May 18th: A Celebration of “International Fascination of Plants Day”

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Flowering crabapple trees at Tower Hill Botanic Garden May 6, 2017.

Dipping into Twitter last week to check on the latest natural history news from around the world, I came upon an announcement of “The International Fascination of Plants Day” by the Linnean Society of London. The official date is May 18th, 2017, but events are scheduled throughout the year.

I decided to ask a few people what they would describe as the most fascinating quality of plant life. The first person immediately said photosynthesis, the process by which plants, using the green pigment chlorophyll, make food (carbohydrates) from carbon dioxide, water, and light, during which oxygen is produced. We breathe and eat courtesy of plants. This was a fast start.

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Gunnera leaf taken at Trebah Garden, Cornwall, UK.

The second person praised the way in which trees, shrubs, and understory plants layer their branches and leaves in a forest to catch flecks of sun. The aim to maximize light-capturing efficiency becomes so artful. Human beings receive untold benefits from wandering among the layers of leaves. In Japan it is called shinrin-yoku, forest bathing. Japan has 48 official Forest Therapy trails, and conducts studies to document specific aspects of wellness enhancement during walks. It is thought that even cognition improves after forest-bathing.

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Entrance to forest in Enfield, Ithaca, NY>

A third person thought a bit and then said “spring.” We talked some and came to the conclusion that plants are spring–their capacity for regenerative burgeoning, the leafing out, the opening of buds. This brings us to flowers, an “abominable mystery” to use Darwin’s phrasing. Would we have the word “bloom” without plants? Middle English adapted the word from the Old Norse “blómi” for flowers, which also came to mean prosperity. What would we do without the verb “to bloom” and the noun “blossom,” which when transferred to a person came to mean “a state of great loveliness.”

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A tulip blossom.

 

The fourth person I asked referred me to this clip, BBC Life: Plants. 6 month time lapse in one minute, narrated by David Attenborough. A group of us clustered around the family dinner table watching it on her cell phone in wonder.

I am fascinated that the organizers used the word “fascination” rather than a word like “importance” or “recognition.” It is the right word to describe the botanical bent of my life. It began at a young age when I explored the farm in Virginia where I was born. I am not sure why I bonded with plants. It was instinctive or became instinctive. We had no television, radio, or phone and no neighbors in sight. Perhaps I became biophilic. “Biophilia” is naturalist E. O. Wilson’s term (and title of a book by him), first introduced by psychologist Erich Fromm, for the idea that human beings have an innate tendency to affiliate with other species. He believes that these bonds affect mental development.

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E. O. Wilson’s book published by Harvard University Press in 1984.

Here in Ithaca, NY, on May 18th, organizers (Cornell Botanic Gardens, Cornell School of Integrative Plant Science, and Cornell Department of Natural Resources) are holding an inaugural forum for the new Biophilia:Ithaca Chapter, modeled on one begun in Pittsburgh.  The first featured speaker is local metalsmith artist Durand Van Doren. It will be held 5-7 pm in the BorgWarner Room of Tompkins County Public Library.

The goals of Biophilia:Ithaca can be found on the Cornell Botanic Gardens website. In summary, it is an effort to awaken, acknowledge, and encourage biophilia in people, a suitable tribute for the 2017 International Fascination of Plants Day.

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Emerging leaf and/or flower bud  from an amaryllis bulb.

A New Year Begins in Vinegar Hollow

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Looking to the north end of Vinegar Hollow.

The long drive from Ithaca to Mustoe completed, we arrived just after dark on New Year’s Eve to a howling wind, snow-covered hills, and an icy terrace. By morning the melt was on, the ice turned to puddles and the snow just feathery patches. But there had been prolonged cold so, while the primrose that flowered last January 1st looked bright green, its buds remained tight. The melt brought mist and drizzle and for a few days we were in a fog bank.

Despite a few injuries, the old collapsed ankle, the new broken wrist, and the sudden onset of a stupefying upper respiratory virus, I took walks with my husband and Belle the dog.

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Looking to the south end of Vinegar Hollow.

Trees in winter tell such different stories than those of their summer selves. The old apple trees in the orchard that haven’t been pruned for decades reveal the thicket of watersprouts jutting vertically from almost every horizantal branch. Shoots that spring from the base of a tree are called suckers. They are an important source of regeneration. Arising from latent buds and the result of “weather and other damage” (old age?), watersprouts, on the other hand, make a mess of the interior life of a tree, blocking light and air flow, which in turn decrease the quality of fruit. I remember my mother telling me that the apple tree in the orchard was an old variety called the Northern Spy. I loved the name. Trees do make perfect spies. No one notices them. There are only six left now, each uniquely misshapen.

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Two old apple trees join branches, heavy with waterspouts.

