“It Was Blowing a Blizzard.”

Setting sun gilds the icicles hanging outside the bathroom window.

Setting sun gilds the icicles hanging outside the bathroom window. These are relatively small.

 

The mantra of the naturalist is “Pursue direct experience outside every day.” I have been struggling to keep faith with the mantra, in the coldest February on record in Ithaca, New York. The temperature at 7 am a few days ago was -20 degrees F without a wind chill factored in. Houses all over town look like jails as enormous, life-threatening icicles hang from gutters. It’s a little grim, from the inside looking out.

However, throughout the prolonged deep cold a tufted titmouse has been singing at dawn every morning in the apple tree outside my bedroom window. This particular individual’s whistle-like call is an insistent reminder: Go out, go out, go out. Breathe the bracing air, rejoice, and shiver to acclimate and become one with the outside.

 

Tufted titmouse, slighting to the right and up from center, in the branches of the apple tree. Only the buff belly is visible.

Tufted titmouse, slighting to the right and up from center, in the branches of the apple tree. Only the buff belly is visible.

 

However, sometimes it is easier to be pulled out than to go out. My husband and I took leave of the bitter cold here in Ithaca and made a dash south to Vinegar Hollow in Mustoe, Virginia, to be with family at our homeplace. We were not expecting it to be much warmer because the Allegheny Mountains of western Virginia usually report very similar temperatures to those of upstate New York.

The end of Vinegar Hollow.

The end of Vinegar Hollow, cold but calm.

It was bitter. A brief warming trend lightened our spirits, melting much of the snow, but then a blizzard roared up from the south, filling the hollow with whirling, horizantal streams of snow. One by one the locusts, maples, and cucumber trees on top of Stark’s Ridge became ghostly, as did the hills and meadows and fence posts. In the yard the big yew and the big boxwood fluffed out like giant white owls. The cottage seemed to spin inside the whirl winding snowflakes.

 

The colors of winter: white on gray.

The colors of winter: white on gray.

 

My husband loves inclement weather. He was out there somewhere in the forest chopping wood. When poor visibility made chain sawing a hazard, I presume, he came to the sliding glass door. “Come out for a walk!” he said. “You don’t want to miss this!” I looked at the fire. I looked outside. “A walk?” The double sliding glass doors gave a full view of the white out conditions. I was no naturalist if I chose sitting by the glowing fire instead of going outside to be inside a small blizzard.

 

Author poses for husband in blizzard.

Author poses in blizzard for husband.

 

It was glorious. I could not see very far in front of my feet, but we walked on known land, around the Pine Tree Hill where the family cemetery awaits me. Yes, the sounds of the blizzard in the forest and the whizzing motions of the thousands of snowflakes stinging my face, ping, ping, ping, hypnotized my thoughts, commanding my attention to just one thing. Being there outside.

Trees silvered by snowflakes.

Trees polished to pewter by wind and snowflakes.

 

The next day I found an old paperback in my parents’ library room over the root cellar. There it was, an appropriate choice for the season–Scott’s Last Expedition: The Personal Journals of Captain R. E. Scott, CVO, RN. Found next to his frozen body, the diary is compelling reading even though we know the tragic outcome. One can read it over and over, trying to comprehend the predicament of this small group of men. Scott and his team are very near the South Pole traveling under extreme conditions when they find a black flag and sledge and dog tracks indicating that the Norwegians had made it there first. They had lost “priority.” Scott writes, “Many thoughts and much discussion have we had. To-morrow we must march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day dreams must go….”

"All the day dreams must go...."

Published by Tandem Books, in the Great Ventures Series.

“All the day dreams must go….” The poignancy of this comment haunts me. But they must walk on, though emaciated and frostbitten. They do leave their mark at the North Pole proper, but then turn around in the worst blizzard they have yet encountered to head to the closest storage depot. They die just 11 miles away. But in what manner should they compose themselves for the end?

Scott makes a number of entries about his subordinate Titus Oates:

Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to talk about outside subjects. He did not—would not—give up hope till the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning—yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.

Scott himself at the time of writing has one foot so badly frostbitten that he knows it will have to be amputated should he live. The temperatures are -40 degrees F day after day. On March 22/23 he writes:

Blizzard as bad as ever–Wilson and Bowers unable to start–to-morrow last chance–no fuel and only one or two of food left–must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural–we shall march for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks.

The reader hopes this is the end of the text and a merciful ending to their lives. But there is one more entry on March 29th. The last line of the diary is “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.”  Roland Huntford in his book The Last Place on Earth gives an account of the interval between March 22/23 and March 29. Scott and his two remaining subordinates, too debilitated to move,  stayed in the tent in their sleeping bags writing letters to loved ones, documents that have become the subject of scrutiny by historians. Scott’s reputation as heroic explorer has been the subject of controversy.

 

Modern Library Edition of Roland Huntford's account of "Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole."

Modern Library Edition of Roland Huntford’s account of the race to the South Pole: Britain’s Robert Scott vs. Norway’s Roald Amundsen. His critique has been challenged by subsequent historians. The photo of Castle Rock on the book cover was taken on 17 September 1911.

 

Huntford critiques Scott as inept, but recent evidence indicates that Scott faced harsher than usual weather and one of his orders that could have saved him was never carried out. Despite getting to the South Pole first, Amundsen lost the battle for renown, in part, Huntford says, because Scott was the better writer.

My blizzard was small. I was not at the North or South Pole, suffering the Homeric conditions that plagued the famous Arctic and Antarctic explorers, who fought their way to the poles for nation and glory. I knew exactly where I was, and it was not far from a fire, so I was no heroine. My reward was exhilaration, not renown, as I went outside to feel the weather, rather than look at it from the inside. The naturalist has a different temperament than the polar explorer, happily from my point of view, but the polar explorers have left us with diaries that exemplify heroic aspects of human beings, inept or not, under duress in the great outdoors.

I am back in Ithaca, the tufted titmouse still singing in the apple tree  at 1º F.

Tufted titmouse slightly up from center in the apple tree.

Tufted titmouse slightly up from center in the apple tree. Profile view.

 

Today I decided to stand at the window observing. I stood and the tufted titmouse sat, silent for once. This went on for quite a while. Sometimes the branches of the apple tree distracted me. That’s when I noticed the second tufted titmouse. There she/he was, higher up in the tree. So, silence because mission accomplished? The mate has acquiesced? I don’t know, but I will be looking into the habits and psychology of this hardy little bird.

The second tufted titmouse.

The second tufted titmouse almost dead center in the photo.

 

So, have I rambled? What do the tufted titmouse and the blizzard have in common? As John Muir said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Petrified Lightning”–for Charles Darwin, “Spy of Everything”

 

The Modern Library edition of The Voyage of the Beage.

The Modern Library edition of The Voyage of the Beage.

 

Whenever I used Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle as a text for Academic Writing at Ithaca College, the students and I celebrated the author’s birthday with a cake if Feb. 12 fell on a M-W-F. We devoured Wegman’s best vanilla sheet cake with white icing, lemon filled in the middle and blue letters for “Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin.” We may have left the classroom desks slightly smeared with gooey frosting as we honored the young man we had grown so fond while reading the Voyage and his letters home, available online at the Darwin Correspondence Project.

The students were quick to sympathize with a young man who seemed aimless and unsuited for many professions. He had failed in both the medical and theological studies that his father pushed him into after college. He was UNPROMISING. Luckily, a mentor recommended him for what might now be called a gap year, room and board paid for, as he sailed around the world as a shipboard naturalist. Despite constant seasickness and homesickness, Darwin prevailed. Adrift and alone, he found a new way of looking at the world.

 

The Penguin Classics edition of the Voyage of the Beagle.

The Penguin Classics edition of the Voyage of the Beagle.

 

While the students particularly liked his descriptions of animals, like the puffer fish, I have marveled at a passage at the end of Chapter III about finding examples of petrified lightning near Maldonado, in what is now Uruguay. Darwin describes Maldonado, where he spends 10 weeks, as “quiet and forlorn.” However, after many weeks on a 90-foot long ship, he is positive about his view. He writes,

The scenery is very uninteresting; there is scarcely a house, an enclosed piece of ground, or even a tree, to give it an air of cheerfulness. Yet, after being imprisoned for some time on a ship, there is a charm in the unconfined feeling of walking over boundless plains of turf. Moreover, if your view is limited to a small space, many objects possess beauty.

