with holes in the garden may attract them. @GranthamEcology says that leaf cutter bees are known to like rose leaves. In rural settings there are many nesting sites, but not so in more suburban, manicured yards. Dr. Bryan Danforth of Cornell University has ongoing research projects devoted to the Megachilidae. One project involved asking sponsors, friends and relatives (like me, a second cousin), if he could place bee hotels for solitary pollinators in their yards and check how readily they attracted residents. At the time I didn’t realize how appealing solitary bees can be.

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Lifecycle of a leaf cutter bee. (Lydekker, R. 1879. The Royal Natural History. Volume 6. Frederick Warne and Co. [from http://www.archive.org]). (Public Domain, wiki).

As for the bear, when I first arrived, I found a puddle of butterscotch kittens curled up by the back door of the “new” house, which is where I was going to park. Luckily I hadn’t driven in. There was a gate to open. I called Mike because he feeds the barn cats and knows their ways and I was worried that handling the kittens might cause the mother cat to abandon them. Mike said that mother cat had probably brought them out from a hiding place to get some sun. He picked each kitten up by the nape of the neck and placed him/her in a box I provided. On the way to the barn we skirted a prominent bald-faced hornet’s nest hanging at eye level in a window frame. Mike said that he would spray it the next day. I nodded. The hornets had clearly taken control of the walkway. Having been stung multiple times on the face by bald-faced hornets, and greatly incapacitated, removal seemed a good plan. By the next morning mother cat had removed all the kittens from the box and placed them in hiding again.

A few days later as I set out with Belle the dog for our morning walk, I met Mike getting the cats’ morning ration of dog food from the old house. Half of the hornets’ nest was the ground, its streaked gray and white paper shredded.

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Mike looked surprised.

“Did you do that?”

“Me? No!”

I must have looked even more surprised. Mike started examining details of the “crime scene.” As a former game warden, he is very knowledgeable about wildlife and is an excellent tracker.

“It was a bear,” he said.

“Gee.”

I was taken aback that a bear was prowling around the garden and glad that I hadn’t gone out to look at the stars at midnight.

“The bear was after the grubs in the nest,” he said.

“It seems like dangerous work for a small meal,” I said.

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Bear’s paw print  (with author and her iPhone visible above).

Mike pointed out that most forms of wildlife barely eke out a living.  The garden is on the foraging path of both bears and coyotes. On cold winter mornings he finds the tracks of coyotes leading to the yard. They look for frozen songbirds that fall out of the overgrown boxwoods onto the lawn. I said the bear’s visit made me feel a little uneasy. He said that where he and his wife live down the road on 220, a bear visits the pear tree right next to their bedroom window. The bear grabs entire branches that then rattle against their bedroom window. Exasperated, his wife asked him to get his gun. Mike refused. “No, I’m not going to kill a bear for a pear,” he said.

North on 220 I talked with some friends who also had a recent bear experience. Their neighbor called them one morning to say there was a bear heading their way and to get prepared to shoot it. Jerry grabbed his groundhog-shooting gun and opened his back door. There he found himself face to face with the bear. A very large bear. He looked at his gun and said to himself, “I don’t have enough gun for this bear.” He turned around, went in, and shut the door. The neighbor upon finding out that the bear had not been shot, asked for directions. Jerry’s reply was, “If you want to shoot that bear, you’re going to have to find it yourself.”

Long live bees and bears!

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The way out of the hollow.

It’s hard to leave Vinegar Hollow. There’s so much going on!

 

 

 

 

 

Primrosing at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden

 

It’s primrose time, so last weekend I drove from Ithaca, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts, to attend the annual Primrose Show organized by the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

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Informative poster at the Primrose Show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

 

Primrose is of course a noun, the name of a small, compact perennial much beloved of gardeners. But primrose can be used as a verb, to primrose. One can go primrosing, as I did at the show, and one can be primrosed, which can also occur as I came home with four flats of plants.

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First-place winner in the “5-Mixed” category.

The organizers of the show hoped to inspire interest and enthusiasm for all members of the genus Primula, commonly known as primroses or primulas. The events included a display of prize-worthy specimens, a coloring table for children, a sale of plants from plant nurseries as far away as New Brunswick, and lectures by a Scottish nurseryman, Ian Christie of Kirriemuir, south of Aberdeen. Shows direct attention to details of a plant that even gardeners, distracted by the overall scene of their garden, might never notice. I remember as a young horticulture student attending my first Royal Horticultural Society Vegetable Show. I came to a standstill, shocked before a display of carrots draped over black velvet. My attention was riveted. I remember the carrots.

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Polyanthus (primrose) showing lovely floral palette.

The primroses at this show were demure by contrast, simply presented in clay or plastic pots on tables without velvet. One young couple with a child in a stroller paused before the first-place winner in the auricula category. After looking very closely, he said to his wife, “I get it. It’s all about the flowers.”

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An auricula (primrose) flower.

He did get it. Auricula flowers are some of the most unusual in the plant kingdom. Then there was a woman who rested her flat of purchased plants on the table with posters explaining the different kinds of primroses. She looked at the posters and looked at her plants. Then she asked her friend, “Did I buy any primroses?” Her friend said, “No, you didn’t.” “Really, no primroses?” The friend said very definitively, “You didn’t buy any primroses.” The woman sighed and said, “Oh well, next year.” Choosing among an array of beautiful spring flowers for sale can be bewildering despite informative posters.

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The common primrose (Primula vulgaris) probably colored by a member of the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

To attract the youngest and most impressionable members of the public, primrose society members set up a coloring table with crayons and colored pencils and drawings of different kinds of primroses. The young colorers received a free polyanthus, a kind of hybrid primrose. The plants given away had nodding flowers in shades of yellow and orange and red. I watched as a child protectively clutched her polyanthus primrose as her mother pushed the stroller away from the coloring table. Later I met them outside in the garden and the little girl was still holding the pot.

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Formal planting at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden with woodland walk at the far right.

Outside I found that Tower Hill Botanic Garden had a woodland walk designed to engage their youngest visitors. There were pictures of illustrations from a classic children’s book published in 1906, When the Root Children Wake Up. In the story the Earth Mother comes to wake the root children, who will animate the Spring. She gives the little root girls pieces of colored fabric to make dresses to match the spring flowers they will carry to the Earth’s surface, while the little root boys are sent off to wake up the ladybugs and beetles and bumble-bees and other insects.

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Illustration from When the Root Children Wake Up. It’s time for Spring.

It was written and illustrated by Sibylle von Olfers (1881-1916) who was born into a large family that lived in a castle near Konigsburg. She wrote and illustrated her fanciful children’s books for a younger sister. After becoming a nun in 1906, she worked as an art teacher. Ten years later she died of lung disease.