Another walk takes us up Back Creek Mountain on one of the old logging roads. It’s misty. These woods were logged about 10 years ago. The giants are gone, and the slender trees that remain reach for the sky from the steep hillsides, a maze of toothpicks tilted slightly off vertical. Pale grey green lichens cover their trunks, a contrast to the deep green leaves of the mountain laurel thickets forming the understory. These are Appalachian colors, muted.

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Lichen-and-moss garden along logging road. British soldier lichens are red topped.

There have been other travelers on this road. We notice coyote scat, blunt at one end and pointed at the other, a pale grey brown that blends with the fallen leaves. The British soldiers do not blend in. They are bright and bold, in lime green uniforms and orange red helmets. This seems to be their season as they look fresh and new. Large patches, like miniature gardens, occur frequently along the sides of the trail. The mosses look prosperous also at this time of the year, their green rich and glowing.

We walk up to a large bend and then turn around, retracing our steps. I am thinking about how I love these woods, and that, though they do not have the diversity and flamboyance of a tropical rain forest, there are surprises, like the British soldiers, and undoubtedly there are very beautiful mosses, lichens, and liverworts that have never been named, when I hear a loud “Wow!” I race to catch up with my husband. He is staring at the ground. Even when almost upon him I do not see anything under his gaze. On bended knee, however, I come face to face with a strange life form. As we walk down the trail, we find more and more of them in various stages of development, all of which we had missed on the way up.

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Stage 1 of the yellow-stalked puffball.

The first stage looked like a very small yellow star-like flower flattened on the ground. Next a balloon-like orb appeared underneath the “flower” whose “petals” became a reddish collar around a “mouth” atop the balloon. Tapping the balloon produced a cloud of white dust.

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Stage 2 of yellow-stalked puffball: balloon (spore case) has “mushroomed.”

It was so bizarre that I couldn’t see it belonging to any of the five kingdoms of living organisms. But it had to be a mushroom, perhaps related to an earthstar. An Alice-in-Wonderland Google search through the world of bizarre mushrooms led to dead ends until I stumbled on the phrase “stalked puffball,” and then I found it—the yellow-stalked puffball, Calostoma lutescens. It is also called the lattice puffball, apparently for the mesh-like consistency of the stalk.

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Stage 3 of yellow-stalked puffball: net-like, fibrous stalk elevates “balloon” for spore dispersal.

Michael Kuo of MushroomExpert.com writes that

This distinctive, funky fungus is fairly common in the southern Appalachians, but has been reported from Arkansas to Massachusetts. It looks like a little yellow globe with puckered red lips, sporting a tattered collar, held aloft by an odd pedestal of half-digested pasta. It’s hard to imagine mistaking Calostoma lutescens for anything else.

My Internet search reminded me of Project Noah. It is a site where ordinary people, or citizen scientists, can upload photos for sharing and identification. Someone posted a photo of the yellow-stalked puffball found in North Carolina about a year ago.

For some reason I have always felt the role of reporter or recorder of the hollow’s news, whether about a puffball or water-sprouted old apple trees, as my calling. Why? Why do some people have certain inclinations that seem necessary, like a cosmic job, despite how difficult to honor along with all one’s other responsibilities?

These first few days of January, while thinking determinedly about the yellow-stalked puffball, I read obituaries of John Berger (b. November 5, 1926; d. January 2, 2017), the English writer who spent 43 years living in a small village in the Haute Savoie of the French Alps, in part to chronicle the peasant way of life (he preferred the word peasant to describe the rural worker). In an essay for The Guardian in 2014, he wrote:

What has prompted me to write over the years is the hunch that something needs to be told, and that if I don’t try to tell it, it risks not being told. I picture myself as a stop-gap man rather than a consequential, professional writer.

I take heart from that. One can be a stop-gap writer of or for almost anything. Most would say that Berger was a pretty high-level, stop-gap writer. I think he would affirm that it is ok to be a low-level, stop-gap writer like me. He also said, even when nearing 90, that writing never got any easier for him, though drawing did.

Berger had been an influential art critic, author of Ways of Seeing, but from Quincy in the Haute Savoie, he wrote about the people and their down-to-earth work, making hay, shepherding, and the like. In his essay about the yearly cleaning of his outhouse, “Muck and its Entanglements: Cleaning the Outhouse,” he describes a local schoolroom story of a conversation between a cowpat and a fallen apple. The fallen apple is too pristine to speak to the friendly cowpat. This is his point of departure for seeking meaning in “shit” and the nature of cows:

Perhaps the insouciance with which cows shit is part of their peacefulness, part of the patience that allows them to be thought of in certain cultures as sacred.

Berger also made the observation that cows walk as if on high heels. Their hooves do seem extremely dainty for their ponderous bodies, and I have often wondered that they don’t just topple over on the steep hillsides of Vinegar Hollow. I blame the breeders for their ungainly, top heavy bodies.

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They are waiting.