With that mindset it is no wonder that his eye would be open to discerning fulgurites poking up out of a drab sandy hillock, though Darwin had reasons for being distracted from his work if he so chose. For example, the gauchos:

They frequently wear their moustaches and long black hair curling down their backs. With their brightly colored garments, great spurs clanking about their heels, and knives stuck as daggers (and often so used) at their waists, they are a very different race of men from what might be expected from their name of Gauchos, or simple countrymen. Their politeness is excessive; they never drink spirits without expecting you to taste it; but whilst making their exceedingly graceful bow, they seem quite as ready, if occasion offered, to cut your throat.

Darwin may have sipped their spirits to be convivial, but he stayed on task, making copious notes about the habits of every manner of flora and fauna, the four-footed as well as the two-footed. The tucutuco, which he writes can “be briefly described as a Gnawer,” is also a grunter, and is named for its persistent and resonant vocalizations. If one could only read one chapter in the Voyage, a good choice would be Chapter III. In its last few pages he describes his finding of the petrified lightning, also known as fulgurites.

 

The Anchor Library of Science Edition of the Voyage of the Beagle.

The Anchor Library of Science Edition of the Voyage of the Beagle.

 

It being February 12, 2015, Darwin’s 206th birthday, and nearly Valentine’s Day, I have composed a prose poem/birthday card/Valentine trying to paint a picture of the young Darwin unearthing the almost invisible glass tubes from the sandy hillock near Maldonado. Darwin said at the end of his life that he could not read poetry, that his thinking had become too dependent on facts. This may be an occupational hazard for a naturalist. Darwin never embroiders or exaggerates, though he allows himself to talk about beauty. There is a serene, disinterested moderation in his description and diction. In my birthday card I have tried, however, to demonstrate the drama of this quiet moment, Darwin on his hands and knees noticing, noticing, noticing to 1/30 of an inch. My prose poem/birthday card/Valentine is meant to be literal, place based, and accurate with just a slight leaning toward the dramatic.

 

Petrified Lightning

A fierce history marks

life on our planet.

Lightning explodes in 1793

over Buenos Aires,

striking 37 times, killing 19 people.

Charles Darwin in 1832, just 22, visits

Monte Video and Maldonado, Uruguay,

across the Rio Plata from Buenos Aires,

by night, sleeping under the stars with gauchos,

by day observing the river hog, the tucutuco,

the tyrant flycatcher, the carrion hawk, and the verbena.

As he explores what exists,

the living and the nonliving,

Fanny, the girlfriend in England, stops writing,

while despotic General Rosas befriends him,

paranoid as such rulers must be,

asking why the traveller scribbles notes.

Darwin replies, Naturalista.

Oh, so you are a spy? Rosas asks.

Yes, a spy of everything.

The tips of minute glass tubes

signal to him from loose sandy

hillocks near Maldonado.

Delicate, sooty black, wrinkled like bark,

driven into the ground by violent heat, they

prove the meeting of heaven and Earth.

Fiery thunderbolts melt particles of silica,

fusing them into threads of glass, petrified lightning.

Digging on his hands and knees,

unearthing the filaments, two feet deep,

measuring the thickness of their walls to 1/30 of an inch,

Darwin confirms that no event on Earth goes unrecorded.

If we follow the traces of life’s thunderbolts,

we will live forever.

The Barnes & Noble edition of the Autobiography of Charles Darwin.

The Barnes & Noble edition of the Autobiography of Charles Darwin.

Snow as Metaphor: Revealing and Concealing

From the inside looking out on a cold morning in Ithaca.

From the inside looking out on a cold morning in Ithaca.

It was 1° in Ithaca, NY, this morning. It seemed cold but then I checked on my daughter’s temperature, she has recently moved to Saranac Lake, NY, and it was negative 15°  there. So I felt warmer but overindulged and longed to give some of this excess warmth to my daughter.

There was yet a new dusting of snow. Yesterday morning felt more like being in a snow globe turned upside down by an enthusiastic child, while today a cobweb mohair shawl covered surfaces and crevices. All this month I have been thinking of the cold and the snow, wanting to appreciate winter, understand how it helps us see or not see what is around us. (And if we feel a longing for what we cannot see, this perception should help us remember to love that which is missing when it is right in front of us.)

The garden bench is occupied.

The garden bench is occupied.

This reminded me of a favorite text that I used with my academic writing students at Ithaca College, Figures of Speech for College Writers, an anthology by Dona J. Hickey. The readings were all about metaphor, the central thesis being that metaphors are imperfect and paradoxical, concealing and revealing in one tiny phrase. The students and I found a lot to discuss in the essays chosen by Hickey.

The naturalist’s calling is to learn from first-hand experience. This is difficult at 1º,  but I have a dog who lives for just that, so off we go several times a day, around the block, if the roads are too bad to get to the country.

I see the tracks of a rabbit out early. I know her in summer, and now I see her hunched in the cold, feet making butterfly shapes.

Butterfly-fly tracks of one of our neighborhood rabbits.

Butterfly-fly tracks of one of our neighborhood rabbits.

 

I see the brown-and-white skeletons of summer’s weeds against the winterwhite of early morning. The snow reveals their delicate structure clearly now. In summer they probably appeared nondescript, without definition, to most passers by.

 

Winter weeds: a chiaroscuro.

Winter weeds: a chiaroscuro.

I see the five needles, bundled into a fascicle, of the white pine displayed as if for a textbook. I would not have noticed that fallen fascicle if not for the whiteness of the ground.

The white pine displays the characteristic 5-needle arrangement of a needle bundle (fascicle).

The white pine displays the characteristic 5-needle arrangement of a needle bundle (fascicle).

I see top hats on the golden-green furry buds of the star magnolia.

Snow-capped star magnolia bud.

Snow-capped star magnolia bud.

I see the graceful architectural sway of the main branches of the Weeping Alaska Cypress (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis pendula) that my husband planted to replace the magnificent multi-stemmed white oak cracked by lightning a few years ago. I was too busy then to document its life and death, but now every time I look at the cypress, I remember to weep for the white oak.

Snow revealing architectural elements of the graceful Weeping Alaska Cypress.

Snow revealing architectural elements of the graceful Weeping Alaska Cypress, with star magnolia to the far left.

I see a part of a tail in the driveway. There’s a tale here I am sure of something that happened in the night…..

A tail is lost....

A tail is lost….?

The naturalist does turn to literature to find answers to questions and deepen perceptions. This fall I stumbled on a wonderful book by Peter J. Marchand called Life in the Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology (4th edition), published by the University Press of New England. It is a somewhat academic text, but so clearly and elegantly written that I recommend it as pleasurable reading for anyone on a cold winter’s evening.

A revealing book on winter ecology.

A revealing book on winter ecology.

Last winter I wrote in one of my blogs about how trees adapt to winter, but now I am interested in Marchand’s chapter titled “Humans in Cold Places.” The take-home message is that humans do not have many adaptations for the cold, but they can increase their tolerance, as shown in studies that he describes of aboriginal Australians, the Kaweskar and Inuit peoples, Norwegian and Gaspe fisherman, Quebec City mailmen, Antarctic workers, Finnish outdoorsman, and Tibetan and Indian yogis. This latter group shows some of the greatest ability to exhibit cold hardiness. He writes:

A group of Tibetan Buddhists who live in unheated, uninsulated stone huts in the Himalayan foothills and who practice an advanced form of meditation known as g Tum-mo yoga, show an extraordinary ability to elevate skin temperature in their extremities by as much as 8° within an hour of assuming their meditative posture.

He cites an interesting study showing that yoga-trained army recruits demonstrated greater cold hardiness than physically trained recruits.

Marchand concludes the chapter:

By our cultural and technological ingenuity, we have inhabited the coldest places on earth. Biologically we remain essentially tropical beings.

Tropical? I consider myself more of a north-temperate being as truly tropical climates make me wan and lifeless. Maybe the 64 winters that I have lived through have caused some basic physiological adaptation, but it would be difficult for a researcher to gather data from my experience.