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The boys dust off the bugs.

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The girls carry up the flowers. Primrose follows Daisy at the right.

The botanic garden decorated the woodland walk with small houses of the sort that little fairies and gnomes might like. One young couple without children paused in front of one of these charming structures. The man who was wearing a black leather jacket pulled out a camera and took a photo, saying to his girlfriend, “This is adorable.” We all appreciate visions of other realms.

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Dwelling for woodland  fairies.

Among the primroses that I brought home was Primula carniolica, commonly known as the Slovenian primrose. Having lost a seedling of this last year in my unruly garden, I was anxious to try again. This specimen is robust, so I will not lose it. The Slovenian primrose is endemic, meaning native, to a very small area in the Slovenian Alps. Found in grassland, woodland, and high cliffs, it prefers a limestone substrate, summer moisture, and shade. When you grow a plant from a faraway place, you feel connected to its exotic geography and try very hard to mimic its desired conditions. It is considered scarce—in the wild and in cultivation, all the more reason to strive to do one’s horticultural best.

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Robust leaves of Slovenian primrose.

 

My seedling had not flowered so I was not prepared for the beauty of the small blue flower. The “body” of the plant is sturdy rather than graceful. The leaves are smooth and hooded, arranged in an off-center rosette.  Elevated on slender stalks well above the stout plant, the flowers create a very different effect. They have an exquisite necklace of farina (a powder) circling the base of the petals and the cream-colored throat glistens, pearl-like. Many of the alpine primroses have a dusting or even a heavy coat of farina, which is thought to protect against cold and intense irradiation. The observer of primroses finds extraordinary details.

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Close-up view of the flower of the Slovenian primrose. It looks pinkish here, but bluish “in person.”

Primroses have a long history of medicinal use. Two common species, the English primrose (Primula vulgaris) and the cowslip (Primula veris), have sedative/narcotic constituents in the flowers, leaves, and roots. The Benedictine mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) wrote in her Physica that the primrose was a powerful cure for melancholia:

A person whose head is so oppressed by bad humors that he has lost his senses should shave his hair and place primrose on top of his head. He should bind it on and should do the same thing to his chest. If he leaves these bindings on for three days, he will return to his senses.

Fortunately, most people, rather than wearing primroses on their heads, just have to look at them to receive some benefit. However, the greatest reward is found in growing primrose plants, as this Primrose Show at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden hoped to demonstrate.

 

 

The uncertainty of winter: the primrose and the hellebore

The view to Stark's Ridge.

The view to Stark’s Ridge, where Lawson’s Knob overlooks Vinegar Hollow, Highland County, Virginia.

 

January 1, 2016

Apparently it is a fact that Monet thought the Christmas rose (hellebore, also known as Lenten rose; Helleborus sp.) and the primrose, Primula sp., belong together. See New York Botanic Garden’s “Monet’s Garden: Creation, Facts & Secrets.”  Monet was right, of course, because  he is reported to have said “I cannot live without flowers.” So, he surrounded himself with flowers– in order to survive.

I agree, though I have never been able to have a grand garden like Monet’s, but even a few flowers here and there are enough. Groundhogs in Virginia eat my snakeroot; beloved dogs in Ithaca sit on my primroses, though that has failed to kill them. So be it. My policy is share. No violence.  Right now I am looking at one hellebore and one primrose, and I am glad that I’ve gotten the pairing right according to Monet.

 

The primrose and the hellebore.

The primrose and the hellebore.

 

I am here again in Vinegar Hollow where Angus cattle, their black bodies and white faces are silhouetted against the copen-blue sky behind the Peach Tree Hill, three bluejays are splashing in the gutter, flocks of juncoes swirl over the sinkhole, and I see the unexpected shades of pink and rose in the garden. Unexpected for the first of January.

The primrose in the noon sun.

The primrose in the noon sun on January 1, 2016. This is a polyanthus, a hybrid primrose. Notice the circle of anthers resting in a golden yellow cup slightly raised above the petals at the center of the flower. This is called the rose-crown or the rose-eye. When this occurs in a thrum-eyed flower (anthers visible, stigma invisible), one has “the last word in Polyanthus elegance” according to Florence Bellis, renowned primrose breeder (APS, 1943, p. 35).

 

It has been unusually warm here in western Virginia as in most of northeastern North America. Last year when here in the hollow I reported about reading Antarctic explorers and braving a blizzard to experience the chill. It is has been spring-like here for a month. I am not surprised the hellebore is budding and even opening flowers. Every year it pops up in snow in the coldest of temperatures here in the hollow. The plant now has between 50 and 100 buds. If winter comes now, when all these buds, so delicately striated pink and white, are ready to open, what will happen? It will survive. Hellebores are tough.

 

Buds and foliage of the hellebore.

Buds and foliage of the hellebore.

 

 

The flower of the hellebore.

The one flower of the hellebore open in Mustoe today.

 

The primula will survive also, though its more delicate greenery will get glassy, frozen looking if very low temperatures come. But it will survive. Primroses are tough.

I think again (see previous blog called “Snow as Metaphor:  Revealing and Concealing”) of the very old 15th century Christmas carol “Es ist ein ros entsprungen.” Its centerpiece is a rose that blooms in winter. At that time “ros” or “rosa” was a generic term for flower. Although of metaphorical import here, it is important to remember that a literal flower is at the root of the metaphor. Some think that the song’s rose is a hellebore. But it could have been a primrose. “Roses” of all sorts do bloom in winter. A version that I like is sung by the Ensemble Amarcord. Or this one using the words of Praetorius. There are various translations of the original German. Here is one:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!

The primrose on January 3, 2016.

The primrose on January 3, 2016.

In an interview the poet James Wright quoted from memory a passage from a letter that Tolstoy wrote to a pacifist group, where he talks about spring (in relation to religion). He writes:

I can only go back to myself. I look around myself and I see every year that, no matter what people do to themselves and to one another, the spring constantly renews itself. This is a physical fact, not a metaphysical theory. I look at every spring and I respond to it very strongly. But I also notice that every year the spring is the same new spring and every year I am one year older. I have to ask the question: what is the relation between my brief and tragic life and this force in the universe that perpetually renews itself? I further believe that every human being asks this question.

We can’t have spring without winter.

 

January 4, 2016

 

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Winter arrives in Vinegar Hollow with a dusting of snow.

Winter arrived with a dusting of snow, and tonight it will go to 13 degrees F. This feels right. I will cover the primrose tonight just to ease it into this sudden drop from 40-50 ish degree F weather to the teens.

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Snow continues its dusting throughout the day. Black locust in the center and old apple trees to the right are still.

