The Small Stoneflies of Ludlowville Falls

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Ludlowville Falls January 2017 where stonefly nymphs live (Photo credit:  Charlotte Whalen).

We, two grandmothers, two mothers, and two toddlers, were walking in the snowy playground overlooking Ludlowville Falls on Salmon Creek in Lansing, NY last week. The falls had thawed from their frozen state of January (shown above) and spumed forth vigorously. The snow was crusty and the sun bright. As we moved closer to the edge of the overlook, we noticed tiny bugs dispersed evenly over the surface of the snow. It was hard not to step on them. Although minute, their dark grey-brown bodies were starkly visible against the snow.  They moved slightly. We were all intrigued, even the one-and-a-half year olds, and we wondered how they could stay “warm” on the snow.

I thought to myself that they looked familiar.  One of the stranger insects that I studied in Entomology at Cornell was the stonefly, a member of a genus called the Plecoptera. It is one of those aquatic insects, like the mayfly, that devotes its entire terrestrial existence to mating, barely or never eating. The last stonefly that I encountered was a rather large one that crashed a party of ladies drinking wine near a stream.  We decided that it was a “stoned” stonefly. Rarely flying even though they have prominent transparent wings,  they have a still and somber presence. The name derives from the Greek, meaning “braided wings.” They are sometimes called “snowflies.”

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Stonefly near Ludlowville Falls 17 Feb 2017 (Photo credit:  Charlotte Whalen).

I went home and googled “minute stoneflies in winter.” The first entry titled “Winter stoneflies sure are supercool” confirmed identification and answered questions about their lifestyle. Posted February 24, 2011, on the Scientific American website by Guest Blogger Holly Menninger, it describes the author’s visit to Taughannock Falls in Ithaca, NY, just a few miles from Ludlowville Falls, where she also encounters tiny stoneflies on snowy ground. She explains that winter stoneflies combine several strategies for avoiding internal freezing–through the phenomenon of supercooling and production of antifreeze compounds. Very small volumes of water, like a raindrop or cells in a stonefly, will remain liquid well below zero. The addition of antifreeze compounds in intercellular spaces prevents ice crystals forming and breaking into cells. Further, Menninger writes that “by walking about on the tips of their feet, the adult stoneflies avoid the hazards of external ice crystals potentially invading their bodies and inducing inoculative freezing.”

The presence of stoneflies is a good sign. Aquatic insects such as the stonefly have two life stages–the aquatic nymph, which may last for several years, and the terrestrial adult, which is very brief. Nymphs live in streams and require well-oxygenated water. Pollutants are known to deplete oxygen levels. So, the presence of the adults on snow indicates that nymphs prospered in pollution-free conditions. We marvel at the adults out so early in February, but how the nymphs survive in Salmon Creek near the frozen falls is even more astonishing. They find small pools of water insulated by ice. It all seems precarious. Thus, adults have just one goal–to mate. Females of some stonefly species can produce up to 1,000 eggs each. Winter stoneflies belong to the Capniidae family, which includes about 300 species.

I have been wanting to say a few complimentary things about winter. The stoneflies’ hardiness pushed me to take pen in hand. I profit from winter’s quietness, its testing of my own cold hardiness, and its artistry. Obliterating color and brush stroking every form, snowfalls  highlight architectural elements of garden plants and trees. Caps appear on the buds of the star magnolia. I see twigs that I have never noticed before. I see the structure of the long, feathery red spruce branches. Even an old rusty garden urn takes on an enhanced appearance and reveals visitors.

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Notice bird footprints on right corner of uppermost layer of pedestal. Primrose (Primula carniolica) in clay pot has nice snow cover.

Snow is fun.

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Snow offers new possibilities. (Photo credit:  Charlotte Whalen)

And a winter walk in the forest presents a minimalist landscape, a retreat from overstimulation.

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Enfield, New York.

About 10 days ago a huge flock of robins appeared in our neighborhood. They were animated, dashing back and forth from the sycamore to the tulip tree to the walnut to the honey locusts, never settling, chattering like magpies! A cheerful commotion for sure. That night it snowed, about 3-4 inches of light, crystalline flakes. There was artwork everywhere the next day. The robins, who had roosted overnight, seemed undaunted in the morning. Just as much chatter and commotion but they left by mid-afternoon. In Highland County the first snow after robins return is a called a robin snow. The implication of the folklore surrounding the name is that the robins bring the snow. There are several named snows in Appalachia. I experienced a robin snow on the way to Vinegar Hollow once. We had stopped at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia and became engulfed in a snowfall that was full of robins, hundreds of them. It was an exhilarating sight, one that could not be photographed. The grey wings of the robins appeared and disappeared, shuttling through the slanting snowfall at great speed.