And there are those people who seem to be fatally attracted to cold temperatures. Rebecca Solnit’s new book The Faraway Nearby describes haunting stories of explorers and travelers in the Far North. For example, Peter Freuchen, a young Dutch/Jewish explorer, volunteered to stay in a tiny hut in northeastern Greenland for the winter of 1905/1906 to take meteorological data. He was only 20. His companions left, his dogs were eaten by wolves, and the hut’s interior space became smaller and smaller from the condensation of his breath into ice. Solnit writes:

Before winter and his task ended and relief came, he was living inside an ice cave made of his own breath that hardly left him room to stretch out to sleep. Peter Freuchen, six foot seven, lived inside the cave of his own breath.

Solnit’s book carries many themes, but particularly ruminates about stories that are told and retold and mistold. Tightly woven, the book’s stories will entrance and perhaps frighten the reader on yet another cold winter’s night.

Cover of Rebecca Solnit's new book, which is part memoir, part essay, part many parts.

Cover of Rebecca Solnit’s new book, which is part memoir, part essay, part many parts.

But back to snow as metaphor, for example: snow is a shawl or blanket. Snow cover insulates life in winter, concealing the seeds and roots that will grow in spring. They are there in frozen ground under snow, waiting. Some life forms wait for what seems like forever.

Last year I learned to play, courtesy of my piano teacher, little Fran, who is 91, the very old tune, “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” translated as “Lo, How A Rose.” There is a line describing how the rose

“it came, a flow’r-et bright, ___ Amid the cold of winter, When half spent was the night”

(15th-century wording; see Carols for Christmas, arranged and compiled by David Willcocks).

Half spent is our winter here. I will continue to observe snow’s concealments and revelations and sympathize with the cold even as I look forward to my primroses showing up bright in the squishy earthmelt of early April.

Primrose.

Primrose.

 

Light shining through an unfurling young primrose leaf.

Light shining through an unfurling young primrose leaf.

Jane Eyre’s Cormorant

IMG_6149

Thomas Bewick’s engraving of a lonely cormorant (p. 362, Bewick’s History of British Birds, vol.2, Water-Birds).

 

I attribute my new interest in cormorants  to Jane Eyre.  During my most recent long car trip from Mustoe, Virginia, to Ithaca, New York,  I listened to an audio version of Jane Eyre.  In the opening scene, Jane, in fear of insults and abuse at the hands of a bully, her cousin John, hides behind the red curtain of a window seat with Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds.

John finds her, grabs the book, and throws it at her face. Jane falls, hitting her head on the fireplace. Bloodied and enraged, she attacks her cousin, whose mother then imprisons Jane for several days in her room, where ghostly night visions torment her.

Charlotte Bronte is clearly writing from life experience, with Bewick at least, as she recorded elsewhere how she and her now famous siblings delighted in Bewick’s book, a present from their father, and we know that the Bronte children did not receive many gifts. Jane finds correspondence to her mood in Bewick’s descriptions of Arctic sea fowl and landscapes:

the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space, –that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigors of extreme cold.

This seems like a gloomy piece of reading, but Bronte’s Jane says, “With Bewick on my knee I was then happy.” However, shortly afterwards the grueling physical battle with the bullying cousin ensues. I am always interested in how literary authors use natural history to illuminate human character and emotion.

Much later, after Jane has survived the rigors of Lowood School for Unwanted Girls, Mr. Rochester  interrogates her about her accomplishments. Can she play the piano? Can she draw? Yes. During one vacation at Lowood, where she was a teacher by then, she spent a day drawing. She shows Mr. Rochester five of her drawings, one of a cormorant in a tragic and fantastical scene.

Jane describes her cormorant as

large and dark, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.

Upon questioning, she tell Mr. Rochester that she was happy painting her ghastly scenes, because she was absorbed in her task. He asks her, “Who taught you to draw the wind?” I would have asked “Why did you draw a cormorant?” (We know that the wind taught her to draw the wind.)

In order  to find out what she would have learned from Bewick’s book, I decided to read a biography, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow. I bought a hard copy and packed it with me on a trip to Scotland. Failing to read it on the way over or during the trip, where I saw cormorants on three occasions, I made good and started reading the minute I was squished, sardine like, into my plane seat.

Cover of Jenny Uglow's biography with one of Bewick's engravings.

Cover of Jenny Uglow’s biography with one of Bewick’s engravings.

 

I stayed awake the entire 8.5-hr trip and read this wonderful biography from first page to last. It was no hardship. Uglow’s book is beautifully written and Thomas Bewick a man I am grateful to have gotten to know.

The son of a tenant farmer, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) loved his natal territory, near Newcastle in Northumberland, Britain. Rebelling against a sadistic schoolmaster, Bewick played truant in the fields and forests around his home and school during the school day, while completing arduous farm chores before and after school, thus becoming a close observer of natural history. Later in life he would become well read. It seems that perhaps he educated himself the right way round. I stumbled on this quote from St. Bernard in Scotland in a grove of some of the world’s tallest trees:

Found on wall of gazebo of Ardkinglas Forest, Argyll, Scotland.

Found on wall of gazebo in Ardkinglas Forest, Argyll, Scotland.

Sent away at 14 as an apprentice to a copper engraver, he bent himself, literally, as engraving required many hours of a hunched back, to learning his craft. Eventually he introduced a method of wood engraving using the specialized tools of the metal engraver cross grain on boxwood, a very hard wood. Uglow carefully documents his work ethic and his rebellion against tyranny and cruelty to all living creatures. He protested the docking of horses’ tails, for example, and favored the upstart colonists in the New World over his own King. A fervent admirer of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, he worried about right and wrong. It is possible to read Bewick’s books online. In this passage from the Preface to vol. 2 of The History of British Birds, he shows the generous thrust of his positive personality:

To point out the paths which lead to happiness, however remote they may lie from common observation, and at the same time to forewarn the inexperienced stranger against approaching those which terminate in vice and misery, is a task worthy of the most enlightened understanding.

He then asserts that the study of natural history is a “distinguished path” of instruction that can lead to the aforementioned happiness because it offers

a flow to the imagination which banishes early prejudices, and expands the ideas; and an endless fund of the most rational entertainment is spread out, which captivates the attention and exalts the mind.

The study of natural history, he writes, results

in a cheerful resignation of mind, in peace and happiness, under a conscious persuasion, that a good naturalist cannot be a bad man.

“A good naturalist cannot be a bad man.”  This is a lovely hope and probably true in a great many cases. E. O. Wilson, John Muir, Thoreau, and Rachel Carson come to mind. Their love of natural history nourished a continuous expansion of ideas, witness their many books and essays, flowing effervescently like bubbles from a medicinal spring.  Bewick’s phrase “cheerful resignation” carries the thought that the naturalist “resigns” him or herself to cheerfulness after a thorough understanding of the balance of life and death seen every day in the natural world. He writes

It is a melancholy reflection, that from man downwards, to the smallest living creature, all are found to prey upon and devour each other.

Darwin also knew this melancholy, deeply, but, like Bewick, he was bewitched by nature’s “endless forms most beautiful” into an endless study of life forms, from the earthworm to the primrose, that enlivened him.

Bewick's cormorant (mature plumage).

Bewick’s cormorant (summer plumage, vol. 2, p. 360).

 

I have found that I love Bewick’s writing as much as his engravings. He introduces his discussion of cormorants in the grand manner:

This tribe seems possessed of energies not of an ordinary kind; they are of a stern sullen character, with a remarkably keen penetrating eye and a vigorous body; and their whole deportment carries along with it the appearance of the wary circumspect plunderer, the unrelenting tyrant, and the greedy insatiable glutton, rendered lazy only when the appetite is palled, and they sit puffing forth the fetid fumes of a gorged stomach, vented occasionally in the disagreeable croakings of their hoarse hollow voice. Such is their portrait, such the character generally given of them by ornithologists; and Milton seems to have put the finishing hand to it, by making Satan personate the Cormorant, while he surveys, undelighted, the beauties of Paradise (Paradise Lost, Book iv, I. 194-198). It ought, however, to be observed that this bird, like other animals, led only by the cravings of appetite, and directed by instinct, fills the place and pursues the course assigned to it by nature.