Every time I am here I do some cow watching. Mike, owner of the cows, comes up twice a day with giant hay bales skewered onto the front and back of his John Deere tractor, which he spreads in different parts of the farm, leaving swirling, Celtic patterns, figure-eights of uneaten hay all over the farm.

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The cows may seem to vaguely follow his whereabouts, but their attention is not vague. They came up the road more or less single file and stop on the part of the road between the barn and the granary. They stop moving and stand still as statues, no flick of a tail or turning of a head, noses to the north, tails to the south, single file (they are chewing however, as I can make out a rhythmic movement of their jaws), not moving for up to an hour or until they hear a vehicle and then they bound towards the sound, practically scampering. It’s comical, though, if they are in error (if it’s not Mike with their hay bales) because they return to their positions on the road, single file, and wait, chewing, as if they have not been caught dancing about on their high heels to watch the approach of the bales.

It is good for me to start the new year by fitting into the rhythms of Vinegar Hollow. Too soon it will be time to go. I have ordered Pig Earth, the first  book in John Berger’s trilogy (Into their Labours) about working with the fiercely independent people who farm the French Alps, in order to understand the rhythms in places where people have worked the land for centuries.

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Looking south, through the branches of a young black cherry, on the day of departure.

P.S. Pictures of the puffball were taken by my husband David Fernandez.

Visitors in Vinegar Hollow: Bee and Bear

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Vinegar Hollow on a late July morning.

 

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

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

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Leaf cutter bee at work just left of center.

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

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

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

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

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

5:29 back but off quickly

5:30 back but off quickly; more thunder.

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

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Maple leaves showing leaf cutter activity.

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

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

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

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

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Mike looked surprised.

“Did you do that?”

“Me? No!”

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

“It was a bear,” he said.

“Gee.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long live bees and bears!

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The way out of the hollow.

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

 

 

 

 

 

The uncertainty of winter: the primrose and the hellebore

The view to Stark's Ridge.

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

 

January 1, 2016

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

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

 

The primrose and the hellebore.

The primrose and the hellebore.

 

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

The primrose in the noon sun.

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

 

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

 

Buds and foliage of the hellebore.

Buds and foliage of the hellebore.

 

 

The flower of the hellebore.

The one flower of the hellebore open in Mustoe today.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The primrose on January 3, 2016.

The primrose on January 3, 2016.

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

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

We can’t have spring without winter.

 

January 4, 2016

 

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Winter arrives in Vinegar Hollow with a dusting of snow.

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

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

 

January 5, 2016

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

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

 

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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.

 

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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A walk on the wild side: Highland County, Virginia

View of Vanderpool Gap, Highland County, Virginia

View of Vanderpool Gap, Highland County, Virginia, looking west into Blue Grass Valley.

 

I am back, in Highland County, Virginia, exploring again, starting off a few feet from these cows. We are headed east in jeep and on foot into a parcel of land that was once cleared, but is growing back into the wild in places. As is usual here, we have to go through several gates before we are into the parcel.

 

My walking companions.

My walking companions.

We are trying to get a sense of the entire topography of this 700-some acre parcel. It’s varied, rarely flat.  We surprise a golden eagle and a bevy of vultures. They scatter in a leisurely fashion, in no hurry to leave the carrion they have found. When we have passed along, they will be back. I am not quick enough to capture the golden eagle with my iPhone, even though it is huge and moving so slowly.

 

Halfway to the top.

Halfway to the top.

 

We arrive at a little glen with a beautiful stream. It’s sparkling and luxuriant with vegetation.

Mountain stream.

Mountain stream.

Here I find a notable Appalachian wildflower: Saxifraga micranthidifolia, commonly known as branch lettuce or mountain lettuce. Native to the Great Smoky Mountains, it flourishes in cold, fast-moving mountain streams and is one of the first plants to show itself in early spring. The early settlers found it palatable and a welcome salad green after a long winter.

 

Mountain lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia).

Mountain lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia).

 

It is not in Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers, so when I discovered it as a young girl in Vinegar Hollow I felt like a genuine plant explorer. I finally tracked it down in Joseph E. Harned’s Wildflowers of the Alleghanies, a book I found by chance at a second-hand bookstore. It has been called “a monumental book,” and there is no doubt that it is–written with grace and comprehensive in scope. “Micranthidifolia” remains one of my favorite botanical tongue twisters.

The mountain lettuce are abundant and so is the plant shown below, which is new to me.

 

False hellebore (Veratrum viride).

False hellebore (Veratrum viride).

 

It takes several hours of searching online to find the name  because for once Peterson and McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers fails to give me an identification, probably because it was such a big presence there in the stream, but quite small, practically hidden in the top right corner of  p. 370 among the “6-part flowers, lengthwise leaf veins, Lily Family (Liliaceae).” Peterson and McKenny instruct through arrows, using them to point to distinctive, often little-noticed features. They do have an arrow to the “heavily ribbed” leaves. I should have noticed that arrow, but I missed it.