Today, February 22, it’s 61 degrees F. Winter is elsewhere, but it will return, and I will keep looking for good signs.

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Rainbow at Ludlowville Falls in autumn 2016. (Photo credit: Matthew Slattery).

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.

Primrosing at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden

 

It’s primrose time, so last weekend I drove from Ithaca, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts, to attend the annual Primrose Show organized by the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

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Informative poster at the Primrose Show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

 

Primrose is of course a noun, the name of a small, compact perennial much beloved of gardeners. But primrose can be used as a verb, to primrose. One can go primrosing, as I did at the show, and one can be primrosed, which can also occur as I came home with four flats of plants.

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First-place winner in the “5-Mixed” category.

The organizers of the show hoped to inspire interest and enthusiasm for all members of the genus Primula, commonly known as primroses or primulas. The events included a display of prize-worthy specimens, a coloring table for children, a sale of plants from plant nurseries as far away as New Brunswick, and lectures by a Scottish nurseryman, Ian Christie of Kirriemuir, south of Aberdeen. Shows direct attention to details of a plant that even gardeners, distracted by the overall scene of their garden, might never notice. I remember as a young horticulture student attending my first Royal Horticultural Society Vegetable Show. I came to a standstill, shocked before a display of carrots draped over black velvet. My attention was riveted. I remember the carrots.

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Polyanthus (primrose) showing lovely floral palette.

The primroses at this show were demure by contrast, simply presented in clay or plastic pots on tables without velvet. One young couple with a child in a stroller paused before the first-place winner in the auricula category. After looking very closely, he said to his wife, “I get it. It’s all about the flowers.”

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An auricula (primrose) flower.

He did get it. Auricula flowers are some of the most unusual in the plant kingdom. Then there was a woman who rested her flat of purchased plants on the table with posters explaining the different kinds of primroses. She looked at the posters and looked at her plants. Then she asked her friend, “Did I buy any primroses?” Her friend said, “No, you didn’t.” “Really, no primroses?” The friend said very definitively, “You didn’t buy any primroses.” The woman sighed and said, “Oh well, next year.” Choosing among an array of beautiful spring flowers for sale can be bewildering despite informative posters.

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The common primrose (Primula vulgaris) probably colored by a member of the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

To attract the youngest and most impressionable members of the public, primrose society members set up a coloring table with crayons and colored pencils and drawings of different kinds of primroses. The young colorers received a free polyanthus, a kind of hybrid primrose. The plants given away had nodding flowers in shades of yellow and orange and red. I watched as a child protectively clutched her polyanthus primrose as her mother pushed the stroller away from the coloring table. Later I met them outside in the garden and the little girl was still holding the pot.

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Formal planting at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden with woodland walk at the far right.

Outside I found that Tower Hill Botanic Garden had a woodland walk designed to engage their youngest visitors. There were pictures of illustrations from a classic children’s book published in 1906, When the Root Children Wake Up. In the story the Earth Mother comes to wake the root children, who will animate the Spring. She gives the little root girls pieces of colored fabric to make dresses to match the spring flowers they will carry to the Earth’s surface, while the little root boys are sent off to wake up the ladybugs and beetles and bumble-bees and other insects.

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Illustration from When the Root Children Wake Up. It’s time for Spring.

It was written and illustrated by Sibylle von Olfers (1881-1916) who was born into a large family that lived in a castle near Konigsburg. She wrote and illustrated her fanciful children’s books for a younger sister. After becoming a nun in 1906, she worked as an art teacher. Ten years later she died of lung disease.

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The boys dust off the bugs.

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The girls carry up the flowers. Primrose follows Daisy at the right.

The botanic garden decorated the woodland walk with small houses of the sort that little fairies and gnomes might like. One young couple without children paused in front of one of these charming structures. The man who was wearing a black leather jacket pulled out a camera and took a photo, saying to his girlfriend, “This is adorable.” We all appreciate visions of other realms.

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Dwelling for woodland  fairies.