In the last sentence we hear the reasonable voice of the naturalist noting that while humans have applied attributes like “plunderer,” “tyrant,” and Satan  (in a way these attributes are like “ideas” and lead to an exploration of who we are), the cormorant is just going about business in order to survive in its place.

IMG_6146

Bewick’s cormorant (“first” plumage, vol. 2, p. 368).

 

Humans have made use of the supposedly insatiable appetite of the cormorant by enlisting their fishing expertise, encircling their necks with a band so they cannot swallow what they have caught. Charles I of England had a Master of Cormorants to increase his catch, and the Chinese have long practiced cormorant fishing. Perhaps human appetites exceed those of the cormorant, who fish alone.

 

Bewick's cormorant (winter plumage; p.363, vol. 2).

Bewick’s cormorant (winter plumage; p.363, vol. 2).

 

So why did Jane paint a cormorant with a jeweled bracelet in its beak, as “a fair hand” sinks into oblivion into the ocean? I don’t want to read too much into it. Charlotte Bronte wrote, I believe, without the ecological awareness we now have. One species of cormorant is extinct at present, but she probably does not intend a moralistic statement about the relative survival of cormorant vs. human. It is more likely that Bewick imparted some of the benefits of the study of natural history through his written and pictorial descriptions to Jane/Charlotte. “A flow is given to the imagination,” he wrote. Bewick’s cormorant inspired Jane’s imagination. It doesn’t matter whether that flow leads to characterizing the cormorant as Satan or saint. E. M. Forster made this point beautifully in his sci-fi novella “The Machine Stops.” At the end of Part I, “The Air Ship,” his character, who has been living her life in a totally artificial environment where “ideas” are generated artificially, chooses, reluctantly, to take a trip in a plane:

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.

Forster’s point is that the Earth has been a source of ideas for centuries, ideas like freedom. Good ideas will be hard to imagine if the Earth collapses.

Cormorants are hard to see. On sunny days apparently they spread their wings wide to dry out in the sun. In Scotland my companions pointed out cormorants to me on three occasions but I had no binoculars, and there was some confusion because their plumage varies in color according to age and season. Were they cormorants? We think so.  I did recognize the bulging belly and the extended neck. Bewick has helped me to really see the cormorant, and Jane Eyre has inspired me to imagine them. I think she identified with the cormorant’s lonely, proud stance (strong appetite and all).

I then proceeded to get a hard copy of Jane Eyre. A version for young adults, it features a peony on the cover.

 

The 2011 Harper Teen edition of Jane Eyre.

The 2011 Harper Teen edition of Jane Eyre.

What about an edition with a cormorant on the cover?

(P. S. Added on Feb.26, 2015:  Here is a link to a Feb. 25, 2015 article by Alison Flood in The Guardian about a rare first edition of Bewick’s History of British Birds that belonged to a family friend of the Brontes, who probably inspired Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym.)

 

 

 

 

 

Where have all the flowers gone–and their Monarchs?

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Monarch visiting thistle in Vinegar Hollow, Highland County, Virginia.

 

It’s a lonely fall for those of us who love being observers of the annual migration of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) back to Mexico, a 3,000-mile journey that is breathtaking for its scope and its beauty. If we could connect all the dots of all the trajectories and innumerable stops for nectar to fuel the journey, we would see a pattern, a living tapestry, so instructive of the importance of thinking ecologically.

I have recently been migrating myself, from Ithaca, New York to Harrisville, New Hampshire, back to Ithaca, and now south to western Virginia. Having heard that a 90% decline in migratory numbers was predicted for this fall, I have been looking for monarchs in old and new haunts. In Harrisville, I saw one monarch, in Ithaca three, and one in Vinegar Hollow. In past years,  significant numbers have accompanied me on my daily dog-walking rambles. Being with them, admiring their determined, zig-zaggy flitting, from blossom to blossom, I have felt part of the hero’s journey, the voyage home, a mythology rooted in biology.

Monarch on Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Monarch on Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Monarch visiting Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Underside wings of monarch still visiting Verbena bonariensis. It’s easier to write about monarchs than to photograph them, which is a dizzying experience.

The media have documented the decline in monarch numbers more authoritatively. The figure given since January 2014 is a 90% decline. For graphs, see the website of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and an article in the Washington Post by Brad Plummer. Plummer reports a conversation with Lincoln Brower of Sweet Briar College, one of the world’s foremost monarch experts, who outlines three causes for the decline:  deforestation in Mexico, severe weather issues (e.g., the 2013 drought in Texas), and herbicide-based agriculture. I remember a lecture given by Brower at Cornell a few years ago, in which he noted that efforts to create a monarch reserve in Mexico had in fact led to more poaching by illegal loggers than before its creation. All monarchs have to fly through Texas, so not much can be done to prevent a decline due to drought. It is important to know, however, that monarchs flying south need to feed heavily on nectar, some of which they store for use during the winter “hibernation.”  You might say that blossoms are their gas stations. The issue of herbicide-ready agriculture is big and contentious.

Citing the figure of a 97% decline, Richard Coniff in a post on his “Strange Behaviors” blog is pointed in stating that it’s now a question of Monsanto vs. the Monarchs. Since Monsanto developed Round-up ready soybean and corn seed in the 1990s, the widespread of this seed, which enables large-scale herbicide spraying, in the Midwest has wrecked havoc with the life-supporting patchwork of milkweed species hanging out here and there in fields and along roadsides. It takes four generations of monarchs to hatch and breed and feed on milkweed foliage, on their way across the United States to Canada. Milkweed species are said to show a 67% decline in numbers.

Coniff notes that farmers are not the problem and believes that Monsanto has the money to establish milkweed-friendly zones around agricultural fields. Apparently Monsanto is presently studying whether the fear of monarch extinction is legitimate, and whether it wishes to be part of conservation efforts.

We can all plant milkweeds. There are 110-120 species, of which 32 are particularly helpful for monarchs. Coniff offers a link to supplier of milkweed seeds and plants. Milkweeds in themselves are a wonderful group of plants with a  unique floral structure (see this additional Xerces posting) (and this one showing the common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca]), complete with horns, hoods, and corpuscula. Many of us in the northeast know the common milkweed, its fleshy, drooping, dusty-rose flowers, hypnotically scented, but there are many other milkweed species

 

Milkweed flowers with visitor.

Milkweed flowers with visitors, seen summer 2014 (Enfield, near Ithaca, NY)

with the same fascinating flowers perfected in different sizes and shapes (scroll down to the bottom of this link).

MonarchWatch.org, led by Chip Taylor, is an excellent organization/website offering information on the biology of monarchs and milkweeds and on conservation efforts. Many people are now hosting monarch “waystations” under the guidance of MonarchWatch.

Monarchs have been called “iconic” and their flight “epic,” and rightfully so. Every school child in North America has known their story. Many have watched, as I have, the chrysalis become butterfly in just seconds, miraculously, as the molecules reorganize themselves from immobile jewel case into polka-dotted flight machine. And there is more to learn. Just last week, National Geographic posted an article on new discoveries about the genetics behind the white monarch and the efficiency of  flight muscles in the migratory monarch. They continue to inspire our creativity, as in this book shown below about a biologist coming home to Lake Erie to study monarch migration, or this new Harrisville Watershed yarn called “Monarch” (click on it, sitting to the left of “Barn Red,” for a close-up).

A new book whose title perhaps draws inspiration from the plight of the monarch.

A new book whose title perhaps draws inspiration from the plight of the monarch.

There are many good people working to ensure a future for monarchs, so that they do not become part of a mythic past. And there are many good weeds and wildflowers ready to be part of the ongoing story.

P. S.  For an article on the migration of Fall 2014, see this article titled “For the Monarch Butterfly, a Long Road Back” by Liza Gross.

 

The Importance of Mud Puddles!

 

Young man with stroller, little boy, and old man with young girl.

Hiking to pond at Topstone Park: young father with baby in stroller, young boy, and grandfather carrying young girl.

