Pandemic Therapy: Fieldwork

                                              

My first view of the great blue heron I have observed at Stewart Park, Ithaca, NY.

Stewart Park in Ithaca, NY, has become my stomping ground during the pandemic. I go in the early morning after picking up a decaf with a splash of milk. Only a handful of regulars are there so early—one or two walkers and runners, a tennis player with a bandana who plays by himself and pulls ball after ball out of his skimpy shorts pockets like a magician, a cluster of kayakers at the boathouse, and a few people who just sit in their cars and observe Cayuga Lake, which is 38 miles long, disappear into the north. A long view is good right now. 

A favorite perch of “my” GBH at the Stewart Park “lagoon.”

Another regular is a great blue heron (sex unknown). Like many, I have always been attracted to great blue herons—their statuesque silhouettes, the intense stare of their yellow-rimmed eyes, the elegant plumes, and the lengthy stillness of their poses, which implies a fixity of purpose—an assumption that is not far wrong. They combine ganglyness and grace, the Abraham Lincoln of birds. They appear permanently immovable but can break repose lightning fast to seize prey. I decided to dedicate my walks to the great blue heron, a daily fieldwork, rain or shine, a time to meditate on the habits of a nonhuman fellow creature–a pandemic practice in schooling myself in the ways of another life form.

Two feet on the same perch!

I have been puzzling about how to refer to him or her without using “it” having recently listened to moss ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer discuss animacy, on Krista Tippett’s program On Being. Animacy is defined as “a grammatical and semantic feature, existing in some languages, expressing how sentient or alive the referent of a noun is” . Kimmerer objects to the use of “it” to refer to any sentient life form, noting that “it” is best reserved for manmade objects like a chair or a table. In the language of her ancestors, the Potawatomi, “You hear a blue jay with a different verb than you hear an airplane,” she writes. In searching for a pronoun other than “it” for a nonhuman living being, she learned of the Potawatomi word “Aakibmaadiziiwin” for “a being of the earth,” perhaps too long for everyday use. Here I will use GBH as a useful abbreviation. After all, RBG is used routinely for the great Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg.

Neck vertebrae of the GBH noticeable in the reflection.

The adult plumage of males and females is indistinguishable. It is difficult for even seasoned GBH watchers to determine sex. Male great blue herons are described as bigger than females but that comparison doesn’t work well when viewing a solitary individual. One fairly reliable criterion is the length from the tip of the bill (culmen) to the bit of bare skin before feathers emerge on the forehead.  This is called the culmen length. For males it is 129 to 146 mm, and for females it is 112 to 131 mm. The small overlap is considered negligible. When I learned that professional observers put a graticule or small scale in the eyepiece of a telescope to determine these lengths, I decided to give up my quest to know the gender of the individual I have been observing for four months or so. 

I am observing the photographer who is observing “my” GBH.

Like RBG in her white lace collar against the black gown, the adult GBH presents a stunning figure, having a splendid suit of feathers.  One can look up images of the flight feathers (coverts, rectrices [tail feathers], primaries, and secondaries) on an online Feather Atlas, and even observe development of the pin feathers. The final composition is extraordinary: overlapping layers of flight feathers in varying shades of slate gray-blue contrast with the delicate, white aigrette or plume feathers of the chest and the hints of reddish buff on the legs and chest.  The outfit is accented with black “epaulets,” striking shoulder patches that add a touch of officialdom. The GBH proves the adage that “clothes make the man.”

Preening the “epaulet.”

To learn more and avoid making assumptions about great blue herons, I turned to The Great Blue Heron: A Natural History and Ecology of a Seashore Sentinel by Canadian naturalist Robert W. Butler. He conducted research on Sidney Island in the Strait of Georgia off the coast of Vancouver Island near Victoria from 1986 to 1992. Although he and fellow observers mostly slept on the beach, they were able to take refuge in a small cabin on the southeast shore of Sidney Lagoon during the winter cyclones, snowstorms, heavy rains, and earthquake that occurred during this period. He writes that “Just watching the goings on is an important component of fieldwork, and living so much of the time outdoors keeps one in touch with the birds and their surroundings.” The goal of understanding daily habits and behavior is more possible through immersion in their environment. He writes, “By alternating sessions of watching with sessions of rest from dawn to dusk over a two-day period I managed to assemble a complete set of data for a typical day.” Their nighttime activities are more difficult to follow. Herons have excellent eyesight capable of 360 degree vision with little movement and are able to hunt at night because of a high percentage of rod-type photoreceptors. (See Cornell’s webcam set up and the many clips from it available on youtube for how webcams have expanded our views of GBHs.)

My “fieldwork” is not conducted in wilderness, but I am fortunate that Stewart Park has its own “lagoon” and that GBHs have adapted so successfully to existence alongside humans. I have seen the GBH “calmly” hunting 30 yards or so from a dozen small children shouting and running around the park’s sprinkler fountain area. Butler also notes that fieldwork gave him time to “ponder the world’s problems.” Pondering, defined by Merriam-Webster, as “to think or consider especially quietly, soberly, and deeply” is a good word for the naturalist’s mindset when positioned outside in a state of observation aligned with natural rhythms. Balance seems more possible than when inside; fears become allayed in a natural setting, dissipating into the atmosphere.

GBHs spend a lot of time in shallow water near a shoreline.  They perch on little snaggle-tooth logs with their feet out of the water. They just stand there, motionless and inscrutable, for many minutes, no doubt assessing potential prey activity with their yellow-irised eyes or they may suddenly twist themselves into a multitude of contortions as they preen. Their industry along these lines is exhaustive and time consuming. A chain of vertebrae extending well up their long necks allows them to extend their beaks like corkscrews into the inner recesses of their copious feathers. In addition, each four-toed foot has a “pectinated toenail” or “grooming claw” that is used to spread “powder down” on sticky patches in their flight feathers. The powder forms on their breasts from the breakdown of specially designed, delicate feathers. Apparently they also use the powder down to remove slimy oils from fish, a dining nicety worthy of this elegant creature.

On the move.

If their intent is fishing, they finially stop preening, step off the perch and immerse their feet in the water, their bellies hovering just above water level to avoid inundation that would undo the work of preening. Standing motionless and still in the water, they look inanimate unless a breeze stirs the plumes. Prey in sight, they strike lightning fast and often come up with a fish, which they swallow whole if possible. After a successful swallow, they appear, to me, to take little sips of water. When wading to a different area, one foot slowly and deliberately sliding along under the water after the other, they trail ribbons of bubbles in their wake. They prefer to seize fish between their manibles, which have finely serrated edges, but some prey, like a sizeable bullfrog is more easily speared. The coiled neck can deliver a powerful strike.  

On the move, take 2.

Herons face a significant learning curve in the matter of catching their food, and they do not all achieve the same level of proficiency. They may bottom out at what biologists call a “low level of foraging competency” in fact. Butler writes that “handling slippery, wriggling fish takes a great deal of practice acquired over many months” and that larger fish need to be “subdued.” Some fish, like catfish, need to be de-spined. Catfish have spines on their pectoral and dorsal fins, which would damage the heron digestive system. A heron may take over 20 minutes repeatedly spearing a catfish until dead and then proceed to break the spines before swallowing it. One authority states that GBHs prefer to swallow their prey when dead and so will “play” with a victim to that end by tossing and spearing on a log or the shoreline. GBHs are omnivorous. They will eat anything—from turtles to dragonflies to snakes to small mammals. Butler reports in autumn and winter herons move to the old meadows of the Frazer River delta to hunt voles. How they reliably find voles, who have underground runways and move very fast, is a mystery. 

Take off!

One morning when I rounded the bend to the lagoon, I spotted a bicyclist paused a ways ahead, the headlights of her helmet flashing eerily. Her head was turned intently to the right towards the aquatic plants by the side of the lagoon. Though the heron rarely fished along that side, I figured he or she must be the source of the bicyclist’s attention. I made a wide arc so that I had a view back towards the front of the bicyclist and the edge of the lagoon that she was studying. There was the heron, struggling with a fish. He or she dropped it, picked it up, had it flopping around in its bill, dropped it again, picked it up, and so on. This went on for the next five minutes. As the bicyclist cycled past me, she said, “I’ve been watching for 10 minutes. I am in a rush. I have no more time. What’s going on? It can’t seem to swallow that fish.” She shook her head in a frustration and cycled off. The heron did swallow the fish. Observers of GBHs do need to learn patience.