Among the primroses that I brought home was Primula carniolica, commonly known as the Slovenian primrose. Having lost a seedling of this last year in my unruly garden, I was anxious to try again. This specimen is robust, so I will not lose it. The Slovenian primrose is endemic, meaning native, to a very small area in the Slovenian Alps. Found in grassland, woodland, and high cliffs, it prefers a limestone substrate, summer moisture, and shade. When you grow a plant from a faraway place, you feel connected to its exotic geography and try very hard to mimic its desired conditions. It is considered scarce—in the wild and in cultivation, all the more reason to strive to do one’s horticultural best.

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Robust leaves of Slovenian primrose.

 

My seedling had not flowered so I was not prepared for the beauty of the small blue flower. The “body” of the plant is sturdy rather than graceful. The leaves are smooth and hooded, arranged in an off-center rosette.  Elevated on slender stalks well above the stout plant, the flowers create a very different effect. They have an exquisite necklace of farina (a powder) circling the base of the petals and the cream-colored throat glistens, pearl-like. Many of the alpine primroses have a dusting or even a heavy coat of farina, which is thought to protect against cold and intense irradiation. The observer of primroses finds extraordinary details.

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Close-up view of the flower of the Slovenian primrose. It looks pinkish here, but bluish “in person.”

Primroses have a long history of medicinal use. Two common species, the English primrose (Primula vulgaris) and the cowslip (Primula veris), have sedative/narcotic constituents in the flowers, leaves, and roots. The Benedictine mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) wrote in her Physica that the primrose was a powerful cure for melancholia:

A person whose head is so oppressed by bad humors that he has lost his senses should shave his hair and place primrose on top of his head. He should bind it on and should do the same thing to his chest. If he leaves these bindings on for three days, he will return to his senses.

Fortunately, most people, rather than wearing primroses on their heads, just have to look at them to receive some benefit. However, the greatest reward is found in growing primrose plants, as this Primrose Show at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden hoped to demonstrate.

 

 

Looking at Flowers: the Trout Lily and the Black Parrot Tulip

The forest floor in early spring awaiting the arriving of spring ephemerals.

The forest floor in early spring awaiting the arrival of spring ephemerals with foliage of squirrel corn (Dicentra cucullaria) casting shadows.

It was such a long, long, long winter that I am still wandering around dazed by the sudden appearance of flowers all around me. The air carries intoxicating scents from flowers whose shapes and colors leave me wondering about beauty and the question of the “abominable mystery” of flowering plants.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum).

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum). Note reddish brown anthers.

Who is the fairest of us all? Of the many, two have occupied my thoughts. One is an old friend I found in the woods, the Trout Lily (above), and the other an exotic stranger that appeared in my own neglected side yard, the Black Parrot tulip (below), a complete surprise to me.

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Black Parrot emerging from ferns.

The earliest wildflowers of the woods are often called “spring ephemerals” because they flower on the forest floor before trees have fully leafed out, when the light is dappled. Everything about the trout lily matches its dappled setting, from the splotched leaves to the yellow brown of the recurved petals and sepals, hence its many other common names like amberbell, fawn lily, adder’s tongue, and dog tooth violet. The coloration camouflages the flower, whose “purpose” is to avoid death before its seeds have matured.

Trout Lily emerging from dense leaf cover.

Trout Lily emerging from dense leaf cover. Note recurved petals, brownish on the underside.

One of the most salient characteristics of their life history is the army of small leaflets that populate their preferred habitat. Once you become aware of the little leaflets of young trout lilies, it is hard to walk delicately enough to avoid stepping on them. There are far fewer flowers.

Trout Lily leaflets nestling into every available space.

Trout Lily leaflets nestling into every available space.

Elizabeth Murray solved the mystery for me years ago in her 1974 column “In Nature’s Garden” in Virginia Wildlife. She explained the trout lily’s remarkable ability to proliferate and I have always wanted to share it. She writes,