We are on an “adventure” with my son and the grandchildren, five and a half, two and a half, and twelve days old, on Labor Day. Restless people of all ages settle down in walking through a forest. So much the better if there is a pond at the end of the trail.

Beginning in 1970, a small number of residents of Redding, CT, formed the Redding Open Land, Inc. (R.O.L.I) initiative  to provide open space for the town. Topstone Park would eventually incorporate most of the land that comprised Edward Steichen’s farm on Topstone Road. Longtime resident of Redding, Steichen, the famous photographer and delphinium breeder, had decided to sell almost 400 acres of his farm at about the same time as R.O.L.I. started its work. The story of Topstone Park‘s creation proves that a small group of individuals can preserve open space for community use.

At the end of the trail we arrived at a curvaceous pond (scroll down to see many views of the pond), complete with a small beach and a beautiful expanse of rose-colored waterlilies. Steichen photographed extensively in this area.  One of his most famous “pictorialist” (tinted) photographs is “The Pond–Moonlight” (now known as “the world’s most expensive photograph”).  However, Steichen’s greatest contribution as a photographer is no doubt The Family of Man, the book that includes the 503 photographs he made for an exhibition under the same name at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Capturing images of human emotions in faces of people from many countries around the world, he shows viewers how similarly humans of diverse ethnicities and cultures feel. Love here, at our elbow,  is the same as love far, far away on the other side of the Earth.

Waterlilies at Touchstone Park.

Waterlilies at Touchstone Park. Little green heron settles just to the right of this scene. The lavender of pickerel weed just visible in lower right side of photograph.

The children seize buckets left on the beach and start building a castle. I wade into the pond to fetch a few of the giant snails that sail, slowly, like an armada of Spanish galleons, underwater near shore. They are slightly slimy, covered with a gentle fuzz of green algae. The children make a fortress with a moat to enclose the snails but release them almost immediately as they discover that pouring bucket after bucket of water over them is fun. The moat slumps back into the sand in endlessly new wavy patterns and the snails sail back to sea serenely. I fetch more snails and encourage the children to touch the fuzziness of the algae on their shells. They are most likely the Chinese mystery snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis) or the Japanese mystery snail (Cipangopaludina japonica), according to information and photos in a wonderful book that I found:

Amazing reference work on Connecticut's flora and fauna.

Amazing reference work on Connecticut’s flora and fauna.

A little green heron  (scroll down to the sixth photo) soon joins us, settling on a dead branch poking out of the water lilies. The boy, who loves carrying his pint-sized binoculars with him wherever he goes, finally spots the heron, so perfectly camouflaged, his silhouette at the same jagged angle as the branch. He is thrilled, though I am not sure what he sees through the binoculars that he loves to brandish, but he does finally make out the well camouflaged bird with his naked eyes.

It is time to take baby back to mommy, so we  say good-bye to the pond, the snails, the water lilies, the little green heron, and the peacefulness. We walk back through the forest to the carpark. Here I photograph the encounter of boy and mud puddle.

He approaches.

He approaches.

 

“Can I?” he asks. “Sure,” I say.  He had already barreled into a puddle on our way into the park when no one was looking (and was told not to get his feet wet), but since we were the slow pokes bringing up the rear guard on the way back to the car, clearly no one besides ourselves would see where we were thinking of placing our feet.

He stares at it.

He stares at it.

 

The joy of wet, soggy feet.

The joy of wet, soggy feet.

 

“This is so much fun,” he says.

Does he see himself? The golden light of early morning? The ripples? There is so much to see.

I had not realized the sky was so beautiful until I saw its golden reflection in the puddles. It will be some time before baby can step in a puddle, but I am sure his adventure in Topstone Park registers somewhere in his small body.

It is a truism that the best things in life are free. Mud puddles fall into that category. Open space, open heart. All of us should have the opportunity to be in open space where we can experience the family of man becoming the family of all things on the Earth. The mud puddle has become a metaphor for childhood joy, a joy that is too often short-lived (please see the mission of The Muddy Puddles Project).

We must treasure the mud puddle at the very moment it appears in front of us–or, for sure, on our second chance because there is always a second chance.

If You Must Talk, Whisper!

Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs, Virginia

Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs, Virginia

It was a spur of the moment decision to stop at the baths in Warm Springs, Virginia, which are officially known as the Jefferson Pools because Thomas Jefferson soaked in the men’s hut in 1818 for 22 days. I did not have my bathing suit but remembered that there was always a basket of bathing dressses inside the door of the hut. Although not fashionable, they provided full coverage and were made of cotton in colorful designs.  I went into the cottage adjacent to the hut to pay. I mentioned that I did not have a bathing suit, but hoped to use one of the bathing dresses. The woman at the counter informed me that the woman who made the little jumpers had died and the suits had been removed.

“I would have to bathe naked?”

“You would,” she said.

A cheerful young man who probably monitored the men’s hut, and was carrying cheeseburgers in baskets for the woman and himself, said, “It’s not so bad. There are three ladies in right now who faced the same issue. They decided to bathe anyway. You can just sneak in. Besides, they are about to leave, and the two young women in there now will have to leave soon.” It turns out that the Homestead bus service would be retrieving them for return to the resort hotel.

I pondered this, but no doubt looked fairly hesitant. The woman attendant said, “If you choose a dressing cubicle right next to a stairway, you can drop your towel right by the stairway and slip in and out without anyone seeing you.”

Had the time come to be more adventurous than I usually am? I do not swim au naturelle. I have never worn a bikini and it is safe to say that I will die without ever having worn one.

“Ok,” I said. “Could I have two towels?”

“Yes,” they said.

For a fee, one has an hour of soaking time. I paid and proceeded. I met the next attendant, a woman who sits in the entry way of the hut dispensing towels. I found a cubicle right by one set of stairs into the pool. A nervous mermaid, I unswathed my towels and slipped in without the two young ladies in bikinis noticing me, I believe, and soon they were called away, so I had the healing springs to myself. I poked my head out to the bathing attendant, “Can I take photos?” “As long as no one else is there,” she answered.

Inside of circular hut showing noodles tucked in spaces of the wall.

Inside of circular hut showing noodles tucked in spaces of the wall.

Inside the hut white paint peels artfully over wooden boards. Some visitors have commented that the whole appearance is run down. So it is, but run down straight from the 18th century to the 21st, and I find that extremely beautiful. Yes, restoration is in order, but I feel as if I am right there with Thomas Jefferson, though I am glad that he would be in the men’s hut, and I would have privacy. He was a complicated man, and I am sure that he benefitted from his days of reflective soaks in a men’s-only hut. While he came for his rheumatism, I can imagine his mind drifting to thoughts of his past and his future. He wrote a letter from Hot Springs to his daughter noting that the baths were first rate.

Another view of curving wall with noodles.

Another view of curving wall with noodles.

Although the noodles in bright shades of lime green, pink, purple, and blue look out of place perhaps, they are indispensable for a really comfortable soak. One can drape oneself over one, two, or three to find a position for total relaxation, for instance, floating on one’s back. I drift like the clouds in the blue sky visible through the opening in the roof.

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I have tried before to describe the architecture of the open roof in words and found it difficult. The view of the sky and the clouds piecemeal through the spokes of the dome captures attention. I have never been in a space similar to this, though my husband reminds me that the structure is very much like the oculus of the Parthenon in Rome, but so much the better to be immersed in healing waters, which are warm, about 98 degrees, and clear. There is a very slight sulfurous smell. The Homestead‘s website conveys some of the 9,000 year history of the baths and interesting statistics about the rate of flow and qualities of the water.

I floated with the noodles, I let the bubbles swirl up around me, and I stared up at the ceiling of the hut through which I could see the sky and passing clouds. I meditated on time and space, and then I slipped into my towels and commenced taking a few photos with my i phone. I knew I had a unique opportunity. It is hard to convey the magic of the bathing hut without a photo or two.

Another view of roof.

Another view of roof.

Reflection of central post attaching to center of roof in the healing waters.

Reflection of central post attaching to center of roof in the healing waters below. Pebbles appear luminous in the slightly blue-green water.