The great blue heron in crouch pose.

Fairly often the skewered prey is simply too big, more of a Moby Dick than a minnow. One such story is told by Rick Marsi in his “The Great Outdoors” column, which often appears in The Ithaca Journal. The title of his column is “Sometimes blue herons can be surprising.” He describes how he watched a GBH at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge at the north end of Cayuga Lake catch a two-pound, 14-inch carp. The heron’s upper mandible pierces the carp’s head.  The heron easily carries it to the shallows and delivers a few blows. Marsi describes the heron’s problem this way: “It has beached the whale but cannot consume it.” A second heron who had been watching the activity discreetly from a distance (GBHs hunt alone) arrives for a look, a confrontation, or possibly a takeover. However, consultation provides unity. The carp is too big. They fly off together. There is also an amazing story documented online about a great blue heron using a seagull feather as a fishing lure.

American essayist E. B. White, famous for Charlotte’s Web, wrote a profile in The New Yorker in 1966 about American ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush (1858-1929), author of a lengthy three-volume tome titled Birds of New England. White writes, “When I am out of joint, from bad weather or a poor run of thoughts, I like to sit and think about Forbush.” White admires Forbush’s fortitude: “I like to think of him … on that night when he visited a heronry among the sand dunes of Sandy Neck, Barnstable: ‘The windless air was stagnant and fetid; swarms of stinging midges, deerflies, and mosquitoes attacked at will; and vicious wood-ticks, hanging from the vegetation, reached for me with their clinging claws, and crawled upon my limbs, seeking an opening to bury their heads in my flesh.’ In such uncomfortable situations, birds being near, Mr. Forbush found the purest delight.” By this standard I have not been uncomfortable enough in my “fieldwork,” but I have been delighted.

In lieu of another one of my fuzzy cell-phone images, I would like to direct you to the website of a bird photographer I follow on Twitter, @peargrin. At her website you can find a gallery of outstanding great blue heron images. When I was thinking about this post, one of her photos came to my Twitter feed showing a GBH landing, wings outstretched, reddish buff thighs exposed, huge landing-gear feet spread wide (see second row, third image from the right). I sent a screen shot to one of my sons, and he said “What a bird!” I feel fortunate to see the GBH revealed in poses that I have never encountered and probably never will. Thank you, @peargrin.

When, like White, I am having “a poor run of thoughts,” I dip into The Redstart by John Buxton. It tells the story of how he and fellow British prisoners of war in a camp in Bavaria in WWII observed four pairs of redstarts from 1941 to 1943. He writes, “who but a prisoner could attempt to watch a pair of birds in all their waking hours throughout the breeding season?” Buxton had to organize a team because observations could only be made when outside. They logged in 850 hours on just one pair. For Buxton, “one of the chief joys of watching them in prison was that they inhabited another world than I.” Undoubtedly The Redstart inspired my GBH observation project. I try to always keep the book in sight.

As I was finishing this post, one of my sons encouraged me to watch a documentary called My Octopus Teacher. It is one of the most memorable natural history films I have ever seen. The fieldwork involved was an act of devotion like no other. The human star of the film, diver and photographer Craig Foster, says he learned to be “gentle” from his teacher. What did I learn from the Stewart Park GBH? I did try to realign myself with patience as other great blue heron observers have, but I also thought about the work of fieldwork, the power of observation. Buxton writes that “however much satisfaction there may be in tying up facts in neat parcels of theory, there is yet more in the mere observation.” The GBH was there every morning doing the work of living, and I did the same. The great blue heron taught me to just be there.

Algal bloom in the former swan enclosure at Stewart Park.

p.s. Other books that offer valuable information and images about the great blue heron include: Nature’s Way by Bud Simpson and The Great Blue Heron by Hayward Allen.

Skunk cabbage: an antidote for all seasons

Winter scene: Stewart Park, Ithaca, NY, looking north.

On March 14 I joined my daughter Charlotte and four-year-old grandson Henry for a walk in Stewart Park. A chilly wind had blown most people away. The water was jade green, and the lake’s surface was ruffled with frothing white caps rapidly heading for shore. To the north there was a fairytale view of hills, in delicate shades of gray, blue, and pink, sloping down to the lake’s edge. Henry was tiptop with zest, but my daughter and I were silent with unspoken thoughts about the pandemic. 

Stewart Park’s willows.

After checking out the playground, some parts under renovation, we meandered over the bridge to the inlet and sat on a bench while Henry tested his dinosaur boots in the mud and threw pebbles and rocks of different sizes into the water, analyzing plopping sounds, so satisfying even in troubling times. Seeking shelter from the wind, we decided to head into a remnant of forest between the train tracks and the park. Though they had not leafed out, the trees offered protection and companionship. In general, though, except for startling patches of emerald green moss, the forest floor was grey brown with matted leaves. In other words, there were no signs of life, or so it appeared.

Thing One and Thing Two.

We were following the blue-blaze path, which intrigued Henry. Sometimes he could see four blazes ahead and that kept him dancing forward while brandishing sticks, etc. But, looking at my feet, I saw a raised tuft of dead leaves with a hint of something maroon poking out. Aha! Of course! It was one of the first signs of spring, often missed because so early and relatively camouflaged. A skunk cabbage “flower.” Most people know the giant green leaves of skunk cabbage, which unfurl three feel or more in height in swampy, moist places, but these leaves arise much after the flowers when the weather has truly warmed up. They are hard to miss, because the leaves are so big and green and because skunk cabbages are so social. You rarely just see one. Like people, they prefer to congregate.

A vegetable penguin?

It turned that we had completely missed all the signs of life in the forest floor. There were hundreds of emerging “flowers,” little snouts poking out of dead leaves. The skunk cabbage “flower” is a composite structure known as the spathe and spadix. The spathe is a hood with a distinctive point, either left leaning or right leaning (a feature that is genetically determined), while the spadix is a yellowish, vertical column of male and female flowers inside the spathe. The spathe shelters the spadix, which is capable of elevating the ambient temperature around the flowers by as much as 77 degrees F*, which promotes the release of volatile oils that attract pollinators. 

Mahogany with dashes of gold.

Our walk had turned into an adventure. Watching our feet carefully, we investigated tuft after tuft of raised leaves while ooh and ahhing over new features of each new spathe. In most individuals, the maroon spathe was streaked with green and brown, sometimes a hint of gold. Some were taller, and some were rounder, each twisted in a gnomic fashion, fancifully odd. Inspired by these abundant signs of life, the sense of discovery, and the fact that buried treasure emerges when we least expect it, I said good-bye in much better spirits than when I arrived. 

On the way home I remembered that Thoreau often took note of skunk cabbage in his rambles around Concord, Massachusetts, though “rambles” is absolutely the wrong word. He was a documentarian of every detail of nature’s news, with a sharper focus than any wildlife photographer. When I was 16, my parents gave me the Dover edition of his journals, 14 volumes that spanned the years 1837 to 1861, totalling 1804 pages in Dover’s 2-volume edition, every page of which displays facsimile copies of four journal pages, so approximately 7000 pages in total!  Fortunately, the Dover edition has an Index, so I was able to read every passage, 42 of them, in which he discusses skunk cabbage.

Dover’s two-volume edition of Thoreau’s Journals containing about 7000 facsimile pages.

Throughout the year, he observed the progress of skunk cabbage, from the first tip of a spathe appearing in late February/early March to the dissemination of the nutlets (seeds) in the fall. His favorite locality was Clamshell, near the mouth of Swamp Bridge Brook along the Sudbury River, now the site of the Emerson Hospital apparently. He often remarked how numb his fingers were on the mornings he took notice of their doings, but his greatest sympathies were with the skunk cabbages themselves, which he often found blackened by frost damage, their mandate having been to emerge whatever the consequences.

“Vegetable shells”

In 1852 , he asked, “What a conspicuous place Nature has assigned to the skunk-cabbage, first flower to show itself above the bare ground! What occult relation is implied between this plant and man?” (Journal III, p. 437). The appearance of the spathes is surprising—like a magic trick done by a wizard or wizardess. Only close examination and even touching proves the reality of the situation. Like us, Thoreau was intrigued by the unusual color—the color word he most often uses is “mahogany,” but he also describes the streaks in various shades of yellow and green and how the colors change over time. The shape of the spathe seemed to entrance him. He describes the shape in various ways—often as “spear-heads,” other times as “vegetable shells,” or as “a little crypt or shrine for the flower.” The sinuous curvature compelled comparisons to “cows’ horns” and “the beak of a bird.” He marvels at how much “protection” they offer and how “roomy” the chamber is. It is instructive, companionable, and fun to accompany Thoreau on his skunk cabbage rounds. 