 

Drawing of false hellebore (shown left of center on top) from Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia McKenny's A Fieldguide to Wildflowers (pp. 369-379).

Drawing of false hellebore (shown left of center on top) from Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia McKenny’s A Fieldguide to Wildflowers (pp. 369-379).

 

False Hellebore is also known by a host of other names, including Poor Annie, Tickleweed, and Devils Bite. This plant is not palatable, in fact just the reverse. According to one website, it is highly toxic and can cause “birth defects, gastrointestinal distress, salivation, prostration, general paralysis, spasms, irregular heart beat, difficulties breathing, and death.” That sounds like just about enough results for its toxicity. Large patches of bluets carpet the path the follows the stream up the glen.

 

Bluets or Quaker Ladies (Houstonea caerulea).

Bluets, also known as Quaker Ladies, Innocence, and Little Washerwoman (Houstonia caerulea).

 

Bluets go by many names as well and are extremely  photogenic. It is certainly a pleasure to walk along a path so blue, though I am hopping because I do not wish to crush a bluet or a Quaker lady or a little washerwoman. They are in the bedstraw or madder family (Rubiaceae). The settlers are said to have stuffed their mattresses with the common bedstraw (Galium sp.), which grows in hay meadows and has a sandpapery feel. Probably because I am so dazzled by the mountain lettuce, the false hellebore, and the bluets, I fail to notice two species that we see on our way back through this part of the parcel: the pink lady’s slipper and the pinxter flower, a kind of rhododendron.

 

Lady's slipper orchid

Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule).

 

Flame azalea nestled into trunk of tree with fern.

Pinxter flower nestled into trunk of tree with hayscented fern.

 

I was dazzled, but now I am delirious. These Appalachian plants touch me deeply. Pinxter flower has had several scientific names, from Rhododendron nudiflorum to the current Rhododendron periclymenoides. Nudiflorum makes perfect sense (flowering without leaves), but I will have to do further research to understand how periclymenoides adds to an understanding of the biology of this species.

We trek on, discovering an old friend from Vinegar Hollow, hound’s tongue, a member of the forget-me-not family–“downy, with a mousy odor; maroon flowers …embraced by velvety calyx scales” according to the description by Peterson and McKenny.

Hound's tongue (Cynoglossum officinale).

Hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum officinale).

 

I think I have caught its downiness in my photograph (enhanced by the slight out of focus). This is limestone country. One of my companions has worked with stone. He points to a rock with a lot of character and shows us where bear have overturned rocks to get at ants.

 

Limestone rock showing fossil creatures.

Limestone rock showing fossil creatures.

 

We lock gaze with a deer.

 

Deer in the undergrowth.

A deer.

 

We reach the top of the parcel.

 

At the top of the parcel.

At the top of the parcel.

The Vanderpool gap is still visible. Two stick-like black locusts stand in the center of view. The locusts are very late leafing out this year. One hopes that a blight or new pathogen is not attacking this very valuable and beautiful species. As we walk back down to the jeep, ticks, rather large ticks, attach themselves conspicuously to our pants and soon appear on our arms. My youngest companion, wearing medium-weight blue jeans, shoos away more than 30 ticks, while my companion with camouflage pants has less than half that amount, and I, with rubber wellies, only attract 10 or so. We speculate about the relative merits of what we are wearing with regard to attracting ticks, but are most preoccupied with just getting the ticks off of our clothing and bodies. One of my companions describes a nature program that showed a moose in Canada driven mad by blood-engorged ticks covering its body. We lament how hard it is to feel charitable towards this particular species. A superfluous hostility, however, should be avoided. Basically little arachnids, ticks are an old species,  having been found in fossil amber dating back to sometime in the Cretaceous (65 to 146 million years ago), according to some researchers. They make their living in an unsavory way, but then so do some humans.

The pinxter flower, the mountain lettuce, the false hellebore, a golden eagle, a deer, vultures, and ticks. These species and many more we have encountered on our walk. We are fortunate to have had this opportunity to walk in the Appalachian mountains of western Virginia in Highland County.

Upon returning to where we started, I find horses by the barn near where the cattle grazed, and a view through a window of that barn.

Back to the beginning. A horse grazes. Vanderpool gap visible through window in barn.

Back to the beginning. A horse grazes. Vanderpool gap visible through window in barn.

 

Our walk is like a view through the keyhole. We have seen so much, but not everything. A parcel of land on the wild side is immense. The diversity of life forms, from bluets to ticks, inspires in me wonder and happiness.

P.S. An excellent article on the topography, biodiversity, and habitat loss of this area, titled “Appalachian-Blue Ridge forests” is available on the World Wildlife website.