But as I was going in and out, mermaid like, taking pictures and soaking, I noticed that the design of the roof was even more beautiful reflected in the water. The reflection accompanied me, swirling from little to big. I put my hand in it, causing the reflection to wobble and gyrate. It was mesmerizing watching the reflection settle back into itself.

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Reflection of roof architecture in water.

Reflection of roof architecture in water, wobbling.

A wobbling reflection

Wobbling even more.

I emerged from my soak relaxed, wholesome, a noodle, a strand of perfectly cooked spaghetti. The waters are body temperature and flow at 1,700,000 gallons per day, conditions that render the human body mellow and agreeable. Departing in excellent spirits, I thanked the attendants for their encouragement: the au naturelle method of bathing is fine. The bubbles that percolate up one’s torso and the wobbling reflection of the oculus at one’s elbow distract body and mind from anxious concerns. I hope Thomas Jefferson achieved similar moments of serenity.

I understand the admonitions posted at various point around the pool. Like the reflections of the oculus, human beings wobble and wobble and wobble in so many forms of uncertainty. Drifting this way and that, I soon hear a serene silence inside my body, so soothed by the warm spring with its minerals and cheerful bubbles.

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Finding the Lonesome Pine

 

 

Vinegar Hollow. Stark's Ridge is the farthest bare mountain top (left of center). Back Creek Mountain stretches off on far top right.

Vinegar Hollow. Stark’s Ridge is the farthest bare mountain top (left of center). Back Creek Mountain stretches off on far top right.

Trekking abandoned logging roads by ATV with a chainsaw in the back of the vehicle is a new experience for me, but happily so. As a young girl I wanted to be a plant explorer in the great tradition of “Chinese” Wilson and Reginald Farrer, who brought back garden treasures from the remotest parts of lands still foreign to westerners at the time. Farrer roamed craggy mountains and misty valleys in Burma, China, and Tibet in life-threatening conditions armed with whiskey and a set of Jane Austen. So here I am, exploring remote mountain tops and glens of the Allegheny Mountains, fulfilling youthful dreams. I am home and do not need to carry whiskey and Austen.

 

Back Creek Mountain.

Back Creek Mountain  meets the sky above Vinegar Hollow.

 

The folds of Back Creek Mountain, which forms one of the north-south borders of Vinegar Hollow, looks impenetrable and pristine from Stark’s Ridge, the highest point directly opposite on the other side of the hollow. The wooded undulations of the mountain range reveal little of the history of human use of the landscape. In fact, it has been logged and relogged for the last several hundred years. Rough trails criss-cross the forest floor in a maze of switchbacks and curlicues. The forest giants are long gone, but secret gardens remain and a hoary pine native to the Appalachian Mountains.

Younger son on ATV.

Younger son on older son’s ATV.

 

ATVs are bumpy, noisy, and smelly, but they aid enormously in botanizing and can be turned off while one explores on foot. My husband and I had driven up this part of the logging trail maybe half a dozen times, but never stopped to get out at this particular turn in the road. Maybe it was the morning light shining on an expanse of silvery pale green lichens that caught our eyes, but soon enough we were trying to hop about on delicate feet, in thrall to the wonders underfoot in what I am calling the pine cone garden.

Lichens and pine cone.

Lichened branches and pine cones.

 

Pine cone and lichens.

Pine cone and lichens.

Whether nesting in lichens or pine needles, each cone seemed to be at home. Like sunflowers, pine cones have a deeply satisfying architectural form, the scales overlapping in an arrangement reflecting a sequence of numbers called the Fibonacci series. These cones are striking for their silvery gray brown shading and the curving, decorative prickles at the end of each scale.

Pine cone.

Pine cone.

 

Pine cone.

Pine cone.

The cones are stalkless, seemingly having sprouted out of stout branches.

Fallen branch with cones.

Fallen branch with cones.

But where was the parent tree? I looked up finally.

Parent tree.

Parent tree.

The morning light shone on its lichened, outstretched arms. One branch lay blasted on the ground.

Branch bent to the ground.

Branch of parent tree bent to the ground.

Lichens covered the bark exuberantly.

Lacy lichen.

“Lacy lichen” on parent tree.

 

Lichen on parent tree.

“Hoary lichen” on parent tree.

Further walking on this rocky slope by the side of the logging road revealed some dainty lichens displaying a  lovely pastel, slightly orange-pink coloration, something that forest fairies might have planned.

Fairy lichen.

Pink earth lichen.

 

Dainty lichen.

The extremely photogenic pink earth lichen again.

I know I wrote in my last blog about the importance of identifying small life forms, but I decided not to pursue lichen identification here (it would be like Alice falling into a wonderland of splendid but strange forms and vocabulary) because my primary goal now is to honor the pine and its cones. “Hoary lichen” and “lacy lichen” are just my own bland names, not proper common names. It turns out (courtesy of my husband’s research) that the lichen with the pink knobs is easy to identify via Google images. It is known by a lovely common name–the pink earth lichen. Its scientific name, Dibaeis baeomyces, is not at all user friendly. Project Noah offers a photo with a description offering the information  that the knobs are filled with “cottony fibers.”

My husband and I got busy taking measurements and assessing characteristics that would identify the pine.

Pine cone display technician David Fernandez.

Pine cone display technician David Fernandez.

 

A 2-3 needle pine!

A 2 (-3) needle pine! Apparently the number of needles per bundle is not totally constant.

 

One thing that makes pines fairly easy to identify is that there are not many different species of them in the world. Further, pine needles are arranged in little bundles bound in a common sheath, and the number of needles in the bundle (fascicle) is distinctive for each species. The familiar white pine, distinctive for its long, graceful needles, has five needles per bundle, for example.  So, it’s pretty easy to count the number of needles per bundle on a pine sample–we found two needles per bundle in this pine–and look up a list of 2-needle pines in North America. The list is not that long. Also, the pine cones of our pine were unusually prickly, which proved an excellent identifying characteristic. First we settled on Pinus echinata, the shortleaf pine, because it has prickle-tipped cones and it’s native, but its growth habit (overall shape) wasn’t right. We moved on through the list of 2-needle pines.

Voila Pinus pungens, commonly known as the prickly pine, table mountain pine, and hickory pine! Prickly pine  is certainly a suitable common name because of the cone, and table mountain because of the high elevation at which it likes to grow, but hickory pine? A hickory tree is in a completely different family and order and is known for its shaggy bark and edible nuts. I love it when the common names of life forms become interesting metaphors, connecting the unlike through some hint of likeness, so I puzzle over its derivation.  Hickory trees are often gaunt and gangly in shape, which is perhaps the likeness that inspired the common name of hickory pine because Pinus pungens is  described as having a “rounded, irregular shape.” Another possibility is that the common name recognizes the fact that Pinus pungens likes to grow with hickories. However, there were no hickories on this rocky hillside.

It is a lonesome pine. Unlike most species of pines, this pine is known for growing as scattered individuals, rather than in large groves.  Lonesome but not unsung. John Fox Jr. made this species famous in his book The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, a top-ten bestseller of 1908-1909, and a book still dramatized in yearly pageants in Big Stone Gap, Virginia where John Fox died in 1919. Fox’s book beautifully describes the Appalachian mountain culture and landscape, and the confusion and disruption that occur when modern civilization arrives, here in the form of the train and coal mining. Fox describes the lonesome pine repeatedly so that it becomes a character in its own right, representing the isolated individual struggling to retain identity. The main human protagonist is a young man from “civilization” who arrives to bring change to the area but is nevertheless sensitive to the value of what he finds there. Fox writes from the point of view of this character:

He had seen the big pine when he first came to those hills—one morning, at daybreak, when the valley was a sea of mist that threw soft clinging spray to the very mountain tops: for even above the mists, that morning, its mighty head arose—sole visible proof that the earth still slept beneath. Straightaway, he wondered how it had ever got there, so far above the few of its kind that haunted the green dark ravines far below. Some whirlwind, doubtless, had sent a tiny cone circling heavenward and dropped it there. It had sent others, too, no doubt, but how had this tree faced wind and storm alone and alone lived to defy both so proudly? Some day he would learn.