Skunk cabbage at Cornell’s Sapsucker Woods, seen on March 17, 2020.

He also asks questions for which he has no answers, just as we did: “I find that many of the most forward spathes, etc., have been destroyed since I was here three days ago. Some animal has nibbled away a part of the spathes (or sometimes only a hole in it)—and I see the fragments scattered about—and then eaten out the whole of the spadix. Indeed, but few forward ones are left. Is this a mouse or musquash? Or a bird? The spadix is evidently a favorite titbit to some creature” (titbit is his spelling). We noticed some nibbles and wondered about which predators were afoot. Skunk cabbage are members of the Araceae family, which contains several kinds of calcium oxalate crystals that cause , when ingested, burning, swelling of the throat, and inability to speak. Carol Gracie, author of a wonderful book called Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History (2012), advises against eating any part of skunk cabbage even after boiling. 

A page from the Dover edition, showing the arrangement of the facsimile pages from the original edition of Thoreau’s journals.

After years of gathering detailed observations in the field, Thoreau broadened his message on October 31, 1857. The occasion was noticing the resting buds of skunk-cabbage, already formed to spearhead their way up at the first sign of warmth in spring:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Who shall be sexton to them? Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of their skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ‘em,” “Give it to ‘em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” –these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with skunk-cabbage. Its withered leaves fall and are transfixed by a rising bud. Winter and death are ignored; the circle of life is complete. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot! I say it is good for me to be here, slumping in the mud, a trap covered with withered leaves. See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.

Thoreau’s negative opinions about some aspects of human culture and society often drew criticism and still do—but no one is better than he is at encouraging us to be our best, to be “transfixed” with hope rather than its opposite. Few writers could write so beautifully about an “occult relation” between skunk cabbage and people. He earned the right to eloquence, having put himself in just such a close relationship season after season, year after year, and word after word–through close observation. 

*see Gracie, p. 157.

Vinegar Hollow: 2019 (mist) ends and 2020 (sun) begins!

I am looking to the north, but the view is to the south end of Vinegar Hollow I favor photos without people, because there are so many of us, but my husband said that we need scale and human interest. Photo credit courtesy of David Fernandez.

Once again I am here for my year’s end reset. The trip from Ithaca is long, and we arrived in the dark. The gutters gurgled gently in the night, so it was not unexpected to see an overcast sky in the morning, but there was an ocean of mist filling the entire hollow.

Another view from Stark’s Ridge to the south end of the hollow.

The mist looked gentle and soft, like a soothing gauze bandage over the landscape and its inhabitants. It was peaceful. I wondered whether I would want to see the sun again. Luckily the sun pays no attention to silly thoughts. As we walked, I marveled how the hollow always offers me surprises after all these many years. Sometimes I go looking for stories, sometimes they just find me, and sometimes they are the latest chapter in a long history.

Rock cairn, a haven for mosses and lichens, on the top of Stark’s Ridge looking south. Photo courtesy of David Fernandez.

A misty, warm morning is the perfect time to focus on mosses and lichens. They appreciate moisture, so having absorbed the overnight rain and morning mist and expanded in the warmer than usual temperatures, they were in glorious condition on the morning of December 29. My husband says that my current interest in mosses and lichens makes it even harder to walk with me. I tend to creep, slowly. The stories of plants are harder to dramatize but just their appearance offers food for thought.

Fallen log covered in lichens.
Cushion moss flourishing in crevice of lichen-encrusted rock.
A community of mosses: sphagnum and feather moss.

The next day was gloriously sunny. I checked in on Isabella, whom we met on our last visit. She was born in September and orphaned in early November when her mother, an apparently healthy 1500 pound plus cow, suddenly dropped dead. Mike thinks that either it was an aneurysm or a case of choking on an apple. (To check whether the cause of death is an aneurysm I learned that one sticks a knife in the body above the diaphragm and watches for a copious volume of blood.) Ever since, he has been bottle-feeding Isabella. She has to be separated from the herd because he can’t go chasing all over the farm with a bottle twice a day. She was lonely until Mike got a new young bull, whom I am calling temporarily Young Bull With No Name. He is a little small and shy. Apparently Young Bull’s previous owner did not socialize him with other cows or people. Mike says that when a stranger approaches, he lifts his head in a kind of fear-and-flight response, which makes Mike uneasy. One of Mike’s grandsons names Mike’s bulls, but he has said that he needs more time to think about a good name. Sally, Mike’s wife, named Isabella.

Isabella slurps milk from the bottle in just a few seconds. Then she gets grain.

Isabella and Young Bull With No Name have become inseparable. They make a stunning pair. Isabella is Angus and Young Bull is a Simmental. Their hides are thick and furry at this time of year. They graze side by side–and play together!

‘Ferdinand’ on the left and Isabella on the right.

When I was walking down from Stark’s Ridge later in the day, I saw two black shapes flying the length of the barn meadow. I realized it was them, hooves and tails aloft, side by side, flinging themselves into a race back and forth. When I reported this to Mike, he laughed but shook his head and said seriously, “He has to grow up. He thinks he’s still a calf.” Maybe Young Bull With No Name should be called Ferdinand I thought, drawing a comparison with the hero of Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand, a now-famous children’s story published in 1936, about a young bull who won’t fight, preferring to smell flowers and lounge about. My husband reminded me that Ferdinand and Isabella were the monarchs of Spain who financed Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World.

And then there is the story of Roy and Big Red, man and cat, great friends now separated. Roy, 95, the oldest inhabitant of the hollow, collapsed in December and finally agreed to go live with his daughter in Roanoke. He has been living alone for years in a trailer on his tidy little farm next to ours in the hollow. After a lifetime of constant physical work, he had to rest, his body too worn out to do labor of any kind. Roy says that he could not have lived so long alone without the TV (his was so old and tiny its screen was practically invisible by modern standards, but at least there were voices and words coming out of it) and his cat.

View of the Big Meadow and its sinkholes with Roy’s farm tucked away top left.

Big Red is a handsome, slightly portly butterscotch cat, who turned up in the hollow as a stray kitten eleven or so years ago. He roams freely, clever enough to escape coyotes and other predators, but also spent hours on Roy’s lap each day and slept nestled against his back every night. Roy positively beamed with admiration and love for Big Red whenever he looked at him. His greatest fear was leaving Big Red without a home.

A closer view of Roy’s trailer and tidy farm seen from Stark’s Ridge.

Roanoake was not an option, so Big Red is back up here at our farm where he started out, and Mike is feeding him morning and night. Big Red won’t eat with the other barn cats, so Mike has to feed him separately. Big Red had a huge fight with the current tom cat in the barn and beat him up badly, without ruffling a hair of his own perfect coat it seems. Big Red sleeps in the barn now. Last night was cold and so blustery even the cows were skittering away from the noisy gusts of wind. Big Red came to the sliding glass door of the cottage where we stay and stared at me intently. I did go out and converse with him and stroke his fur–he knows me as he has sat in my lap for hours at Roy’s–but I couldn’t let him in because of our cat, Rex Fernandez, who looks exactly like Big Red, but is only 6 pounds, 4 ounces. Despite his small size and health issues Rex is fiercely territorial. Big Red and Rex stared at each other through the glass for several hours. Unhappy with the situation I went to bed early even though it was New Year’s Eve. When I woke up, Big Red was still there staring through the sliding glass door. I made a cup of coffee and took a blanket out to visit with him. He purred and purred, sniffing my coffee intently. Roy relished his three cups a day. I just called Roy and he said that he was happy living with his daughter. We didn’t mention Big Red.

Big Red to the left and Rex Fernandez to the right. Rex F. may look big here but he is tiny.

It is hard for me to see Roy and Big Red separated. They both arrived as “strays.” Roy was brought here as a foundling soon after birth. He did farm chores for his adoptive parents, all the while working as a boy at a tanning factory stoking huge vats of boiling tannin. It was nightmarish he said–the fires were never let to go out. He walked eight miles each way over hill and through forest to get to the tannery. On one trip in the dark at night he was blinded in one eye by a bramble. Hard times, a wife, two children, a divorce, more hard times, then not so hard times–he lived on and became one of the most genial, gracious, and sweet-tempered of men. He told me he remembered the day I was born. He said, “Jack came home and said you were here.” So, we have been friends a long time.

