Autumn: “the small gnats mourn”

HeadeMartinJohnsonSunlightAndShadow

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

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

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

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

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

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

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

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

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

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

Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

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

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

While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

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

My copy of Keats' Letters.

My copy of Keats’ Letters.

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

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

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

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

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

Winslow Homer's

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

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

Wild apples:

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY).

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

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

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

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

Beechdrops:

Beechdrop arising out of leaf litter.

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

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

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

Delicate grasses:

The grace of grasses.

The grace of grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

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

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

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

The nests are empty.

An empty nest dangles in my path.

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

Apple and bees.

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

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

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

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

Horse browsing in Keats'

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

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

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

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

Shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore.

A shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore caught my attention.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

IMG_0889

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

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

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

Goldenrod and woodpile.

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

Advertisements

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

IMG_7765

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valuable book for bird watchers.

Valuable book for bird watchers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos of Canada geese at Panera in Bethlehem, PA.

Photos of Canada geese at Panera in Bethlehem, PA.

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

Goslings nesting in mother goose's feathers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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?

IMG_4847

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.