–John Fox, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine   

He suggests a parallel and a connection between the plight of the lonesome pine and the human being. Defiance in the face of unaccountable whirlwinds, like World War II. My parents loved this book for its description of the mountains they settled in post my father’s service in the war. With all their hearts they aspired to be mountain folk, fierce individuals never at peace when far from lichen-covered trees and forested vistas. Their grandson has now purchased some of this mountain land to protect–from the “green dark ravines far below” to the rocky slopes of the ridge tops where the lonesome pine survives, casting its prickly cones into a garden of fantastical lichen, both tender and tough.

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Trees rising from one of the deep, green glens of Back Creek Mountain.

  

 

Fieldwork 101: Identifying the “Infinite in the Small”

 

Summer in the northeast United States is a time for a bounty of life forms, little bugs munching leaves and landing out of nowhere in our midst and tiny weeds decorating “waste” places trying to show us that life can be lived in the most unassuming of places. Seemingly they have come from nowhere and humbly they will disappear at frost. Having a minor  reputation in my neighborhood as a naturalist, I am presented with various creatures for ID, and then one simply fell into my lap (precisely speaking, onto my page), and then there is the case of the striking stranger that came for the cat food. I write about them in the spirit that the least among us deserves recognition and has a story to tell–part of the Big Story of Life on Earth.

 

Carrion beetle on my kitchen counter.

Burying beetle on my kitchen counter.

 

This handsome beetle popped out of an empty cat food can in my sink.  We had gone to Columbus, Ohio, for a wedding, leaving Rex Fernandez the cat in the care of an expert cat sitter who left the nearly empty Fancy Feast cans in the sink as requested.  Upon tidying up I encountered this large, dramatically colored beetle. I was surprised but not horrified. As most naturalists would, I decided to photograph it with my iPhone for identification. Darwin, famously, put a beetle, or was it two, in his mouth for safekeeping to carry home for study, because his hands were full with specimens and equipment. I had just acquired Insects of New England & New York by Tom Murray, so it was a simple matter of flipping through pages of photographs of beetles to find one like this.

Insects of New England and New York by Tom Murray, published by Kollath + Stensaas Publishing.

Insects of New England and New York by Tom Murray, published by Kollath + Stensaas Publishing.

Simple-minded or not, this is my first approach to identification. It was quickly apparent that this individual belonged to the family of Carrion Beetles (Silphidae) and more particularly to the genus Nicrophorus, commonly known as Sexton (Burying) Beetles. Murray writes,

“In the Northeast we have 9 of the 15 Burying Beetles species. Adults bury the carcass of a small mammal or bird, and then lay eggs on it and are dedicated parents, feeding the larvae bits of carrion.”

That’s how life continues, by not wasting available resources and good parenting. I narrowed from genus to species. It looked exactly like the photo of Nicrophorus defodiens in Murray’s book, which I stumbled upon online as well. These beetles get around. One comment beneath the online photo indicates they are a pest on the Isle of Skye in western Scotland, or I should say a wee pest (the go-to lingo of the Scots). I am sure that I could not put this kind of beetle in my mouth.

And then in further tidying I discovered a note and a container from the expert cat sitter by the telephone.

“Elizabeth. I’m trying to find a home for this strange bug–also to find out what kind of bug he is. Maybe the [grand]children would be interested?! I consulted an insect ID book to no avail. Anyway he is a fascinating little (very) creature. Susan”

The Wegman’s Olive Bar container had beautiful little holes in the lid and nothing in it at first view. Near some shredded leaf parts I saw a tiny, very tiny as she had said, fuzzy little bug.

Susan's bug.

Susan’s bug, magnified considerably.

Higher magnification of Susan's bug.

Higher magnification of Susan’s bug. Note the widened “flanges” of the hind legs.

 

I went off on a wild goose-bug chase. The chances of ID-ing such a tiny bug, especially one that appeared to have been rolling around in gooey dust  seemed futile. I observed it, photographed it, and then let it go because I didn’t want it to die while I was on my chase. The hind legs were distinctive.  I immediately thought of leaf-footed bugs, known for “leaf-like expansions” (Murray) of their hind legs, and a photo in Murray’s book of the Distinct Leaf-footed Bug (Merocoris distinctus) bore some likeness. Murray’s description reads: “These little, fuzzy bugs can be found on flowers throughout the eastern U.S., except Florida where M. typhaeus occurs.” Susan said that she had found it on her shower curtain, but this unusual location did not necessarily rule out the Distinct Leaf-footed Bug because bugs get around for various reasons. Such a tiny bug could have blown on a gentle breeze from one of the flowers in her garden to her shower curtain, possibly. I wasn’t satisfied, however. The Distinct Leaf-footed Bug was supposed to be 9 mm or so, and Susan’s bug was smaller I thought. But perhaps it could be just a nymph, an immature stage in maturation of insects. It would get bigger and then look more like the photo in Murray’s book perhaps, especially if it was cleaned up. But that line of thinking was definitely fuzzy. I puzzled on.

Browsing around online, googling search terms like “tiny, fluffy bug” or “tiny, fuzzy bug” or “tiny, sticky bug,” I can’t remember exactly, I stumbled on Doug Green’s Simple Gifts Farm (www.simplegiftsfarm.com) with a great photo of a lookalike. You have to scroll down past the wooly aphid to get to the photo of the nymph of the Masked Hunter Bug (similar to Susan’s bug). The fascinating little creature on the shower curtain was a member of the Assassin Bug family, specifically Reduvius personatus. Called Assassin Bugs, because they hunt and kill other bugs, they like to be indoors and can, if disturbed, inflict very painful bites upon humans. The Masked Hunter is so-called because the nymphs go around covered in dust as a camouflage. The adults are not half as fascinating looking, as shown on Michigan State University’s webpage, written byHoward Russell, who notes that they have a “sizable beak” with a “needle-like mouthpart.” I am more entranced by the Masked Hunter with its costume of dust.

My third identification adventure occurred in a coffee shop. I was sitting with my portable, paper 2014 Edward Gorey’s The Evil Garden Calendar (Pomegranate) open and my coffee, plotting to get my life in order when a beetle dropped onto the page.

Beetle on calendar.

Beetle on calendar.

I had been immersed in beetles and bugs, and here was another one begging for attention. Had it dropped off the ceiling? my hair? At least it wasn’t an assassin bug. It seemed cheerful and actively explored my page.

Beetle on the move.

Beetle on the move.

The pattern on the back was interesting but not outstandingly helpful. After escorting the beetle outside to an ornamental planting by the parking lot, I started looked through all beetles that had three-pronged, black antennae. There were a lot. I narrowed it down to some type of scarab beetle, and after much wandering among beetle photographs decided that it was mostly likely the Oriental Beetle, Exomala orientalis (synonym Anomala orientalis). My photographs match those on bugguide.net almost exactly. Various accounts point out that the pattern often varies this way and that (i.e., no two snowflakes are alike), and sometimes it is completely black, as shown in Murray’s book. It is an immigrant from Asia, and frequents rose and hollyhock blossoms. The grubs live in the ground and feed on turfgrass roots.

In graduate school I took courses that gave me practice in some of the arts of identification–Agrostology, the study of grasses, at the University of Texas at Austin, and Entomology, the study of insects, at Cornell.  It’s not so much the name per se that a naturalist seeks, but knowing and honoring the individual through seeing well–discriminating between details of appearance with appreciation. I cannot fly around the world like David Attenborough, but I can engage in adventures that everyday life presents, and they are nonstop.

I found a wonderful website called Beetles in the Bush created by entomologist Ted MacRae. He posted  ID Challenge # 23on July 12, 2014. I was too busy investigating my own challenges to undertake his challenge, but I urge readers to get involved and accept challenges. For example, here is a long-legged insect that I found ensconced on peony fruit capsules in my Secret Garden.

Long-legged green insect on peony fruit capsules.

Long-legged green insect on peony fruit capsules.

 

Here's a higher magnification.

Here’s a higher magnification.

I think it is a katydid. The challenge is what kind of katydid? I also pose this challenge in the spirit of the  “revisioning the insect-human connection,” the subtitle of a wonderful book by Joanne Elizabeth Lauck titled The Voice of the Infinite In the Small. This is a beautiful book about tuning in to our smallest brethren and shedding human self-centeredness in order to really belong to the delicate lace of life on planet Earth. I for one feel that my life is more in order when I try to identify my fellow life forms.