 

January 5, 2016

Second morning at 4 degrees F. Three blue jays are back with a flock of juncoes. They have  spread themselves all over the lawn in the morning sun and eagerly peck the ground, perhaps finding seeds of the red spruce and the beech? There was a howling wind the night before that might have dislodged seeds. But this is just a guess. I have no idea what they are so excited about. They are tapping at the ground. The three blue jays retreat to the gutter occasionally to splash. It is hard to describe the beauty of the translucent white fan that the ends of their feathers make as they alight and depart. There is more white to the blue jay than one realizes. The primrose has shrunken within itself, the vigorous green departed, the vivid rosy pink now a troubled purple. There were no pollinators for it, but a primrose lover has seen a “ros” in winter.

p.s. The hellebore is a really extraordinary variety called Helleborus x ballardiae ‘HGC’ ‘Pink Frost.’ I lose my plant labels, or maybe I can blame it on the dogs, but this label I saved in my writing desk. It certainly can handle the ultra cold.

 

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Autumn: “the small gnats mourn”

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“Sunlight and Shadow” by Martin Johnson Heade (American 1819-1904, National Gallery, Washington, D. C.). The artist depicts “the tides, meteorological phenomena, and other natural forces that shaped the appearance of the swamp and showed how the land was used for hunting, fishing, and the harvesting of naturally occurring salt hay” (quote from National Gallery description). The apple tree is full of fruit  and the haystack  half in sun and half in shadow. I saw this painting a few weeks ago at the National Gallery and felt it captured the warmth of the harvest season portrayed in Keats’ ‘To Autumn.’ (This photograph is courtesy of wiki commons. My photograph cut off the apple tree.)

Autumn: it’s time again to walk the long good-bye among the fallen leaves and the last flowers of summer and think about Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn,’ a poem I cannot forget. For a number of years on an especially fine October day I would take my Writing as a Naturalist class at Ithaca College outside. We would read Keats’ poem aloud together and then I would ask them to choose their favorite line. Though many students of the 21st century seem to be occasionally more interested in science fiction and epic fantasy, they responded wholeheartedly to this classic Romantic poem. It never failed to awaken their notice and appreciation of the day and the season. Every line had a champion.

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Keats’ “Autumn” has been called by some the most perfect poem in the English language, and many readers and critics have observed that it is a celebration of our ecosystem and interconnectedness. Which is perhaps the reason for its perfection, in that its many references to nonhuman species awaken a remembrance of how our own biology connects us to all the fruits and birds and insects and weather of the Earth. We feel nourished after reading the poem, more aware of the blessings of harvest. Keats composed the poem, in 1819, two years before his death. Scholar Jonathan Bate writes in his essay “The Ode ‘To Autumn’ as Ecosystem” that when doctors in Rome opened up his body after death “they thought it was the worst possible Consumption—the lungs were intirely destroyed—the cells were quite gone’” (p. 258 in The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism). Keats died when he was 26.

My copy of Keats' Letters.

My copy of Keats’ Letters.

Bates quotes from one of Keats’ famous letters about a walk he took in 1819:

How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—that struck me so much in my sunday’s walk that I composed upon it. (p. 258)

Bates says that “To Autumn” is a weather poem, as were many other major Romantic poems.  Weather has always influenced our moods and especially now, in this time of climate change, our sense of the fragility of life. Keats in his letter talks about the stubble appearing warm to him, and in the poem he shows it turning rosy in the setting sun. Bates writes:

… the poem itself is an image of ecological wholeness which may grant to the attentive and receptive reader a sense of being-at-home-in-the-world….the movement through the poem…is not one which divides the culture from the nature. There is no sense of river, hill, and sky as the opposite of house and garden. Rather, what Keats seems to be saying is that to achieve being-at-home-in-the-world you have to begin from your own dwelling-place. Think globally, act locally….

Bates sees the “thee” in the poem as thoroughly female, and I have always imagined the person with “soft-lifted hair” as a woman, though much older than Winslow Homer’s “Autumn,” but perhaps with red hair as well, while Carol Rumens in her rumination on the poem, which she writes is “marked by sensuous profusion and artistic control,” sees a male Dionysian figure  becoming at some points androgynous. The students always end our Keats’ Autumn class talking about how they love Ithaca’s Apple Festival and drinking cider and eating apple cider donuts, where they connect with farmers and growers and craftspeople, many distant from academic circles the rest of the year, through the sharing of harvest.

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Winslow Homer’s “Autumn” seen at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago.

I also walk in autumn, saying a  good-bye to the ecosystem before its winter’s nap. Devoid of the kind of “artistic control” that Keats possessed,  I wish to include here all that I see.

Wild apples:

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY).

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY). So delicious!

Autumn crocus, always a surprise when it pops up unexpectedly because you forget that its leaves were ever there in the spring:

Autumn crocus arising out of myrtle. The large (some call them ungainly) leaves of the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnal) appear in the spring. After the leaves have died down, the flowers appear in the fall.

Autumn crocus and myrtle. The large (some call them ungainly) leaves of the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) appear in the spring. After the leaves have died down, and much later  the flowers appear in the fall.

Beechdrops:

Beechdrop arising out of leaf litter.

Beechdrop (a parasitic plant, Epifagus virginiana) arising out of leaf litter. It carpets the forest floor at this time of year in Enfield, NY.

Looking down at the whorled form of a beech drop, showing the reddish purple flower.

A view looking down at the whorled form of a beechdrop, showing the reddish purple flower. The beechdrop lacks chlorophyll and so must gain its sustenance from the roots of beech trees.

Delicate grasses:

The grace of grasses.

The grace of grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Some plants only become exuberant in fall, like the bur cucumber:

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Where is the bird now who nested here in the spring?

The nests are empty.

An empty nest dangles in my path.

As Keats’ suggests, the bees have their own harvesting to do:

Apple and bees.

Apple and bees or are they wasps that look like bees? I must consult my cousin for an identification.

I have my own “later flowers for the bees” —Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’:

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

The autumn day portrayed in Keats’ poem is gracious and benevolent, but we know there are also days of cool mists and grey skies and shriveled plants. Yet, they are beautiful too:

Horse browsing in Keats'

Horse browsing in Keats’ “mellow mists” (Enfield, NY).

The only descriptive word Keats repeats in the poem is “soft” as in “thy hair soft-lifted” and “soft-dying day.” He’s right. When the sun shines, autumn days are so soft, because some mists are warm.

My favorite line is “Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn.” It’s a line that is both romantic and unromantic. I find it moving that Keats gives the burden and honor of mourning, the short good-bye because gnats do not live very long, to the insignificant gnat.

Every day that I walk I find new autumn stories. The hedgerows of my husband’s tree nursery are blessed with hickories–particularly shagbark hickories. The nuts cause my feet to bobble. Soon I pick up the offending spheres, sniff them, and put them in my pocket for further aromatherapy. Sometimes I see an ecosystem story, like this one about the hickories and ants.

Shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore.

A shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore caught my attention.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

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Ants in close contact as they explore the inside of the shell.

Ants in close contact as they explore the inside of the shell.

I am sure this is a story that E. O. Wilson, the great ant biologist, could decipher, or perhaps Darwin had notes on such an interaction because he observed almost everything. It seems that Autumn is a time when members of an Ecosystem exhibit their last behaviors of interconnectedness before the Big Rest.

Goldenrod and woodpile.

The golden and the grey: goldenrod ornamenting woodpile constructed by busy human.

The rural life: Vinegar Hollow in June

Cows eating their way to Starks Ridge.

Cows eating their way to Starks Ridge in the cool of early morning.

I arrive back in Vinegar Hollow to experience  a week of June in Highland County, Virginia, at the farm that my parents bought in 1948. Things seem tranquil on the first morning as the cows move slowly across the hills chomping at the new grass, but soon enough a news story develops.

Four incarcerated cows and a cat on a fence post.

Early morning: four incarcerated cows and a cat on a fence post.

When Mike came to feed the barn cats the next morning, he noticed ear tags that didn’t match those of his herd. Two cows and two calves, not necessarily belonging to each other, which is problematic for all concerned, had strayed through an open gate from a neighboring property the day before, setting off quite a kerfuffle in the home herd. There was a tremendous bellowing by the trough all day as the cattle tried to figure out who belonged where. In the evening the owners rounded up the strays  but couldn’t get them back over the Peach Tree Hill before dark so they spent the night cooped up, like chickens you might say, which did not agree with them. They had plenty of water in the trough, but the grasses on the other side of the fence smelled so sweet. Their longing for freedom intensified over night and they stared at me intently as I strolled with my morning coffee, hoping I was the one who would free them. I told them Corey and Miranda would come soon.

I remembered the time my sister and I slept overnight outside in our sandbox, which had been converted into a tent. We woke up in the early morning when the large head of a large deer poked through the blanket over the sandbox, sniffing, nuzzling, and terrifying us. It turned out be to a pet deer that had escaped its owner. This is what I mean by news stories on a farm.

Nearby I watch the daily progress of the wild cucumber creeping out of the gone-wild calf nursery. This enclosure, my mother’s old vegetable garden, has metal hoops that are covered in winter with canvas to protect newborn calves that have been booted out of the barn to make way for new arrivals–in the too-cold of their birthing season.

Wild cucumber vine creeping over the wall, tendril by tendril.

Wild cucumber vine creeping over the wall, tendril by tendril.

It's over the wall!

It’s over the wall!

Still drinking my coffee, I watch the blue-black butterfly that comes jogging around the house every morning and afternoon visiting the same patch of scat, which has been rained on so often that it must seem fresh.  This is probably the black swallowtail mimic that has no tails, the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax).

Red-spotted Purple on scat in garden lawn.

Red-spotted Purple on scat in garden lawn.

This individual has come to seem like my personal friend. I have chased around after it and found that its behavior fits that described for this species–it enjoys scat, gravel roads, and roadsides.

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The butterfly has made its way to our gravel driveway. Photographing butterflies is frustrating for the amateur. This is not sharp, but finally I see the “red” spots at the extremities of the upper wings. I didn’t notice them at all while observing the constantly moving “flutterby.”

Underside of the Red-Spotted Purple found by the side of the road by the apple orchard in Vinegar Hollow.

Underside of the Red-Spotted Purple found by the side of the road near the apple orchard in Vinegar Hollow. It was killed, mostly likely, by my car or Mike’s as very few others travel this road. Soon I started noticing dead Red-spotted Purples on Route 220 north and south to Monterey. Their penchant for frequenting gravel and roads is not healthy.

The Red-spotted Purple has found fame in the hands of writer May Swenson, author of the poem “Unconscious Came a Beauty” written  in the shape of the butterfly that alighted on her wrist while she was writing one day. It is a delicate poem full of stillness until the last line, “And then I moved.” She was fortunate to have this experience, and we are fortunate to have her poem. The hollow seems to be full of Red-spotted Purples this year, and there is much to learn about them. There are good observers out there, like Todd Stout, who offers a youtube video on identifying the hibernacula of this species. A hibernaculum is the overwintering curled-leaf-like home of the caterpillar, beautifully camouflaged to avoid notice. It is hard for me to imagine that I can ever learn to spot a hibernaculum, but I do know black cherry trees, a preferred host, so that’s a start.

The viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare), a member of the forget-me-not family.

The viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a member of the forget-me-not family.

I am happy to find viper’s bugloss, my mother’s favorite wildflower, abundant along the cliff road, nestled against the limestone outcroppings, as impressionistic a combination of pink and blue as one can imagine. The pollen is blue, while the stamens are red. Margaret McKenny and Roger Tory Peterson in A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America describe it as “bristly.” Yes, it’s the right word. The flowers may look a little fluffy, due to their exserted stamens, but the plant rebuffs touching. It is definitely a porcupine in flowery dress.  “Bugloss” derives from two Greek words meaning head of a cow and tongue, the import of that being that the leaves are as coarse as a cow’s tongue.

Close-up of viper's bugloss, also known as blueweed, showing exserted stamens.

Close-up of viper’s bugloss, also known as blueweed, showing exserted pink stamens with slate-blue pollen .

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Close-up showing bristly nature of the plant.

My mother had a passionate attachment to viper’s bugloss, tucking little sprays of it into vases in her kitchen whenever she could. Maybe it was the blueness that attracted her, because she loved the indigo bunting and the bluebird as well, but I suspect she also sympathized with its bristlyness.

It rains every day, which brings the red eft out of hiding. Once years ago as a child I found one that had been stepped on by me or one of my family members near the garden gate as we arrived for the summer, one of its feet flattened, looking so childlike that I felt like crying. I watched this one undulate noiselessly to safety.

The red eft stage of the eastern newt.

The red eft stage of the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens).

June is hay-making season, and the air in Vinegar Hollow is sweet with the scent of flowering grasses, native and nonnative.  I remember helping to make hay stacks in the Big Meadow in the old days when a pitchfork was the preferred tool. Then rectangular bales came along, which were easy to lift, though prickly, but with the advent of  the huge round bales of today the farmer needs sophisticated machinery to make and maneuver them into storage. Now I just walk among the grasses on the hills, admiring the delicacy of the myriad grass “florets,” trying to remember what I learned in Agrostology, the study of grasses, as a graduate student in botany at the University of Texas at Austin. I loved the course, but we worked almost entirely with herbarium specimens which took some of the romance out of the enterprise. A floret is a little floral package, which includes a very small flower lacking petals and sepals, but surrounded by two protective scales, the lemma and the palea. Much in the study of agrostology depends on the lemma and the palea. And the awn. The specialized vocabulary needed to described the intricacy of grasses is remarkable.