The mature seed lies dormant on the forest floor from mid-summer, when it is shed from the plant, until the following spring. Then it germinates to form a tiny miniature corm which sends up only a single leaf, and no flower. The following season the little corm produces from one to three thin threads called droppers. These sometimes appear briefly above ground and then arch over and burrow straight down into the earth. Each dropper forms a new corm at its tip with the transfer of stored food from last season’s corm. The new corms can be over half a foot away from the original one and several inches deeper into the soil. Each one, again, only grows a single food-manufacturing leaf and no flowers. This process may continue for up to four years, depending on soil conditions, so that there can be as many as 45 plants from the five seeds germinating in one year from a single flower. All of these plants will consist of a single leaf and no flowers and will be spread out over quite a wide area. This of course explains the large, flowerless patches of flowers so often found.Finally, when the corm has reached a good size, it no longer sends out droppers, but instead produces a single, complete plant with the elegant little flower that we know and admire. This unusual procedure helps to ensure vigorous and healthy offspring, since a young plant at the start of its growth will have a large food reserve amassed by the parent. Another advantage one might point out a little ruefully is that the performance helps to protect the plant from predatory wild flower gatherers ! All this “burrowing” embeds the corm deeper and deeper into the soil, so that by the time it is ready to produce a flower, it may be over a foot below the surface. To dig it up without damaging the long, fragile stalk which is growing out from it is an extremely difficult operation.

If you follow her explanation carefully, you cannot help but be impressed by the remarkable ingenuity of this stolon-dropper method of getting around, a kind of vegetative hopscotching. Viable seed are only produced every 4 or 5 years, so this process ensures the multiplication of each crop of good seed.

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The leaflet of the young trout lily is a work of art.

It is staggering to think of the secret life of these corms, a foot below the surface and the long voyage of the flower stalk up to the dappled light. Please visit WinterWoman’s blogpost with further details and wonderful photographs of the stolons and droppers.

Trout Lily with yellow anthers (anthers are the pollen-bearing organs of the plant).

Trout Lily with yellow anthers (anthers are the pollen-bearing organs of the plant). It looks like this flower is shedding pollen. The flower with the reddish brown anthers may be unripe or perhaps sterile. Elizabeth Murray notes that viable seed are only produced every 4-5 years.

The black parrot tulip (Tulipa gesnerana dracontia) is an entirely different kettle of fish in terms of beauty. The group that appeared in the dusty neglected bed next to our driveway, appeared beak by beak, before opening to flaunt their dressy selves among the simple ferns and lily of the valley that eke out a pretty dry existence under the broad eaves of the house. I stopped planting tulips 30 years ago after the deer ate 40 tulip blossoms just as they were about to open. I left for work one morning admiring my long row of perfectly formed blossoms waving gently on glaucous pale green stems. When I came home, there were only stalks two inches high. So, since I do not plant tulips, these wild parrots must have been leftover bulbs from my husband’s garden center planted unbeknownst to me.

The black parrot, in a vase,  from above.

The black parrot, in a vase, from above.

The black parrot is apparently so named because their buds resemble the beaks of parrots. This is true. The buds are not very pretty. Parrot tulips develop from spontaneous mutations but were not coveted because weak stems caused the frilly flowers to flop in the mud. A stiffer stemmed parrot mutation called ‘Fantasy’ appeared in 1910 that led to the eventual breeding of the well-stemmed Black Parrot, introduced officially in 1937 by C. Keur & Sons. It has been named the best parrot tulip of the 20th century!

Black Parrot emerging from ferns.

Black Parrot dusted with pollen from red spruce overhead.

The black parrot tulips seduced me feather by feather. I have no view of the side of my driveway from inside the house, so I was happy to find that they make long-lasting cut flowers. I kept drifting into the room where I left the vase, ogling, considering, wondering, adjusting my view.

Their appeal is exuberant  extravagance. Words used to describe the petals include ruched, waved, feathered, frothy, frilled, twisted, scalloped and curled. The color is a deep bluish burgundy, a purple black shot through with green. As the horticulturalist Maureen Gilmer writes, the black parrot tulip “dares to be different, wearing its satins and sequins, even when accomplishing the most pedestrian task” –like adorning my driveway.

The parrot-beak-like buds of the Black Parrot tulip.

The parrot-beak-like buds of the Black Parrot tulip.

The tulip produces droppers as well, as described in Agnes Arber’s great book The Monocotyledons. Arber, the first female botanist elected to the Royal Society in 1946, and the first woman to receive the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society for contributions to botany, writes:

A curious feature of the life-history of the Tulip is the lowering of the bulb into the soil, year by year, during the period of immaturity. This descent is accomplished by means of a tubular organ, the “dropper” or “sinker,” which carries the terminal bud inside its tip. We may illustrate the first stages from the seedling of Erythronium which behaves similarly.