I don’t know how the story will end for Big Red. He is a people cat. Mike comes up to the barn morning and evening, and even more times as farm chores demand. We’ve decided that Big Red can stay on very cold nights in the old house, which is heated now. But there is no permanent human in residence. Big Red may go off looking for a new owner or the memory of Roy may keep him anchored in the hollow. Though lives and relationships seem to dissolve like the mist, there are durable remains of our passage. Ferdinand and Isabella’s hooves pounding the barn meadow, and Roy and Big Red’s tracks criss-crossing the hollow have marked the landscape forever. There’s a huge slab of sedimentary rock with dinosaur footprints on Stark’s Ridge, but that’s another story.

Lichens and mullein nestled at the base of a locust tree on the Hill With No Name (which is between the Pine Tree Hill and Stark’s Ridge).

Feuille-morte, or the art of dead leaves

Red oak leaves.

Ever since Robert Macfarlane posted feuille-morte as his online Word of the Day, I have been looking closely at dead, or at least dying, leaves. My sister died at the end of the summer after a difficult illness, so mortality has been on my mind. I cannot write about her, but I can write about fallen leaves. The entry was:

  “feuille-morte”—“the colour of withered leaves in autumn (John Locke); lit “dead-leaf”. Scumbled ochre-brown & russet, fox-red and mustard. ‘Feuille” is at the root of “foliage”’ at the root in turn of feuille is *bhel-, Proto-Indo European, to thrive or bloom.

Twitter (September 14, 2019)

I encountered “feuille-morte” as a color word a few years ago while researching auriculas (see Primrose published by Reaktion Press, 2019). Patricia Cleveland-Peck in her book Auriculas Through the Ages: Bear’s Ears, Ricklers and Painted Ladies compiled a list of color words that  Sir Thomas Hanmer (1612–78) used to describe his many auriculas in The Garden Book, which he wrote c.1653, but wasn’t published until 1933. He used “feuille-morte” to describe auricula flowers. I imagine a peachy brown or a beige mustard. Auriculas abound in earthy floral colors.

White oak leaves with a scrambled russet look?

“Scumbled” was new to me: I found that it is used to describe the appearance of a painting on which the artist has overlain a coat of opaque paint over a colored canvas to achieve muted, softer tones. The noun form is scumbling, and Titian is said to have innovated the technique. I can see why “scumbled” goes well with “feuille-morte.”

As leaves shrivel, their veins become more noticeable.

Looking at fallen leaves can be an adventure into observing both the beauty and mortal effects of predation, disease, and the wear-and-tear of life. It is not easy to be a leaf. Some “eaten” leaves, those termed “skeletonized,” are quite beautiful. Insect larvae mine their way through the inside of the leaf leaving trails. When the tissues invaded by those trails die, only the veins, which are made of cells with walls (animal cells have no walls), are left.

Skeletonized leaf showing the mining trails left by an internal predator.

Then there are the waves of color that show the shifting physiological status inside the leaf. As death comes, transformations occur that render the leaf entirely new to our sight, and not unbeautiful, perhaps even suggestive of a surreal life to come.

I love the pattern of receding chlorophyll, the brown splotches, the feathering pattern of veins off the main ribs, and the holes.

There are infinitesimal shadings even in a pile of “brown” leaves that one might walk by without a thought—is a given leaf brown, or beige, or oatmeal, or greyish tannish, or greyish gold?

Then there is spotting—so delicate, like the pin holes in a lace pricking. There are an amazing array of organisms that feed on leaves–all the little bugs, including those that suck, those that chew, and those that lay eggs, and then the fungi that make many modifications in the substance and appearance of a leaf (e.g., maple tar spot disease).

Cottonwood leaves spotted by a fungus.

Each leaf takes a different path in its fall to the ground and eventual demise. It has been hard for me to walk by fallen leaves without observing new patterns and without thinking about the infinite variety of life, so much of which seems to vanish too quickly. Coming home from the coffee shop where I was working on this blog on a wintry, gusty evening I saw groups of leaves swirling and chasing each other across the road in front of my car. Their animation felt joyful. When they are gone, swept away by leaf blowers or packed away in bags, we will feel their absence.

Sycamore leaf on the pavement of a sidewalk in Stewart Park, Ithaca, NY.

Though I am smitten by the aesthetics of feuille-morte and scumbled russet, I know that they are “workers”–their sole purpose to carry on photosynthesis, taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Steven Vogel in The Life of a Leaf writes that “It’s a remarkably multifaceted endeavor, this business of doing a leaf’s business in a physical world, even if directed at a single end” (p.4). Vogel, currently James B. Duke Professor Emeritus in biology at Duke University, sees parallels between their problems and our own as physical beings:

A list of the physical factors that bear on the leaf’s life gets dauntingly formidable: density of plant material, water, and air; viscosity of water and air; mechanical properties such as strength, extensibility, the elastic moduli, and others; thermal capacity, conductivity, and expansion coefficient; surface tension; wind speed; diffusion coefficient; osmotic and hydrostatic pressures–and some others. Every one of these factors bears on your life as well as on that of a leaf–some perhaps less, but most at least as strongly.

Steven Vogel, The Life of a Leaf, p. 4.

Physics was not my forte in school, because it involved so many forces I couldn’t see except through classroom demonstrations, but I understand his point here–and it expands my understanding of how much physical beings endure to survive. That the structures that have evolved to withstand these forces are so beautiful is a matter of mystery and wonder.

French poet Paul Verlaine wrote a poem c. 1866 called “Chanson d’automne,” a salute to the feuille morte. It was used in secret messaging from the Special Operations Executive to the French Resistance in World War II. Natalia Ginzburg simply calls the poem “Les Feuilles Mortes” in her memoir/novel Family Lexicon (p. 38 in the NYRB edition). She writes that her uncle Silvio set the poem to music. Most versions of “Les Feuilles Mortes” are French. There is one sung by Yves Montand (music by Joseph Kosma and words by Jacques Prevert), and one sung by Edith Piaf. They are more explicit about love and loss than the original.

The last verse of Verlaine’s original poem (see the original French here) reads this way:

And I go
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro,
As the winds blow
A dead leaf.

A leaf for my sister.

Walking in Grizzlebeard’s Mossy Kingdom

Grizzlebeard’s Forest (Weir Farm, Ridgefield, CT; photo courtesy of R. A. Hillman).

There is nothing like a wild, fantastical walk in a forest to relieve holiday stress associated with preparations for celebration–especially the painstaking wrapping and then impetuous unwrapping of gifts. We, a group of young children, young adults, parents, grandparents, and a dog, set forth twice–on Christmas Eve day and then again on cold, blustery Christmas Day–upon the forested trails of Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton, CT, which is run by U.S. National Park Service. As it turned out, we encountered signs of another companion, old Mr. Grizzlebeard.

A moss cushion near pale-blue lichen on rock (Weir Farm, Wilton, CT).

On the first day the only child with us was four-year-old James, who is going through an intense rock-mineral-crystal-coin-and-treasure phase. This area of Connecticut has lots of gorgeous mica-and-quartz-infused rocks and boulders, which look like treasure. As we walked from the parking lot to the paths past the red farmhouse buildings of the farm James walked bent double with nose practically touching the ground looking for sparkling rocks. I, bent double looking at mosses and lichens, cannot relate the exact moment when James’ young uncle Douglas started referencing Mr. Grizzlebeard, the old giant who owned or owns the woods and has always treasured the vernal pools and swampy areas in his domain, but his name and influence were soon writ large in our walk.

A close-up of the lovely texture of a moss cushion . The species may be Dicranum scoparium, the Windswept Broom Moss. I am on a challenging moss-identification learning curve with the help of a lovely book–Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians by Karl B. McKnight et al. (Princeton Field Guides)

His existence seemed quite reasonable to James for the hand of a giant was everywhere–upturned trees with their root balls horizontal in the air, great slabs of rock dripping with rock tripe lichens, and cushions and flowing carpets of moss, streaming puddles of emerald green. James quickly took an interest in the moss, even being able to identify “star moss” at a new turn in the trail.

The Juniper Haircap Moss (Polytrichum juniperinum), which grows on every continent except Antarctica. We erroneously told James that its name was star moss, which I am sad about, because I think he could have handled Juniper Haircap Moss. He is very verbal.