While each floret may seem too modest to admire, many florets grouped together make stunning inflorescences. Grasses in flower argue for a special kind of beauty. Their feathery stigmas and dangling anthers float and shiver in the breezes, and entire hillsides seem to shift when wind moves through the knee-high grasses.

This week I fell in love, again, with a grass I know by sight but whose name I had never learned.  It’s downy, pinkish-purplish above and bluish-greenish lower down. Let’s call it the Mystery Grass.

My mystery grass, which turned out to be Nuttall's reed grass (Calamagrostis ....).

Mystery Grass. Mike said that he’s always called it feather grass and that it’s one our native grasses.

Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, in her recent “On Nature” column for the New York Times, titled “Identification, Please,” writes that

There’s an immense intellectual pleasure involved in making identifications, and every time you learn to recognize a new species of animal or plant, the natural world becomes a more complicated and remarkable place, pulling intricate variety out of a background blur of nameless gray and green.

She’s right.

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A “blur of nameless” grasses flowering in June in Vinegar Hollow.

I decided to try to name  the sweet-smelling, soft feather grass. I have spent almost a lifetime identifying plants in Vinegar Hollow using Virginia McKenny and Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide, but they don’t include grasses in their book, though grasses are wildflowers. My father taught me the easy forage grasses, like timothy and orchard grass, so distinctive that they can’t be mistaken for anything else, but I don’t remember him naming the mystery grass.

Mystery Grass. Inflorescences open as they mature, spreading out their pollen to the wind.

Mystery Grass. Inflorescences open as they mature, allowing anthers to dangle, offering pollen to the wind.

Mystery Grass, showing the purple tips of the inflorescence.

Mystery Grass, showing the purple tips of the inflorescences and a few anthers just peaking out of florets.

Lacking a field guide, I set off into the vast world of the Internet, which after three or hours yielded an answer through a combination of sources: Nuttall’s Reedgrass or Calamagrostis coarctata (synonym Calamagrostis cinnoides). Reader: if my identification is incorrect, please let me know. If I’m right, I’d like to know that also. I never found the perfect source with a clear photograph.

Grasses are hard to get to know, especially as they change through the growing season, similar to birds whose juvenile feathers have different colors and patterns than the adult ones. My “feather grass” will look different at the  end of the season, when the seed has ripened. The soft purple will have turned to a whispery tan, and the shape of the inflorescence will change as well. During my search, as I tried to differentiate the “feather grass” from the other grasses common in Virginia, I collected other grasses for comparison. Falling back upon my training in agrostology, I made a multi-species herbarium sheet to reveal the unique morphologies of the inflorescences that in the field “blur” together so beautifully.

Grasses found in Vinegar Hollow, June, 2015.

Grasses found in Vinegar Hollow, June, 2015.

I have  other story lines here in the hollow to move forward as well. Two eminent trees, a sugar maple and a black oak, have dominated the farmyard at the end of the hollow for three generations or more. The black oak is all but dead. My father hired someone to put a lightning rod on the oak years ago, but age has overtaken it and limbs are falling steadily. Only a few slender branches have any leaves, and they are small. The granary nearby, full of valuable farm machinery, is at risk. Roy, who has lived in the hollow 91 years, says that it was in its prime when he was young. It is the kind of tree that people stand under and say, if only this tree could talk, the stories it could tell. In high school I wrote a poem for our literary magazine about the trees, which I always thought of as parental, the sugar maple like my mother and the black oak like my father. I had hoped to predecease them, but it has fallen upon me to take action. I met with the tree service this week to make the appointment for removing the oak. As I confronted my depressing role as executioner, I thought of W. S. Merwin’s remarkable piece of writing called “Unchopping a Tree.” No one should take down a tree with a light conscience.

There is good news, however. My husband and I have been protecting two seedlings of this oak in the yard under the electric pole. They must be transplanted this fall before they are too big to move and before the electric company decides to eliminate them. We are going to transplant both and hope that one at least lives for the next 300 years.

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Granary and black oak.

Black oak seedling.

Black oak seedling.

The last news story is that the light on the pole lamp went out. Set on top of a tall telephone-type pole, it casts a broad illumination. My mother put it up years ago. She lived at the farm alone for many years and it must have given her a welcome sense of company, and, it would have lighted her chores at night. I never liked it because in the evening it attracted luna moths that would then cling to the pole, quiescent, during the day even as birds pecked them to shreds, and it casts too much light for sleepers who like a darkened room. I wasn’t prepared for the utter darkness that night when the pole light didn’t go on. I had come to the hollow with the dog and the cat, but without the husband, children, or grandchildren.  The stars and the moon can be very bright at the end of the hollow, but there are no lights from any other sources. My nearest neighbor, Roy, is over several folds of the creased hills that make up Vinegar Hollow. On this still, overcast night, there was complete darkness without and within, when I had turned off the house lights. Paul Bogard, in his book The End of Night:  Searching for Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, talks about how light pollution affects our relationship with the natural world. Lying in bed, surrounded by complete and utter darkness, I felt a little uneasy, but settled into it, perhaps like a Red-spotted Purple caterpillar in a hibernaculum. I let the darkness take on a natural presence around me.

Then I started thinking about the new stories of this week in June. The cows and calves, the red eft, Nuttall’s Reedgrass, the viper’s bugloss, the black oak, the tendrils exploring  the hereafter, and so on. I also remembered one of my favorite reflections about the rural life, made by Verlyn Klinkenborg in his Farewell column for the New York Times’ editorial page:

I am more human for all the animals I’ve lived with since I moved to this farm. Here, I’ve learned almost everything I know about the kinship of all life. The only crops on this farm have been thoughts and feelings and perceptions, which I know you’re raising on your farm, too. Some are annual, some perennial and some are invasive — no question about it.

But perhaps the most important thing I learned here, on these rocky, tree-bound acres, was to look up from my work in the sure knowledge that there was always something worth noticing and that there were nearly always words to suit it.

Klinkenborg kept faith with his column on rural life for 16 years. “Nearly always,” he says, there are words that suit. I pause over the “nearly always.”  The work of finding suitable words keeps pulling me forward.

Looking at Flowers: the Trout Lily and the Black Parrot Tulip

The forest floor in early spring awaiting the arriving of spring ephemerals.

The forest floor in early spring awaiting the arrival of spring ephemerals with foliage of squirrel corn (Dicentra cucullaria) casting shadows.

It was such a long, long, long winter that I am still wandering around dazed by the sudden appearance of flowers all around me. The air carries intoxicating scents from flowers whose shapes and colors leave me wondering about beauty and the question of the “abominable mystery” of flowering plants.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum).

