A buttercup-petaled snapping turtle

Snapping turtle head

Harry the snapping turtle or…is it Harriet?

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

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

Snapping turtle algae on the tail

 

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

Snapping turtle profile

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

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Harry on the move away from me.

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

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

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

snapping turtle book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snapping turtle with snail

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

 

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

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

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

snapping turtle eye in grass

 

 

 

Watching Winter Aconite, a Spring Emphemeral

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

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Winter aconite remain closed on rainy, gray days.

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

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It’s a sunny day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have aconites?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The New Year, 2018, Begins in Vinegar Hollow

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Tractor ready to distribute hay bales for the next feeding.

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

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

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Looking south to Stark’s Ridge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A cattle chute with rusty chains.

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

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

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

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

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

Outside with Henry: Looking for Pill Bugs

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This spring and early summer I have been looking for pill bugs with Henry, my 20-month old grandson, who lives in Ludlowville near Ithaca. Henry is happiest outside, looking for bugs. “Outside” was his first peremptory command.

This is the way it works with pill bug exploration. We turn over a rock and Henry squats with the intensity of a prospector looking for gold. There are always pill buggies. He carefully picks up one between thumb and forefinger. His parents have encouraged him  to be gentle with everything. He passes it to my palm—saying “pill buggy.” I watch as the pill bug unrolls and starts to roam the palm of my hand, its touch imperceptible. According to Henry’s wish, I then transfer it to an area where it can go home to do “booby.” If it is large, it is a mommy; if it is small, it is a baby. In either case, there is a need for nursing, i.e., doing booby.

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Selfie with pill buggy.

As it turns out Henry is intuitive about the family life of pill bugs. The females are “maternal” and the males “paternal.” The female carries eggs in special fluid-filled pouches. Pill bug families live in burrows, and males and females raise their young together. Cleaning the burrow is a communal activity. In time young adults move out, find mates, and establish their own burrows. Individuals can live for up to five years.

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I remember now that when I was a teaching assistant in General Biology at UT-Austin, pill bugs were used in exercises demonstrating responsiveness to stimuli. The lab technician had a cage of tarantulas next to the pill bug terrarium. He told me that tarantulas were as inoffensive as pill bugs, and tried to persuade me to let one crawl up my arm, but I resisted. Like Henry, I find pill bugs perfect companions.

Pill bugs are blue-blooded, a quality they share with their fellow crustaceans the lobsters. Lacking wax on their exoskeletons like insects, they need at least 50% humidity to survive on land. A list of 10 Fascinating Facts about Pill Bugs reminds one that small, drab-looking bugs should not be underestimated. Although called woodlice and pests, their ability to detoxify soil outweighs a little minor nibbling on plant material. Their capacity for rolling into a ball, termed conglobulation, inspires one of their other common names, roly-polies. Their Latin name, Armadillidium vulgare, references their armadillo-like appearance.

A serious recycler, Henry also has an eagle eye for cigarette butts and bottle caps, which he also routinely hands to me for better disposal than on the Earth. Now on my morning walk around the block with Belle the dog in my neck of the woods, I see pill bugs where I have never noticed them before–and cigarette butts. While they are said to be nocturnal, Henry and I have observed a lot of pill bug activity during daylight hours.

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I love watching Henry pick up pill bugs and witnessing his intuitive understanding that all living creatures belong to one family. I think he’s a naturalist. Soon Henry will be moving from Ludlowville, but fortunately there are pill bugs everywere.

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