The lawyer in our group was taken by the striped bracket fungi that ornamented a fallen tree trunk.

Elegantly chiseled bracket fungi, their rounded peripheries contrasting with the definite points of crispy oak leaves underlying the slender log (photo courtesy of R. A. Hillman).

James soberly examined the scenes before him representing evidence of the giant’s rampageous nature, of which he did not disapprove. Tall gnarly thickets of mountain laurel dominate the understory, and the highly reflective nature of their leaves dazzled the eyes with fantastical shine.

Perhaps the Knight’s Plume Moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis). 

Christmas Day hit early, well before 7:00 am, but we, the wrapping-weary adults, and the father so sore from hernia surgery, mustered fortitude to be there–or be square in the words of good friends– for the excited young ones to proceed with unwrapping. Then before noon, after a few eggs, bread, and some fruit, we headed back to Mr. Grizzlebeard’s kingdom. We were drawn–some say that to set a new habit you only need day 1, and then day 2 follows of its own accord; we needed the return trip. We needed to unwrap ourselves, and where better than with rocks, moss, lichens, and trees.

More bracket fungi covered with moss.

On this second day we had almost the entire group, which now included three young children, 9, 6, and 4. As I was bringing up the rear, again, I overheard a conversation between the two brothers, one almost 7 and James (still a solid 4). Luke, the older brother ever looking for justice and fair play, said to James, “If we agree to share all our toys, you would have twice as many toys.” They were walking shoulder to shoulder companionably. James looked troubled. Perhaps he remembered his transgression of Christmas Eve when before he brushed his teeth he had gone into Luke’s room to remove something of Luke’s for a bit. Probably he enjoyed that experience even if he regretted the nature of transgression. All things considered, however, Luke’s proposition was a no-go for James. Luke handled the decision well, the outcome of long practice in seeing his dreams of a just harmony (hard to find for a middle child) deferred. “Ok,” he said. They walked on into the glistening forest.

James on a carpet of oak leaves pausing between moss and lichen-cover rock.

A walk is an occasion for paying attention to Earth’s kingdoms, and for coming to terms with how we evaluate, measure, and understand our own kingdoms. And a time to imagine giants. In E. M. Forster’s futuristic tale ‘The Machine Stops” people do not look at the real world of nature anymore because all their needs are answered by technology. A mother reluctantly leaves her cocoon-like room maintained by the Machine to take a trip on an “air-ship” to see her son who has rebelled and is near death.

At midday she took a second glance at the earth. The air- ship was crossing another range of mountains, but she could see little, owing to clouds. Masses of black rock hovered below her, and merged indistinctly into grey. Their shapes were fantastic; one of them resembled a prostrate man.

“No ideas here,” murmured Vashti, and hid the Caucasus behind a metal blind.

In the evening she looked again. They were crossing a golden sea, in which lay many small islands and one peninsula. She repeated, “No ideas here,” and hid Greece behind a metal blind.

She is of course wrong. The literal shapes and forms of natural landscapes do inspire ideas–and stories about giants.

Rock tripe, a lichen eaten by George Washington’s soldiers at Valley Forge.

An “elfin” forest of moss sporophytes, the reproductive structures that appear in cold weather, rise above mat of a prostrate moss, perhaps the Swollen Brook Moss (Hygrohypnum eugyrium).

Weir Farm is described as “the only national park devoted to art” and “a national legacy to American Impressionism, the creative spirit, and historic preservation.” It was the home of Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919), a founding practitioner and proponent of American Impressionism. Although initially horrified by European impressionists like Monet and Renoir whose work he encountered in art studies in Paris as a young man, the landscape of Weir Farm profoundly influenced his eye and subsequent style.

Weir Farm bundled up for winter.

He acquired the 153-acre farm through a trade with a wealthy art collector who wanted a painting Weir had purchased in Europe. An additional ten dollars sealed the deal. In the summer one can wander around the property with art supplies in a satchel provided by the park.

Weir Farm in the summer some years earlier, when nine-year old Clara was just 3; she stepped on a ground-dwelling bee near the rocks and we had to desert our picnic and painting supplies to take her home.


Weir most often painted the open fields of his farm, but there is one he made of bouldery rocks that captures the mystery of Grizzlebeard’s kingdom.

Woodland Rocks by J. Alden Weir, Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Weir was self-deprecating about his work as a painter. He wrote , “Really, I know not what I am best at. I believe I am a fisherman, a dreamer and lover of nature…and if I lived to 120 I might become an artist.” He explained his aspiration as an artist this way: “… he who renders nature to make one feel the sentiment of such, to me is the greatest man.”

Rocks, moss, lichens, and trees: Grizzlebeard was quite an artist as well.

In the Hollow: little Slick the Contrarian

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Straw barn in the center of the photo. Red oaks stand out in the fringe of forest in the distance.

 

As I have said before, when I return to Vinegar Hollow, there is always a new story. The story has usually begun a long while before my arrival, maybe even generations, but my presence  allows me to enter that story. In the cluster of farm buildings that surrounds the house, I especially love seeing the straw barn glow in the late afternoon sun,  but I also love it on a misty morning.

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Slick (center).

This particular misty morning I heard Mike hollering from the barn, ‘Slick, come on. Come on, Slick.’ There would be a pause, then a further entreaty.  ‘Dat gum, Slick, you come every afternoon, what’s wrong now? Come on, Slick! I am not wading through this mud.’ Mike has a few large, pregnant, cows in the barn meadow and they have churned up the rainy-soft earth. Mike’s one-sided dialogue with Slick went on quite a while. I didn’t approach because I figured Mike was having trouble with one of his herd and my presence might cause the recalcitrant beast to baulk entirely.  When Mike left the barn meadow I asked him for the story.

 Slick is a twin. His mother is down at Mike’s house with the sibling. Mike says that Slick wouldn’t follow his mother, and his mother wouldn’t go after him to make him feed. She was satisfied with the one. After three days of this stand off he was skinny, a case of  “failure to thrive,” so Mike brought him up to our barn,  bottle feeds him twice a day, and puts him in a stall to feast on grain at night. I guess you could say that Mike is his mother now, but it’s not easy with the little contrarian. Slick butts him, hard, as hard as if Mike were a two-thousand pound cow.  Mike says that he doesn’t worry so much about a calf outside at night curled up next to a warm mama–a warm drink in the belly will get you through– but Slick has no mama now, except for Mike.

The next morning I decided to pay Slick an early morning visit, climbing numerous gates to find him. It never ceases to amaze me how many gates are needed on a farm. I could have opened some of them, but not easily. Gates take a lot of abuse. They were stuck in half-frozen mud, sagging on old hinges, or bent from run-ins with mad cows.  I went in through the back of the barn because approaching from the front meant wading through a sea of mud. Really deep. I assessed the possibility but decided it was a complete no-go. Even I who like mud was daunted, but I eventually found Slick, the lonely king of an empty barn. It’s a big, sturdy barn, with huge chestnut beams,  built in the Depression, by an itinerant barn builder, who earned his keep building five barns like ours in the county.

Slick, king of the barn.

Slick alternated between coming up for a head pat and backing up shyly. When asked about the name, Mike answered that he doesn’t know how he decided to name him Slick. “It just happened,” he said. “Perhaps it’s because he is so silky looking,” I suggested, and Mike agreed that he was that way from birth. I watched as Slick gulped his two quarts of milk in less than 30 seconds.

Mike and Slick.

In my last view of Slick, he was heading slowly toward the small group of pregnant mamas, lifting each hoof slowly and deliberately. It doesn’t do to go down in the mud. Usually March is mud season, but it rained so much in September and October that it’s mud a long way down right now. 

Slick heads off to firmer ground in the meadow.

I am back in Ithaca now, away from the mud, and the gates, and rounded curves of these old Allegheny mountains, but still thinking about Slick for some reason.

A view of the Pine Tree Hill where two red oaks flourish that my mother transplanted from the forest at just two foot high. After the first winter, my father said “they have died,” and my mother said, “no.” She scratched their bark with a finger nail. There was green under the brown. 

A buttercup-petaled snapping turtle

Snapping turtle head

Harry the snapping turtle or…is it Harriet?

The other day as I was driving on a country road outside Ithaca I saw an impressively large snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) poised on the verge, head high as if looking both ways in order to cross. A bright buttercup petal lay plastered on the weathered shell. I was smitten.