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum). Note reddish brown anthers.

Who is the fairest of us all? Of the many, two have occupied my thoughts. One is an old friend I found in the woods, the Trout Lily (above), and the other an exotic stranger that appeared in my own neglected side yard, the Black Parrot tulip (below), a complete surprise to me.

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Black Parrot emerging from ferns.

The earliest wildflowers of the woods are often called “spring ephemerals” because they flower on the forest floor before trees have fully leafed out, when the light is dappled. Everything about the trout lily matches its dappled setting, from the splotched leaves to the yellow brown of the recurved petals and sepals, hence its many other common names like amberbell, fawn lily, adder’s tongue, and dog tooth violet. The coloration camouflages the flower, whose “purpose” is to avoid death before its seeds have matured.

Trout Lily emerging from dense leaf cover.

Trout Lily emerging from dense leaf cover. Note recurved petals, brownish on the underside.

One of the most salient characteristics of their life history is the army of small leaflets that populate their preferred habitat. Once you become aware of the little leaflets of young trout lilies, it is hard to walk delicately enough to avoid stepping on them. There are far fewer flowers.

Trout Lily leaflets nestling into every available space.

Trout Lily leaflets nestling into every available space.

Elizabeth Murray solved the mystery for me years ago in her 1974 column “In Nature’s Garden” in Virginia Wildlife. She explained the trout lily’s remarkable ability to proliferate and I have always wanted to share it. She writes,

The mature seed lies dormant on the forest floor from mid-summer, when it is shed from the plant, until the following spring. Then it germinates to form a tiny miniature corm which sends up only a single leaf, and no flower. The following season the little corm produces from one to three thin threads called droppers. These sometimes appear briefly above ground and then arch over and burrow straight down into the earth. Each dropper forms a new corm at its tip with the transfer of stored food from last season’s corm. The new corms can be over half a foot away from the original one and several inches deeper into the soil. Each one, again, only grows a single food-manufacturing leaf and no flowers. This process may continue for up to four years, depending on soil conditions, so that there can be as many as 45 plants from the five seeds germinating in one year from a single flower. All of these plants will consist of a single leaf and no flowers and will be spread out over quite a wide area. This of course explains the large, flowerless patches of flowers so often found.Finally, when the corm has reached a good size, it no longer sends out droppers, but instead produces a single, complete plant with the elegant little flower that we know and admire. This unusual procedure helps to ensure vigorous and healthy offspring, since a young plant at the start of its growth will have a large food reserve amassed by the parent. Another advantage one might point out a little ruefully is that the performance helps to protect the plant from predatory wild flower gatherers ! All this “burrowing” embeds the corm deeper and deeper into the soil, so that by the time it is ready to produce a flower, it may be over a foot below the surface. To dig it up without damaging the long, fragile stalk which is growing out from it is an extremely difficult operation.

If you follow her explanation carefully, you cannot help but be impressed by the remarkable ingenuity of this stolon-dropper method of getting around, a kind of vegetative hopscotching. Viable seed are only produced every 4 or 5 years, so this process ensures the multiplication of each crop of good seed.

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The leaflet of the young trout lily is a work of art.

It is staggering to think of the secret life of these corms, a foot below the surface and the long voyage of the flower stalk up to the dappled light. Please visit WinterWoman’s blogpost with further details and wonderful photographs of the stolons and droppers.

Trout Lily with yellow anthers (anthers are the pollen-bearing organs of the plant).

Trout Lily with yellow anthers (anthers are the pollen-bearing organs of the plant). It looks like this flower is shedding pollen. The flower with the reddish brown anthers may be unripe or perhaps sterile. Elizabeth Murray notes that viable seed are only produced every 4-5 years.

The black parrot tulip (Tulipa gesnerana dracontia) is an entirely different kettle of fish in terms of beauty. The group that appeared in the dusty neglected bed next to our driveway, appeared beak by beak, before opening to flaunt their dressy selves among the simple ferns and lily of the valley that eke out a pretty dry existence under the broad eaves of the house. I stopped planting tulips 30 years ago after the deer ate 40 tulip blossoms just as they were about to open. I left for work one morning admiring my long row of perfectly formed blossoms waving gently on glaucous pale green stems. When I came home, there were only stalks two inches high. So, since I do not plant tulips, these wild parrots must have been leftover bulbs from my husband’s garden center planted unbeknownst to me.

The black parrot, in a vase,  from above.

The black parrot, in a vase, from above.

The black parrot is apparently so named because their buds resemble the beaks of parrots. This is true. The buds are not very pretty. Parrot tulips develop from spontaneous mutations but were not coveted because weak stems caused the frilly flowers to flop in the mud. A stiffer stemmed parrot mutation called ‘Fantasy’ appeared in 1910 that led to the eventual breeding of the well-stemmed Black Parrot, introduced officially in 1937 by C. Keur & Sons. It has been named the best parrot tulip of the 20th century!

Black Parrot emerging from ferns.

Black Parrot dusted with pollen from red spruce overhead.

The black parrot tulips seduced me feather by feather. I have no view of the side of my driveway from inside the house, so I was happy to find that they make long-lasting cut flowers. I kept drifting into the room where I left the vase, ogling, considering, wondering, adjusting my view.

Their appeal is exuberant  extravagance. Words used to describe the petals include ruched, waved, feathered, frothy, frilled, twisted, scalloped and curled. The color is a deep bluish burgundy, a purple black shot through with green. As the horticulturalist Maureen Gilmer writes, the black parrot tulip “dares to be different, wearing its satins and sequins, even when accomplishing the most pedestrian task” –like adorning my driveway.

The parrot-beak-like buds of the Black Parrot tulip.

The parrot-beak-like buds of the Black Parrot tulip.

The tulip produces droppers as well, as described in Agnes Arber’s great book The Monocotyledons. Arber, the first female botanist elected to the Royal Society in 1946, and the first woman to receive the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society for contributions to botany, writes:

A curious feature of the life-history of the Tulip is the lowering of the bulb into the soil, year by year, during the period of immaturity. This descent is accomplished by means of a tubular organ, the “dropper” or “sinker,” which carries the terminal bud inside its tip. We may illustrate the first stages from the seedling of Erythronium which behaves similarly.

This page of intense packed squiggles from Arber’s Monocotyledons illustrates her patience and skill in portraying the morphological complexity of the droppers in various stages of development. Fortunately, her father, who was an artist, saw that she had drawing lessons from the age of 8.

A page from Agnes Arber's Monocotyledons showing tulip and trout lily droppers.

A page from Agnes Arber’s Monocotyledons showing tulip and trout lily droppers.

How much more we would understand about plant life if we worked at drawing the developmental stages of plants from a young age. Arber’s drawings inform us about form and function in ways hard to decipher when dazzled by the three-dimensional reality of the living plant.