A classic: The Voice of the Infinite in the Small: Revisioning the Insect-Human Connection by Joanne Elizabeth Lauck.

A classic: The Voice of the Infinite in the Small: Revisioning the Insect-Human Connection by Joanne Elizabeth Lauck.

Plants and People: Celebrating the Brooklyn Botanic Children’s Garden

Display near the entrance to the Children's Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Display near the entrance to the Children’s Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 

On Saturday, June 7th, 2014, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) celebrated the 100th Anniversary of its renowned Children’s Garden. As Frances Miner, who worked in the Children’s Garden for 43 years said, “There are plants and there are people, and there are many ways they can be brought together.”

 

Exhibit item in the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

Exhibit item in the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

 

The history of the Children’s Garden is beautifully described on BBG’s website. Anyone interested in gardening with children will find this history interesting. Anyone interested in reading about strong women will find the profiles of Ellen Eddy Shaw and Frances Miner, who both shaped the garden for many years, inspiring.

Elizabeth Scholtz (left),   Director Emeritus of BBG, and Ruth Harzula, fellow instructor in the Children's Garden.

Elizabeth Scholtz (left), Director Emeritus of BBG, and Ruth Harzula, fellow instructor in the Children’s Garden.

I came to BBG as a “botanical instructor” just as Frances Miner was retiring. The motto she stressed was “learn by doing.” This statement has rung true to me many times over the years. Too often we feel “stupid” because we can’t replicate a procedure or activity after hearing an explanation. But we are not “stupid,” we just have not learned through the body. The Director of BBG at the time, Elizabeth Scholtz (shown above) still goes to work at the garden, as Director Emeritus, Monday through Friday. Her devotion, charm, and horticultural advocacy are legendary. Ruth Harzula (also shown above), who was the first woman to graduate from Delaware Valley College with a degree in Ornamental Horticulture,  was in my cohort of young “botanical instructors” who worked at the garden in the 1970s. She brought many talents to our group, among them working with special needs children in the vegetable garden. I also remember the day she unleashed a natural history drama at lunch. Bringing forth her insect collection for show and tell, she screamed upon opening it.  There were lots of little “bodies” moving around.  A praying mantis egg case had hatched and a swarm of tiny praying mantises, each the length of a finger nail at most, was busy devouring her carefully pinned insects. It was a terrifying scene of carnage, wings and legs strewn about half eaten.  At least this is how I remember it. Ruth, please let me know if I have misrepresented the event.

 

Tools in the Children's Garden house.

Tools in the Children’s Garden house.

In my era we taught a sequence of four classes for New York City public school children in which they learned how to make cuttings, how to pot up their rooted cutting,  and had tours of the conservatory and the outdoor plant collections. I remember the students as being very interested and well behaved. They loved the hands-on work in the greenhouse. We taught adult classes as well. While most classes had a practical application, like dyeing fibers with plant materials, I taught a “romantic” one, “Trailing the Wild Arbutus with Gun and Camera,” about the world’s great plant explorers and the plants they introduced to our gardens. These plant-loving explorers underwent extraordinary deprivations and dangerous situations to make these flowery “introductions.”

Staff in the Children's Garden offer lemon balm cuttings for potting up.

Staff in the Children’s Garden offer lemon balm cuttings for potting up at the celebration. Lemon balm is tough and lovely. The cutting I potted up survived several subway rides and a long bus ride to arrive safely in Ithaca, NY.

 

I was also in charge of the Shakespeare Garden, but at that time there was insufficient funding for buying special varieties or even spending many hours in the garden. Luckily it looked perfectly beautiful, to me, with too many foxgloves.

There are still lots of foxgloves in the Shakespeare Garden.

There are still lots of foxgloves in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

Scotch thistle in the Shakespeare Garden.

Scotch thistle in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

 

Mullein plant in the Shakespeare Garden.

Flowering stalk of the Arctic Summer Mullein (Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polarsommer’) in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

There were people as interesting as the plants. One was George Kalmbacher, a retired postal worker, who became an expert in bromeliads (pineapples and their relatives), traveling all over the world to visit and document rare species. Like our very own phantom of the opera, he could be found at all hours of the day and night scurrying between the herbarium and the conservatory with a huge camera and a plant in his hand that he was photographing, probably for the book What Flower is That? It had over 1000 photographs of garden flowers. His knowledge was encyclopedic–because he certainly learned by doing. One winter he got quite excited because the night-blooming cereus (a kind of cactus) was getting ready to flower and he  urged us to be in the conservatory between 10 pm and 11 pm for the grand opening. I fretted about staying so late in the city, but he said that this would be my only chance to watch the huge buds open, petal by petal, and he was right. Some call it the Queen of the Night, and have paid tribute with musical accompaniment. By morning the Queen has wilted, her gown in disarray, the petals hanging limp.

 

Keyhole tree near the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

Keyhole tree near the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

And then there was Frank Okamura who curated an outstanding collection of bonsai. He was a little intimidating, not loquacious like George, stern in protecting his tiny trees. Although not a fan of bonsai, when I stood before one of his two-foot-high, 100-year-old oak trees in full flower, I felt the miracle of being able to physically and mentally encompass the entirety of the oak.  You can shrink a tree, but not its flowers. The oak tassels (the name for their flowers) were their normal size, dangling like hugely oversize but still elegant ear-rings on the diminutive trees, an incongruous, arresting sight.  Some people don’t realize that trees flower, so a bonsai seen through the seasons can be instructive. Like Mr. Kalmbacher, Mr. Okamura was self-trained.  The obituary in the New York Times written by Stuart Lavietes describes how, interned in California in WWII, Mr. Okamura came to the garden to work in its neglected Japanese garden, but also waited tables and set pins in bowling alleys.  Mr. Okamura’s daughter said that he “virtually dangled off precipices in the Catskills to get saplings he thought would make good bonsai trees.”

 

The celebration offered healthy drinks.

The celebration offered healthy beverages.

I first started as a botanical instructor in Fall ’73 or early ’74, fresh from a year as a horticultural work-study student at Kew Gardens. The salary was $6000 a year so I commuted one and a half hours from home each way. Leaving a trail of corn muffin crumbs from my favorite deli in Grand Central, I carried hazelenut coffee, a book, and my earth shoes. It was in Grand Central that I bought a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  The opening lines transported me:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Upon reading that sentence I was deeply in love with a book. An untidy passenger, I sat on the subway reading and spilling coffee but never scalded anyone but myself. Back then Grand Central was not the upscale place it is now. I remember a homeless woman in a tattered nightgown barely covered by a dirty raincoat standing on the top of the steps leading down to the Lexington Avenue line, urinating and shouting obscenities. The stream of well-dressed commuters heading to Wall Street parted in front of her and united beyond her seemingly without notice. Buffeted by the noise and the soot, I rose out of the subway as bedraggled as the Queen of the Night after flowering and entered the Brooklyn Botanic Garden through a turnstile leading to the Cherry Esplanade. Calm, green, symmetrical allees of flowering cherry trees lined a central area, a place to breathe deeply, a sanctuary. I learned then and know so much more now how much work it takes to maintain a sanctuary. In the obituary mentioned above, Stuart Lavietes writes that

Mr. Okamura taught his students that practicing bonsai required patience, sensitivity to nature and five fundamental qualities: humanity, justice, courtesy, wisdom and fidelity.

I would like to think that people, children and adults, do learn these qualities in working with plants, all plants, from liverworts to radishes to roses. I will let Ted Maclin, former coordinator of the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden speak here:

Statement from

Statement from Ted Maclin, displayed in the exhibit at the Steinhardt Conservatory commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 

So, I learned from plants and people in my days at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It was poignant on June 7th to greet people that I have not seen in 40 years. The good news is that their smiles are as youthful and their eyes as bright as when I first knew them. We were happy to be together again in the garden.

 

Carolina spicebush (Calycanthus sp.) near Cherry Esplanade.

Strawberry Shrub (also known as Carolina Allspice, Sweet Shrub, Sweet Betsy, Bubby Bush [Calycanthus floridus])  near Cherry Esplanade.