Snapping turtle with buttercup petal 2

Remembering stories of drivers running over reptiles on purpose, out of fear or cruel impulses, I parked my car by the side of the road with flashers on, got out and approached the beast to assess the responsibilities of an amateur naturalist. Even though I kept at a discreet distance the turtle quickly sensed my presence and froze. This was a good opportunity for observation.The tail had matted strands of dark-green algae entwined on the spines.

Snapping turtle algae on the tail

 

The neck had numerous folds, ornamented with warty bits called tubercles. The claws were impressive. The whole appearance suggested the muddy depths whence they come.

Snapping turtle profile

I retreated. The turtle then reversed headlong into the ditch, traveled along it at a fast clip away from me, only to emerge ready to head back across the road as originally intended. Meanwhile the owner of a house on the far side of the road  (I call him the resident hereafter) walked over to see whether there was an emergency. He said that the turtle had lived in the pond behind his house since 1989 and his family had named him Harry.

snapping turtle on the move in the ditch

Harry on the move away from me.

One does not pick up a snapping turtle without extreme care. Recently the Boston Globe ran a story titled “People keep spotting huge snapping turtles in the middle of the road. Here’s why”  warning motorists to beware snapping turtles on the move. The resident said that his wife had assisted Harry across the road with a broom on occasion. One website recommends using a shovel to lift a turtle across the road. That would have been a disaster with Harry. The resident said he had tried to pick him up once and it had the opposite result. Harry was able to lash his tail and move all four legs and snapping head so vigorously that he had to drop him immediately. I left Harry in the care of the owner of Harry’s pond.

But I began to wonder about Harry’s habits and set off on a trek through the literature of snapping turtles, the results of which lead me to think that Harriet would perhaps be a better name. It is hard to distinguish males from females without having them side by side on their backs, which is almost impossible when they are alive. Snapping turtles are reserved in the water, but pugnacious on land, despite the fact that mature individuals are almost predator free. No one wants to mess with the rough-edged jaws of a snapping turtle’s head, which has a far reach.

The top shell of a turtle is called the carapace, and the bottom shell is called the plastron. Males have modifications of the size and shape of the plastron that make the mating ritual more feasible, morphologically speaking. A wikihow article indicates that the size of the claws is a helpful indicator. I would say that Harriet is the better name from that point of view.  Like most reptiles, snapping turtles do not pair bond, and in a marvelous feat of evolutionary sleight of hand, one might say, females can store sperm from several male partners for long periods of time, even several years, before egg laying. Most accounts suggest that the majority of snapping turtles seen crossing roads are females  in search of nesting sites on land–sometimes as far as a mile from their pond of residence. When I went back to the owner of Harry’s pond to query why he chose the name Harry, he said he had no idea whether it was male or female–could snapping turtles be hermaphrodites he asked (in general the answer is no, but see below)–and proceeded to show me two places in the gravel around his car where Harry had been digging, presumably to lay eggs. Road embankments, lawns, gardens, muskrat homes–the perfect spot is a work of trial and error apparently.

snapping turtle book

Trailing around after female snapping turtles in the wild to ascertain egg-laying habits is not easy. They can move surprisingly quickly through places that are uncomfortable for humans. An account reported in 1911 by Professor J. W. P. Jenks and archived, in the words of Dallas Lore Sharp, in the book pictured above (pp. 29-30) by Harold Babcock, goes this way:

Leaving my horse unhitched, as if he, too, understood, I slipped eagerly into my covert for a look at the pond. As I did so, a large pickerel sloughed a furrow out through the spatterdocks, and in his wake rose the head of an enormous turtle. Swinging slowly around, the creature headed straight for the shore, and without a pause scrambled out on the sand.

She was about the size of a big scoop-shovel; but that was not what excited me, so much as her manner, and the gait at which she moved; for there was method in it and fixed purpose. On she came, shuffling over the sand toward the higher open fields, with a hurried, determined seesaw that was taking her somewhere in particular, and that was bound to get her there on time.

I held my breath. Had she been a dinosaurian making Mesozoic footprints, I could not have been more fearful. For footprints on the Mesozoic mud, or on the sands of time, were as nothing to me when compared with fresh turtle eggs on the sand of this pond.

But over the strip of sand, without a stop she paddled, and up a narrow cow-path into the high grass along a fence. Then up the narrow cow-path on all fours, just like another turtle, I paddled, and into the high, wet grass along the fence.

I kept well within the sound of her, for she moved recklessly, leaving a trail of flattened grass a foot and a half wide. I wanted to stand up,–and I don’t believe I could have turned her back with a rail,–but I was afraid if she saw me that she might return indefinitely to the pond; so on I went, flat to the ground, squeezing through the lower rails of the fence, as if the field beyond were a melon-patch. It was nothing of the kind, only a wild, uncomfortable pasture, full of dewberry vines, and very discouraging. They were excessively wet vines and briery. I pulled my coat-sleeves as far over my fists as I could get them, and with the tin of sand swinging from between my teeth to avoid noise, I stumped fiercely, but silently after the turtle.

She was laying her course, I thought, straight down the length of this dreadful pasture, when, not far from the fence, she suddenly hove to, warped herself short about, and came back, barely clearing me, at a clip that was thrilling. I warped about, too, and in her wake bore down across the corner of the pasture, across the powdery public road, and on to a fence along a field of young corn.

I was somewhat wet by this time, but not so wet as I had been before wallowing through the deep, dry dust of the road. Hurrying up behind a large tree by the fence, I peered down the corn-row and saw the turtle stop, and begin to paw about in the loose soft soil. She was going to lay.

I held on to the tree and watched, as she tried this place, and that place, and the other place–the eternally feminine. But the place, evidently was hard to find. What could a female turtle do with a whole field of possible nests to choose from? Then at last she found it, and whirling about, she backed quickly at it, and tail first, began to bury herself before my staring eyes.

The account ends here. I am prepared to forgive Professor J. W. P. Jenks his comment about “the eternally feminine” since he had such a difficult time with all that wallowing and warping about in briery and dusty places, but I am not prepared to forgive him if he took her eggs.  Why was he carrying a pail  of sand between his teeth?

Snapping turtle with snail

A snail grazes on the moss and plant debris adhering to the top shell (carapace). Head to left.

 

Once the laying is over, females return home, never to know their offspring or their fates, which is a good thing. There is 90% predation of the eggs and hatchlings, which are only an inch long, from many predators–crows, raccoons, snakes, foxes, the list is long. However, this high infant mortality is balanced  by the well-defended morphology and contentious attitude of the mature snapping turtle, which is an evolutionarily successful organism, adaptable to human disturbance.  Interestingly, sex determination is temperature-dependent in turtle species. Snapping turtle eggs maintained at 68 degrees F yield only female hatchlings, while those maintained at 73-75 degrees F yield only males. A mix of the sexes is produced at 70-72 degrees F. In green sea turtles the opposite is true; the higher temperature range produces females only–and intersex hatchlings can appear at intermediate temperatures!

While scientists use clinical terms like  “reproductive biology” and “the mating strategies” of organisms, nonspecialists form descriptions using casual words that apply to humans as well. It is rare to have the chance to observe snapping turtles in the act of love-making because they are nocturnal, though females search for nest sites in daylight,  and copulation is an aquatic activity. The sitio tiempo press blogger in an essay titled “Summer, snapping turtles’ mating dance, and the glory of life” writes of feeling a  “common humanity”  after observing mating turtles and a writer for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette  in a piece titled “Outdoors: Snapping turtle courtship unusual shell game” shows near reverence for the “reptilian rapture” he observes. Both writers enhanced my perception of snapping turtles and caused me to wonder about the evolutionary history of love-making. I have a book waiting to be read titled The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World–and Us by Richard O. Prum, an ornithologist. It appears the thesis focuses on the importance of beauty in pair-bonded, nonreptilian organisms. Tank-like and unfeathery, except for that buttercup petal on Harriet’s shell, snapping turtles are not beautiful, like almost all birds are, but they seem to be good lovers.

My last sight of the snapping turtle was a steady, unblinking eye peering at me through the vegetation of the ditch as she plotted a return home.

snapping turtle eye in grass

 

 

 

Watching Winter Aconite, a Spring Ephemeral

In March, here in Ithaca, NY, spring is a pop-up affair. Bright yellow winter aconite suddenly illuminate muddy earth and sludgy leaves. Spring ephemerals, winter aconite vanish as soon as they have finished their work, so it is best to watch their behavior carefully while you have the chance.