So, who is the fairest of us all? No one can claim that title, because  the appeal of beauty is a mystery–one that  English professor Elaine Scarry explores in her book On Beauty and Being Just. A distinguished Professor of Aesthetics and Theory of General Value at Harvard, she writes with elegant simplicity and clarity about the value of beauty. I love this sentence:

How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.

By beauty she does not mean perfection. The army of trout lily leaflets marching higgily piggily over the forest floor is a beautiful, but untidy, sight. One of her theses is that academia has undervalued beauty because it thinks that honoring beauty detracts from an interest in social justice. As the title of her book suggests, she does not agree.

But the claim throughout these pages that beauty and truth are allied is not a claim that the two are identical. It is not that a poem or a painting or a palm tree or a person is “true,” but rather that it ignites the desire for truth by giving us, with an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience of conviction and the experience, as well, of error.

If we are aware, every flower, every pollinator, every little one of the “endless forms most beautiful” (Darwin again) should move us to a desire for truth and justice and considering error in our judgment. She believes that “constant perceptual acuity–high dives of seeing, hearing, touching” help us “in the work of addressing injustice.” Barry Lopez, honored in an earlier blog, would agree that this is the work of naturalists.

Charles Darwin called the sudden appearance of flowering plants (angiosperms) in the fossil record  100 million years ago an “abominable mystery” because it conflicted with his theory of the gradual evolution of life forms. He suggested that perhaps intermediate fossil forms might eventually be found in faraway places of the world. In fact, this has turned out to be true. Very early angiosperms have been found in China, remote at Darwin’s time when paleobotany was in its infancy, but now also in Europe and the United States. And a living link between the “primitive” gymnosperms and the “advanced” angiosperms was identified in New Caledonia in the form of Amborella trichopoda, the only member of the Amborellaceae family. It is an insignificant treelet with insignificant flowers, four small, hue-less petals, whose entire genome has now been sequenced in the Tree of Life Project. Although the origin of flowering plants is no longer an abominable mystery, biologists still debate theories to account for the great success of angiosperms over gymnosperms. One is the nutrient-advantage hypothesis—that angiosperm leaves having more veins than conifer needles and scales can draw more sustaining nourishment from the Earth. Flowers persuade me, though, that beauty has a biological force.

Another one of Scarry’s theses is that beauty prompts replication, for  “Beauty brings copies of itself into being.” In her wonderful discussion of Matisse and palm tree leaves, she writes “But beautiful things, as Matisse shows, always carry greetings from other worlds within them.” A bulb seller posted  Georgia O’Keefe’s comment on their website: “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” That is why naturalists write.

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The naturalist occasionally has to do mundane errands, like choosing a new lighting fixture for the kitchen, all the while thinking about Elaine Scarry's ideas about beauty replicating itself--and there was a painting of a black parrot tulip for sale!

The naturalist occasionally has mundane errands, like choosing a new lighting fixture for the kitchen– all the while thinking about Elaine Scarry’s ideas about beauty replicating itself–and there was a painting of a black parrot tulip for sale on the wall of the store among the lights, proving Scarry’s point!

h-ronk…hrink…h-ronk…hrih: Canada Geese and the Art of Nocturnal Conversation

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Dawn at the shore of Cayuga Lake, at Aurora, New York,  thick with little ice floes, where Canada geese “sleep” at night. These were the conditions during much of January, February, and March 2015.

 

I never thought I would be moved to write about Canada geese, though naturalists are supposed to be interested in everything, and I am, but I have, unfortunately, shared many people’s misperceptions that these large, melon-shaped, waddling birds have more obnoxious qualities than pleasant ones. They can’t sing, and they take over lake shores leaving copious droppings. This is all wrong headed. They can’t sing, but they can talk in an interesting fashion, and their droppings are very “clean,” really just grass pellets.

Since Thanksgiving my husband and I have slept a dozen or so nights in Aurora, New York, just 250 yards from the shores of Cayuga Lake, one of the beautiful Finger Lakes in upstate New York. Each night the noisy conversations of the geese on the lake have made sleeping through the night  impossible.  As the woman at the coffee shop said, “It is a great cacophony.” One dozes, rolls over, opens an ear. Yes, they are still squawking at top volume…throughout the night. My question is, what are they talking about? Like most people I love the sound of the melancholy honks of migrating geese and the sight of their strong pinions flapping rhythmically like oars in the sky. But these geese are neither migrating nor mating. They are temporary residents of Aurora all winter, feeding in the cornfields nearby by day and chatting near the shore of the lake by night. Soon they will go north to breeding grounds that they return to year after year, I fantasize perhaps even to Teshekpuk Lake in Alaska.

I asked my husband what he thought the subject of their extensive conversations might be. His answer was quick. “It’s bedroom talk,” he said. “But it’s not mating season yet,” I said.

Pattern of ice breaking up on Cayuga Lake south of Aurora near Ithaca.

Ice breaking up on Cayuga Lake south of Aurora near Ithaca creates a beautiful pattern.

I would probably not have become obsessed with finding an answer if not for a recent reading of What the Robin Knows by Jon Young. Young, mentored by tracker Tom Brown in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, has become a leading authority on bird communication.

Valuable book for bird watchers.

Valuable book for bird watchers.

He writes, “Observers of bird language listen to, identify, and interpret five vocalizations: songs, companion calls, territorial aggression (often male to male), adolescent begging, and alarms.” His thesis is that songbirds have a number of specific vocalizations and if we humans pay attention we will know more about the world going on around them/us, the point being that them/us are One.

Rafts of snow geese on shore by Aurora. The snow geese do not mingle with or crowd the Canada geese.

Rafts of snow geese on shore by Aurora. The snow geese do not mingle with the Canada geese.

My search for an understanding of what they need or want to communicate about all night long  has led me on a wild chase into goose literature (the nights were way too cold and too dark for first-hand observation, and the geese sensing an interloper would have altered their talk). First, two points: (1) geese are perhaps second only to humans in their level of communicativeness, and (2) geese act purposefully, their vocalizations often indicating the purpose or concern at hand.  My exploration led me eventually to naturalist Bernd Heinrich’s book The Geese of Beaver Bog. He makes point #2 when talking about some unusual activity of Peep, the goose friend he observes in the book: “It is presumably not without reason. No goose behavior is.” This remark made me sure that the deafening nocturnal chatter of the Canada geese by the shores of Cayuga Lake in Aurora has a purpose.

Bernd Heinrich reports on his observations of Peep and Pop, a goose and gander who nested near one the beaver ponds near his house. A dramatic account, as he is often dashing around reporting on various unusual activities.

