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What on Earth has happened to us? Each of us once knew wonder, but it didn’t survive adult‐ hood. We were born with such curiosity in the outdoors. Do you remember? It might have been a caterpillar crawling on the back porch step or making a wish, blowing away the thistle‐down of a dandelion that you first remember. Or maybe it was an hour watching a procession of ants on the sidewalk or the chase of butterflies on a sunny day or lightning bugs in jar on a balmy night. A woodlot was a wilderness and we made up the rules as we went along. Hide and seek, tag— you’re it! Tie a thread on a Junebug’s leg. Climb a tree. Find a four‐leaf clover. Turn rocks by the creek for crayfish, and don’t get pinched. Throw rocks at a can, skip them on the lake, turn them in your hand for flecks of mica or fool’s gold. But then we grew up and out of our need for sunlight, the smell of rain, the buzz of insects, the shapes of clouds—or so we thought. Our lives slowly slipped indoors, and we lived in boxes:
car, cubicle, den, television. We found reasons to stay indoors, and severed our connection to the energy, the peace and the rich reflections that once came from a slow walk in a meadow— attentive, expectant and fully alive. We forgot how to be still and listen. This book invites you back out, to find your abandoned sense of wonder. To find that still place. You might have neglected these things, but they are still there, waiting. And I will urge you to take your own children (or grandchildren) outside with you under the sun, to share what you’ve rediscovered. You can learn to love being out again. We’ll go there together. You’ll see. Allow me to come along with you at first in your outings—not as an expert or scholar (of which I am neither) but rather as a companion. My purpose for going with you is simply to say “Look over there! Slow down a bit now. Scratch and sniff. Listen. I wonder…” I’d be pleased to have you see my world through my eyes for a spell. And before long, you’ll not need this book along. You will hear your own inner child exclaiming, marveling, asking, wholly immersed. Your eyes will find, dwell, and become keen on seeing meaning, poetry and beauty in the ordinary a hundred feet from home. It will be personally enriching to come to see your natural places in this fuller, deeper way. But it is also necessary, and it is urgent that we do so. We maintain our delusions of independence from nature and our indifference towards it at our peril. Author Richard Louv has described our nature disconnect—especially our children’s—as “nature deficit disorder”. Even in my college biology students, most don’t know one kind of tree or wildflower or bird from another. Today’s younger children too often prefer to stay in‐ doors where the batteries and electrical outlets are. They rarely spend lazy hours using their imaginations outdoors, and live in a “shopping mall” environment. Plants are mere fixtures, the ambient noise of bird or insect is mere background, and the temperature is always just right indoors. Bodies, minds and spirits are deprived of the energy, exercise and intellectual enrichment that free‐range play under the sky can offer.
This book is, and is not, a field guide back to that world of nature. I will speak of particular creatures by name. Naming is power. I will point to specific features that set one wildflower apart from others. Differences make all the difference. And I may give some factual informa‐ tion about a mushroomʹs or amphibianʹs natural history and their place in the larger economy of woods or meadow. Facts are important, but so are feelings. We’ll think about that a lot. You might think of this as a childrenʹs book—for adults. It is a gentle enticement to parents and grandparents, a pull more than a push, to draw you and your children outdoors. It will encourage you to use your senses more fully and teach children to do the same. It will offer some answers, but more than that, will rekindle curiosity so you ask the questions. If this book succeeds, it will lure you back out under the canopy of trees and sky. It will bring you to a quiet place where you can hear, see, smell and reflect in ways not possible indoors. Your chil‐ dren will feel the magic of slow walks and soon learn to see the extraordinary in the ordinary of where ever it is that you live. Logically, the first part of the book will begin by considering some of natureʹs curiosities I find in my walks within a hundred steps from our back door. The second section will focus on how time changes a single back yard, woodlot or meadow as the seasons come and go so that even in standing still, life evolves around us through the year. The third part will take a wider view, looking at landscape—at creeks and trees, rocks and weather‐‐the background upon which plant and animal habitats are built—those places we call home. And lastly, weʹll consider how being back in touch with nature and her rhythms can change our own private addiction to speed, information overload and consumerism and make us better understand our own place in the world. Of necessity and by intention, all these images are local. A hundred steps was as far as I needed to go to collect images, stories, all manner of light and wonderful memories to share with you. I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and you might live in a completely different setting. So these pages represent types of observation and questions and contempla‐ tions you might also have, but for the particular menagerie of life in your part of the world. You work is simply to step outside your door and begin.