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Winter aconite remain closed on rainy, gray days.

When the sun is out, and I can’t resist being out also, there they are: golden bowls lifted off the ground on short but sturdy stalks,  embellished by a distinctive green ruff. The flowers open and close depending on temperature and light conditions.

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It’s a sunny day!

Winter aconite flowers benefit the first pollinators of spring. Each flower is a “goblet” offering sugary nectar and pollen, vital food for the first foraging bees of the season.

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A whorl of anthers sit above a whorl of funnel-shaped nectaries. Greenish  carpels (ovaries) are visible at the center, tilted to the right.

Polish researchers Krystyna Rysiak and Beata Żuraw discuss many aspects of the flowers in their study “The Biology of Flowering of Winter Aconite.” Like the hellebore, their close relative in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), winter aconite guide honey bees to their pollen and nectar through scent and the reflection of UV rays. Each flower has on average 29 stamens, which shed pollen copiously for only 2-3 days, so the bees have to watch for visiting opportunities, and 3-6 funnel-shaped nectaries, which produce on average 1.23 mg nectar per flower. The concentration of sugars in the nectar averages 72.11%.  In the 75 or so open flowers I observed on the one sunny day this week, I only noticed one bee. I went inside to get my iPhone and when I came back it was gone and did not return. It was a sunny but windy day. According to the Polish researchers, honey bees prefer sunny windless days.

Botanically, the winter aconite flower is not what it appears. The yellow “petals” are actually sepals, having become petal-like,  and the nectaries are considered modified petals. The “Elizabethan” ruff leaves are considered “stem” leaves, while “true” leaves emerge after flowering.

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The funnel-shaped nectaries are clearly visible in this photo.

Once the bees have been fed, the flowers complete their reproductive cycle, offering up seeds when mature in lacily veined  “chalices” (carpels or ovaries), to continue the goblet metaphor.

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Mature carpels (ovaries) open to release seeds. Photographer: Rüdiger Kratz (Wikimedia Commons).

Botanical illustrations often clarify the confusing relationships of floral parts seen in photographs. The floral diagram (number 7 in the image below) shows five carpels (ovaries) surrounded by many anthers (two circles end to end). The outer ring of heart-shaped symbols represents the nectaries.

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Original book source: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany
Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber
Source: www.biolib.de

In Lublin, Poland, the flowering period recorded during Rysiak and Żuraw’s study lasted from February 5th to March 22nd. This is a good long spell for foraging bees. Here in Ithaca I suspect the duration of flowering is much shorter, but I will have to record dates.  The researchers noted that snowfall did not injure blooming buds.

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This flower will reopen when conditions improve. [By Goranpavic (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Winter aconite has been cultivated since 1570, and its small tubers are readily available in bulb catalogues and garden centers for fall planting. They also naturalize by seed, creating cheerful, golden patches that are good for us and the bees. They are the gardener’s friend for two reasons: they repel deer and they can colonize under black walnuts, whose secretions of allelopathic chemicals deter many species from growing within their root sphere.

There is one very large patch in Ithan Valley Park (Radnor Township, Pennsylvania) that horticulturalist Carolyn of Carolyn’s Shade Gardens calls “a wonder of nature.” Carolyn writes that “There is so much yellow that I think it must be visible from outer space.” Be sure to scroll all the way down to the end of her post. The patch was originally part of an arboretum belonging to botanist John Evans (1790-1862). The biographical entry in the History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, From the Discovery of the Territory Included within its Limits to the Present Time, With A Notice of the Geology of the County AND Catalogues of its Minerals, Plants, Quadrupeds and Birds, Written under the Direction and Appointment of the Delaware County Institute of Science (1862) by George Smith, M.D., portrays a lovely man who earned his living in the milling business while pursuing horticulture and natural history as an avocation:

Being almost shut out from social intercourse, our young miller, after having attended closely to his business on week days, spent much of his time on Sundays, in rambling over the wild and romantic country that surrounded his mill–in traversing its streams and in scaling its precipices. It was in this state of isolation from civilized society that the habits and tastes of John Evans underwent a change. It was in these solitary rambles that he laid the foundation of his character in after life. Here he became a devoted lover of nature, acquired the habits of close observation, and fitted himself for the successful study of the natural sciences.

Evans  became a well-respected amateur botanist, maintaining an extensive correspondence with like-minded people in Europe, including Sir William J. Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens. In exchange for American plant material, he received European material from Sir William. Perhaps tubers of winter aconite, considered native to southern Europe and east to Asia, were included in these exchanges.  Plant hunter Joseph D. Hooker, Sir William’s son, shared seeds from his Himalayan expedition of 1847-1851. Evans was interested in local flora as well and traveled extensively in the United States on collecting trips. A devoted horticulturalist, Evans used saw dust from his mill to mulch his extensive collection of local and exotic plants and is described as dying somewhat prematurely from a “consuming disease” after too much “exposure” in his garden.

Because winter aconite are so agreeable, they get a fair bit of press. The Guardian featured the winter aconite in their  Plant of the Week column in 2017. The column offers useful horticultural advice and a lively Comment field. ‘HumptyDumpty’, the first to comment, offered this story:

The novelist Anthony Powell was once at Buckingham Palace receiving some medal or gong, and when he went into the investiture room where the Queen awaited him, gong/medal in hand, she wished him a good February morning, enquired where he lived (“in the country, your Maj, near Frome)”, and she then asked:

“Do you have aconites?”

AP, wondering what the bloody hell they were, decided they must be some unpleasant but not fatal medical condition, possibly related to piles, so answered:

“not as yet, your Majesty, although at my time of life I find a careful diet is advisable”

A careful diet should include the omission of winter aconite. Closely related to the beautiful but deadly garden plant monkshood (Aconitum sp.), they are full of cardiac glycosides. ‘Wolf’s bane’ and ‘queen of poisons’ are some of the common names for monkshood.

As I watch winter aconite responding to the vagaries of late winter-early spring weather, open and closing with the changes in temperature and sunlight, I become more attuned to changes everywhere. I also realize how much weather can influence a successful relationship for the winter aconite and the honey bee. When the weather is bad, as it has been all this week, the flowers are closed and the bees are absent. (I need to find out more about how the bee benefits the winter aconite. It seems probable that they can self-pollinate, but cross-pollination is always a good thing.)

I am happy with my small patches of winter aconite. They are close at hand where I can keep my eyes on them–right by the back door (which I use as the front door) and by the driveway where I can see them as I come home. If the flowers are open, it’s a sign to go outside. By “outside” I mean “Outside” in the John Muirean sense:

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

–John Muir (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir)

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Neerland’s Plantentuin : Afbeeldingen en beschrijvingen van sierplanten voor tuin en kamer by Oudemans, Cornelis Antoon Jan Abraham, 1825-1906; Glijm, C (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

p.s. Today, March 31, 2018, is sunny, 51degrees F, with a slight wind chill. The winter aconite have opened and the solitary bee who visited the front-of-the-house patch last Tuesday, is back. (Of course, it could be a different bee, but it seems likely the same bee has come back, as honey bees are known to be repeat visitors.) Here is a video of today’s visit.

The New Year, 2018, Begins in Vinegar Hollow

It looks like my New Year’s post from Vinegar Hollow is going to be an annual event. What new is there to say one might ask? I am different, the land is different, the weather is different–more wear and tear in general–not that these are necessarily bad things. Some wear-and-tear is simply polishing. In the hollow I never tire of looking at the trees

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View from apple orchard to old barn (center) at the Big Meadow.

 

and the hills and the play of light, and I always see new designs and colors in the landscape. The snow illuminates the hoof-marked cow trails, while Mike’s tractor, which delivers hay morning and afternoon to the

This, the old locust grove, is where the cows prefer their hay. The little barn is more visible.

 

cows, uncovers grass still green. Yesterday Mike and I had a talk about the cows’ preference for the locust grove  this time of year. He is surprised they are not out in full sun on these cold days and observes that this is their favorite spot. They are reluctant to move around when he delivers hay elsewhere, which is fine with him  because when he leaves hay near the barn, they stomp around and unplug the automatic timer to his tractor. Which is not good, because then on these cold mornings, some below zero, he can’t get the tractor started.  (The timer activates the heating of the engine oil so it is not too sludgy on a bitter cold morning.) He thinks the cows prefer the locust grove because it is their shady home place of summer.