Bernd Heinrich reports on his observations of Peep and Pop, a goose and gander who nested at the edge of one of the beaver ponds near Heinrich’s house. A dramatic account, as he is often dashing around sharing in the hardships of Peep and Pop.

Canada Geese are said to have at least 13 kinds of vocalizations, though one source puts the number at several dozen.  Some of these can be heard on the Macaulay Library of biodiversity audio and video recordings, part of Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology. Under calls, they list “various loud honks, barks, and cackles. Also some hisses.” Peep, Heinrich’s part tame/part wild goose friend allowed him to observe intimate details of her life with the completely wild gander Pop. He writes of one of her sounds, “She closed her eyes and made barely audible low grunting sounds when I walked up to her. If sounds have texture, these were velvet.” His book gives one an entirely new appreciation of the intelligence and deep heart of this species. A recent youtube video made in February 2015 makes me think of Peep and Pop. It captures some of the evocative and tender impressions that I gathered from Heinrich’s book.

A comprehensive survey of the life history of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) by State and Federal Licensed Waterfowl Rehabilitator Robin McClary  describes their strong social bonds. McClary writes that Canada geese are “loyal and emotional towards each other,” a clue to their frequent vocalizations. They mate for life (though Heinrich describes a “divorce” in The Geese of Beaver Bog) and congregate in family groups. If first-time parents are negligent towards their progeny, older, more experienced adults move them to foster care. Extended family groups congregate and stay together until the next mating season, with large family groups showing dominance over small ones. McClary writes that mating bonds are sometimes established on wintering sites (clue). McClary describes the considerable range and subtlety of their vocalizations:

“The gander has a slower, low-pitched “ahonk” while the goose’s voice is a much quicker and higher-pitched “hink” or “ka-ronk.” Mated pairs will greet each other by alternating their calls so rapidly that it seems like only one is talking. The typical “h-ronk” call is given only by males. Females give a higher-pitched and shorter “hrink” or “hrih”. Pitch also changes depending on the position of the neck, and the duration of the call varies depending on context. Dominant individuals are about 60 times more vocal than submissive flock mates. Canada geese calls range from the deep ka-lunk of the medium and large races to the high-pitched cackling voices of smaller races. Researchers have determined that Canada Geese have about 13 different calls ranging from loud greeting and alarm calls to the low clucks and murmurs of feeding geese. A careful ear and loyal observer will be able to put each voice to the honking goose/geese.

Goslings begin communicating with their parents while still in the egg. Their calls are limited to greeting “peeps,” distress calls, and high-pitched trills signaling contentment. Goslings respond in different ways to different adult calls, indicating that the adults use a variety of calls with a range of meanings to communicate with their young. The goslings have a wheezy soft call that may be either in distinct parts – “wheep-wheep-wheep” – or a drawn out whinny – “wheee-oow”. Just as in adolescent people, when the voice changes as the goose matures, it will often “crack” and sounds like a cross between a honk and a wheeze. This will be noticeable when the goslings are becoming fully feathered and starting to use body movements to communicate. When a flock gets ready to take off and fly away, they will usually all honk at the same time. The female makes the first honk, to indicate it is time to go, while the rest of the flock will chime in all together. The female leads the flock away in flight.”

These descriptions were music to my ears as I realized how interesting a subject I had found through pursuing a naturalist’s query. My sojourn by the shores of noisy Cayuga Lake over, I feared opportunities for first-hand observation were over as well. However, I soon happened to find myself among the Canada geese again at my son’s college golf tournament in Hellertown, Pennsylvania. While having my morning coffee at a Panera in a busy intersection in Bethlehem, PA, I noticed a set of framed photos  to the left of the cash register featuring Canada geese.

Photos of Canada geese at Panera in Bethlehem, PA.

Photos of Canada geese at Panera in Bethlehem, PA.

I took a close up of their photo of goslings protected under feathers of mother goose.

Goslings nesting in mother goose's feathers.

Goslings nesting in and under mother goose’s feathers. (Photo courtesy of Panera.)

Then I looked outside the window and saw a goose or gander in the median strip of the busy intersection.

Goose or gander in narrow strip of turf near busy intersection. Note bright white chin strap.

Goose or gander in narrow strip of turf near busy intersection. Note bright white chin strap.

I did some further investigations (it was a very hard area to drive in, so the geese have quite an advantage in flying), and found a small conservation area (a small swampy stream) across the highway from the Panera, where  a family group browsed. Parking was not easy, so I observed from the car window. Also, I didn’t want to disturb them. If they had mastered this busy environment, they didn’t need a stranger upsetting their routine. They are wary birds, very attuned to human behavior.

On to the golf course I went, where, happily, I found that Canada geese were plentiful at the various ponds and other water hazards.

Canada geese at Silver Creek Golf Course, Hellertown, PA.

Canada geese at Silver Creek Golf Course, Hellertown, PA.

By now I had learned enough about Canada geese to be respectful and a somewhat savvy observer. I did not try to get close enough to take better photos, and I avoided disturbing their feeding. All the geese I encountered had paired off, with the gander acting as lookout for the goose, so she could browse undisturbed. The pairs remained silent for the most part, rarely a honk or hiss. Things are relatively serene now, as nesting has not yet occurred, and the geese seem to know  that golfers startle easily and need quiet surroundings. I enjoyed watching the pairs and noting how their behavior was  like that of Peep and Pop, as described by Heinrich in The Geese of Beaver Bog.

One of the sources I consulted for this piece. This is  part II, of one of the 20 volumes in the magisterial work on North American birds by Arthur Cleveland Bent.  Bent's account reports a lot of Audbon's beautiful writing on Canada geese.

One of the sources I consulted for this piece. This is part II, of one of the 20 volumes in the magisterial work on North American birds by Arthur Cleveland Bent, who quotes freely from John James Audubon’s spirited writing on Canada geese.

I have done a lot more research than I can report on here, but clues abound in answer to why the Canada geese talk through the night in their midwintering grounds at Aurora, NY. Yes, it could definitely be bedroom talk as my husband suggested. McClary mentioned that the choice of mate for first-time maters often occurs in midwinter.  Also, it could be that family groups become separated during feeding at the cornfields during the day and just need to sort themselves out at night, with the larger family groups jostling for space over the smaller family groups. And, as McClary noted, dominant individuals talk 60% more than less dominant individuals, so the gathering off the dock may have been full of dominant individuals. Maybe they were complaining over the ice floes, the cold, the state of the cornfields. Maybe….

The last night that we stayed in Aurora, I placed  ear plugs by my bed, but did not use them. I couldn’t do it. I wanted to listen and imagine even if I could not understand.

(I have posted on youtube a video recording, courtesy of David Fernandez [husband], of the vocalizing Canada geese. Quadruple the volume and you will have some sense of the “great cacophony.”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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