This page of intense packed squiggles from Arber’s Monocotyledons illustrates her patience and skill in portraying the morphological complexity of the droppers in various stages of development. Fortunately, her father, who was an artist, saw that she had drawing lessons from the age of 8.

A page from Agnes Arber's Monocotyledons showing tulip and trout lily droppers.

A page from Agnes Arber’s Monocotyledons showing tulip and trout lily droppers.

How much more we would understand about plant life if we worked at drawing the developmental stages of plants from a young age. Arber’s drawings inform us about form and function in ways hard to decipher when dazzled by the three-dimensional reality of the living plant.

So, who is the fairest of us all? No one can claim that title, because  the appeal of beauty is a mystery–one that  English professor Elaine Scarry explores in her book On Beauty and Being Just. A distinguished Professor of Aesthetics and Theory of General Value at Harvard, she writes with elegant simplicity and clarity about the value of beauty. I love this sentence:

How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.

By beauty she does not mean perfection. The army of trout lily leaflets marching higgily piggily over the forest floor is a beautiful, but untidy, sight. One of her theses is that academia has undervalued beauty because it thinks that honoring beauty detracts from an interest in social justice. As the title of her book suggests, she does not agree.

But the claim throughout these pages that beauty and truth are allied is not a claim that the two are identical. It is not that a poem or a painting or a palm tree or a person is “true,” but rather that it ignites the desire for truth by giving us, with an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience of conviction and the experience, as well, of error.

If we are aware, every flower, every pollinator, every little one of the “endless forms most beautiful” (Darwin again) should move us to a desire for truth and justice and considering error in our judgment. She believes that “constant perceptual acuity–high dives of seeing, hearing, touching” help us “in the work of addressing injustice.” Barry Lopez, honored in an earlier blog, would agree that this is the work of naturalists.

Charles Darwin called the sudden appearance of flowering plants (angiosperms) in the fossil record  100 million years ago an “abominable mystery” because it conflicted with his theory of the gradual evolution of life forms. He suggested that perhaps intermediate fossil forms might eventually be found in faraway places of the world. In fact, this has turned out to be true. Very early angiosperms have been found in China, remote at Darwin’s time when paleobotany was in its infancy, but now also in Europe and the United States. And a living link between the “primitive” gymnosperms and the “advanced” angiosperms was identified in New Caledonia in the form of Amborella trichopoda, the only member of the Amborellaceae family. It is an insignificant treelet with insignificant flowers, four small, hue-less petals, whose entire genome has now been sequenced in the Tree of Life Project. Although the origin of flowering plants is no longer an abominable mystery, biologists still debate theories to account for the great success of angiosperms over gymnosperms. One is the nutrient-advantage hypothesis—that angiosperm leaves having more veins than conifer needles and scales can draw more sustaining nourishment from the Earth. Flowers persuade me, though, that beauty has a biological force.

Another one of Scarry’s theses is that beauty prompts replication, for  “Beauty brings copies of itself into being.” In her wonderful discussion of Matisse and palm tree leaves, she writes “But beautiful things, as Matisse shows, always carry greetings from other worlds within them.” A bulb seller posted  Georgia O’Keefe’s comment on their website: “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” That is why naturalists write.

p.s.

The naturalist occasionally has to do mundane errands, like choosing a new lighting fixture for the kitchen, all the while thinking about Elaine Scarry's ideas about beauty replicating itself--and there was a painting of a black parrot tulip for sale!

The naturalist occasionally has mundane errands, like choosing a new lighting fixture for the kitchen– all the while thinking about Elaine Scarry’s ideas about beauty replicating itself–and there was a painting of a black parrot tulip for sale on the wall of the store among the lights, proving Scarry’s point!

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.

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.

IMG_3929

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.

IMG_3936

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.

IMG_3945

Fieldwork 101: Identifying the “Infinite in the Small”

 

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

 

Carrion beetle on my kitchen counter.

Burying beetle on my kitchen counter.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan's bug.

Susan’s bug, magnified considerably.

Higher magnification of Susan's bug.

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

 

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

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

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

Beetle on calendar.

Beetle on calendar.

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

Beetle on the move.

Beetle on the move.

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

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

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

Long-legged green insect on peony fruit capsules.

Long-legged green insect on peony fruit capsules.

 

Here's a higher magnification.

Here’s a higher magnification.

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

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

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