Tractor ready to distribute hay bales for the next feeding.

Cows have memories he says. When it is time for a twice-bred cow to go into the barn to calve, he just opens the door and she heads straight into the stall she had the year before. If there is a cow in there already, there is sure to be a terrible fight. On the other hand, getting first-time mothers into the barn presents a problem. Mike has tender feelings for his cows in the winter when he is out feeding no matter the weather and his bad knee. Cows can withstand the cold if all their several stomachs are full. The gut bacteria create a literal fire in the belly. It’s freezing rain that causes Mike to tighten his lips and shake his head about the suffering of domesticated animals.

On a clear day when the sun reflects off a layer of snow, it’s hard to notice anything but a beautiful dazzle.

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Looking south to Stark’s Ridge.

Farms have a lot of fences and gates that create intersecting shadows. Because of some construction going on at the old house, there is provisional wire fencing adding to the complexity of the design above.

The fence in the center divides the orchard (very few trees left) from the orchard meadow. A few small sinkholes are visible in the ground that rises to the hillside.

On a day when the sun is wan, the colors of a winter landscape become subtle. I notice the soft brown of frozen mud, the pale russet of dried sage grass, and snow poked through with a thousand blades of grass. Tree branches are witchy, twitchy, sometimes ungainly, and always beautiful against the sky.

The side of Stark’s Ridge with tree branches against a wan sky.

I walk around the farm looking at everything, trying to understand placement of objects, natural and unnatural, how a landscape becomes what it is.

Layers of limestone that have heaved and broken apart provide dens for foxes.

 

A cattle chute with rusty chains.

Maybe I have a memory like the cow going into the stall where she has been before. Since brought home to the farm at birth, I always return, amazed at how much more there is to see and think about. When I visit Roy, my neighbor, who will be 94 on January 24 of this new year, we deconstruct  the history of the hollow, no moment or detail too small for discussion.  He lives alone with his cat Big Red, who for the first time deigned to sit in my lap before jumping, somewhat gracefully for a big cat, from the kitchen counter to a perch on top of the refrigerator. Mike checks on Roy every morning and the driver of the woman who cleans his trailer brings two apples each week for his old, long-legged donkey.

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Roy’s mailbox. The road at the upper right winds around to his home. Cow in front of the old barn seen from a distance in the first photo.

Roy only needs one meal a day now he says–two fried eggs, two pieces of toast, a rasher of sausage, and a cup of coffee. He fixes it himself even though his hands are almost curled shut with arthritis. I took him two bite-size mincemeat pies made by my English friend who makes wonderful pie crust. That’ll be dinner he said as I set them by his easy chair. The thing I puzzle about is that Roy even in midwinter, when he can’t sit outside on the top step to his trailer, seems to know what is going on in the hollow. It’s as if he is now not bounded by walls and poor vision (he lost sight in one eye as a child) because he is so attuned to the hollow. “You should see Mike’s dog running after the tractor. Down the road and back up the road these cold mornings. You should see that,” he tells me. I have seen that but I wonder when he has.

A paper wasp nest dangles from the copper beech branches in the foreground; Stark’s Ridge in the background.

On the long drive from Ithaca to Mustoe, we listened to the audio version of La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. As a frontispiece he  quotes a few lines from Irish poet Louis Macneice’s  “Snow” , a poem about how much lays before our view– how “the world is suddener than we fancy it.” The hollow has always looked “sudden” to me. Now it’s time to say good-bye again; I have had my reset for the New Year!

Teasel time in Virginia and West Virginia

 

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A white teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus)  photographed near Churchville, Virginia.

 

I have brought rain to Vinegar Hollow in Mustoe, Highland County, Virginia, it seems. For the last two months in Ithaca, NY, we have had almost daily deluges, rains that you can’t see through. I arrived Thursday evening, July 27th, 2017, with drizzle, and it  continued through Saturday morning, amounting to more than a half an inch. I came with Belle the dog and Rex the cat for a writing retreat, to complete crunch-time revisions on my primrose book for Reaktion’s Botanical Series.

 

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White teasels are stately plants.

Technological difficulties soon plagued me. The internet wouldn’t work. A swift intervention by HTC (Highland Telephone Cooperative) gave me a new modem by early afternoon Friday. But then suddenly my cell phone refused to charge.

I do not like my cell phone being dysfunctional even though I cannot use it to call from the hollow, but I can message my children and take photos. I troubleshooted and found a youtube video about charging a cell phone without a charger. I had a cell phone charger, a car charger, and an iPad charger, but each charger kept slipping out. Although the youtube video helped me get the cell phone from 1% to 4% in one minute without a charger, I decided to seek professional help.

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Teasels are “cup” plants, in that the bases of the leaves are perfoliate, encircling  the stem. The “cup”is said to serve a carnivorous function like that of the pitcher plant (insects fall into the water, drown, and their nitrogenous compounds are absorbed by the plant).

 

I hate leaving the hollow once I arrive, but Saturday morning I drove two hours to IphoneRepair in Harrisonburg. The gps took me a new way to Harrisonburg. I turned right off 220 North onto Moyers Gap Road (Route 25) just before Franklin. It went over hill and dale, through twisty valleys and tucked away homesteads, places seldom seen I thought. An indigo bunting flew down to the side of the road on one curve where I had pulled over to investigate a rampant white morning glory that had magenta stripes radiating from the center of the flower. Its coloring was the opposite of flowers of the wild field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis, one of whose common names is “Devil’s guts”). It could have been a garden escape; unfortunately I could not photograph it.

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I thought at first the gps had a sympathetic sense and didn’t want to subject me to steepness and curves, but it did finally send me over Shenandoah Mountain, which was wrapped in heavy fog and drizzle. It was hard to believe I would find an IphoneRepair shop at the end of this mysterious journey. When I neared Sugar Grove, site of a strange NSA compound,  I found flat bottomland where both sides of the road were flanked with white teasel, tall, abundant, and lovely, almost like armed guards. There had been no teasel on the mountain.

Teasel is a valuable alien species whose spiny flower heads have long been used in carding, a term that can be used to mean aligning raw fibers or raising the nap on woolen fabric, a form of carding.   Teasel heads seem to have been used for both purposes from Medieval days to the present. I remember seeing a few years ago an ad showing a Scandanavian carding machine, which consisted of row upon row of teasel heads on a vertical frame. This teasel card is a replica of one used at La Purisima Mission near Lompoc, California founded in 1787. Franciscan missionaries thought the Native Americans, Pueblos, underdressed and set up carding quotas to supply straightened sheep fibers for making woolen cloth. In Scotland up to 3000 teasel heads were used in gigs to raise the nap in velvet. The website Grow Wild: Flowers for the People has a blog by Claire Bennet, Scotland Partnership Manager and owner of Hook and Teasel, about teasel and carding, where if you scroll down, you will find a photograph showing a teasel carder used at the Knockando Wool Mill, in Speyside Scotland.

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Teasel heads dry quickly right on the plant (lavender teasel, D. sylvestris).

In Harrisonburg the nice young man at iPhone Repair identified with some dismay a hefty bug and other debris in my cell phone charger port. (I don’t think it was a bug, but rather a portion of a locust rail with lichen where I rested my cell phone to photograph some land snails.)

When I returned to Highland County, in Virginia, I noticed that there was no white teasel to be seen along the roadsides, only the lavender teasel, Dipsacus sylvestris. There must be a reason for this sudden change in distribution pattern. D. sylvestris is apparently the main species used for carding; the Latin name is a synonym for D. follonum.

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Lavender teasel (Dipsacus sylvestris) near the livestock market between Monterey and Mustoe, Virginia.

Lavender teasel, also a striking, martial-esque plant, well-defended with spiny projections surrounding the flowering head and elsewhere, though not quite as tall or robust as the white teasel, attracts plentiful butterflies, bees, and beetles.

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At least four insects (notice the three beetles on the lower edge) are working this teasel.

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Graceful, scimitar-shaped bracts surround the floral “head” of teasel (D. sylvestris).

Once back in the hollow on Saturday night, I found the sun. Butterflies and goldfinches were still visiting the thistles at 7:00 pm, glad that the prolonged drenching was over. It was blanket weather for sleeping.

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Teasel in Highland County, VA, near the Jackson River and Lamb Hollow Road.

I woke up to a Sunday morning in the 50s, bright sun, and no technological problems. The writerly problems of revision remained, however. Some of these problems can be technically difficult, like styling endnotes!