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
PART ONE Field Notes: From Nature
As you read through and look at the images of this section of the book, Iʹd like to think you will find yourself becoming a biology watcher. This will involve new habits of noticing the details of the very small and ordinary around you in ways you may never have before. It might mean getting dirty and closer to the ground than you ordinarily do. And it will mean thinking small. Few of us live where large mammals are everyday visitors. To see the smaller and more common representatives of the living kindgoms, youʹll need to look closely; turn rocks and fallen logs (mindful that you might be startled by a bright green snake!) Carefully examine the bark of trees. You may find some creatures so well camouflaged they were invisible until you disturbed them. If you find a field or country roadside of flowers, youʹll also find the insects that make their homes on those blossoms, or a meal from their pollen or nectar. Other creatures‐‐like crab spiders‐‐perch on flowers waiting for those insects that come there to eat or to mate. And by all means, look care‐ fully at the role those insects, by intention or accident, might play in the spread of pollen. Almost every flower is a nature‐ploy to entice their pollinators to come and get it. (Some like ragweed arenʹt; they are pollinated by the wind!) If you find yuccas in flower, you WILL find yucca moths‐‐a most interesting mutually beneficial relationship between a plant and an animal. Each picture tells a story. Can you find it? Can you hear the questions I might have been asking myself when I first came upon the Hickory Horned Devil or the Tomato Horn Worm? Begin to see every leaf, tree and rock as a question, not a fact. Often, say to yourself ʺI wonder…ʺ This may seem contrived at first. But trust me, it will begin to come naturally. We live in wonderful times in this: if you have any curiosity at all, any questions about identity, life cycle, utility or natural history of anything you find, the answer is no further away than the nearest internet connection. Even better, start your collection of field guides. Even very young children can compare pictures to the shape of the leaf in your hand or butterfly in the net.
Carpenter Ants: But What Could They Be Building?
Every Bracken fiddlehead in the sandy meadow along the Blue Ridge Parkway had one or more Carpenter Ants stationed on its three‐part newly‐unfurling frond. This certainly seemed more than a random search for food or mates, I figured, and when I got home, I looked it up. (It would have been hard if I did‐ n’t know either the kind of ant or kind of fern. Right?) Examine the right‐hand image. See the wet black spot near where the three prongs of the fern leaf come together? It looks rather like the eye of this other‐ worldly bird‐like creature. It is a nectary, not unlike the same sweet spot that many flowers offer their in‐ sect visitors. Except, of course in this case, there are no flowers. The ant gets a sweet treat. It seems that what the fern gets is protection from other predatory insects that would eat it while it is in this tender, vulnerable stage. But hurrah! It is guarded by the ant patrol. In our meadow over where Nameless and Goose Creeks come together, I found NO ants on the grown‐up version of Bracken Fern. By then, the plant must be tough and able to take care of itself without offering anything in re‐ turn. Maybe this association between plant and ant accounts for some of the success of this worldwide fern, found on every continent. So imagine that! The old biology watcher has learned something new today about this amazing world‐‐a living planet that has been equipped to take care of itself so very well in such interesting—and occasionally cooperative—ways.
Keep a record: I didn’t discover the “sweet spot” until I brought the pictures home and took
a closer look. That happens often—seeing features in the picture that I missed when they were taken. Sometimes in the field, we’re too close to the object of our interest, too “in the moment” to pull back and look with an outsider’s view.
If you see the same insect on the same plants, what does that make you think? Is it food, mates, a hiding place or something else that draws them here? What’s in it for the plant? Could you have seen this from any other perspective than on your knees? Bracken is widespread. It’s young shoots are edible. How hungry would you have to be?
Waiting For The Dinner Guests
You are more likely to see this spider’s food sticking out at odd angles from the edge of a flower than to see this small crab spider itself. And that is according to plan. Though this one seems conspicuous on the fused petals of a late‐summer Giant Lobelia over by the meadow, they are really quite hard to find motionless, waiting, and hungry. They depend on patience, protective coloration and stealth for their food. So watch for oddly‐placed insects—flies, skipper moths and such—that appear to be stuck to a plant’s flower. In all probability, at the other end will be a crab spider hold‐ ing onto his dinner. And you have to wonder: how can something eat a meal that is many times larger than it is? How does it get its mouth around a small butterfly? Good question. Well, they don’t do it the way we do. There are other options than chewing mouths with teeth and tongue as a means of getting nutrients to a creatures absorptive gut. Spiders are the wolves of their world. Insect prey are their rabbits and mice. After injecting poison through his hypodermic “fangs” to sedate his prey, the spider then may inject protein‐digesting enzymes to liquefy its meal, sucking its dinner out of the insect’s undigestable exoskeleton. This is sort of like getting every bite of lobster without using a fork! NOTE: very few spiders have mouthparts large or strong enough or venom powerful enough to cause humans any harm. The Brown Recluse and Black Widow are excep‐ tions.
So: you’re looking at this odd leggy lump of spider you’ve discovered by getting really close. In what other ways is this spider equipped for its lifestyle? What would you suppose about its vision, being an eater of cautious in‐ sects with eyes of their own? Does this spider have poison in his feeding style? (If you answer NO, then wonder how he convinced the skipper moth to just hang around for dinner?) Are all the legs the same length? How many of his four pair might he use to catch and hold prey? And do you notice how he holds them: held back and wide apart, ready to grab a bite. Why do you imagine spiders seem so “ikky” to so many of us? Is the fear out of proportion to the risk?
One Monster of a Caterpillar
One day, a knock on our door brought us the visitor pictured here, curled up in a green bucket. It gives me an odd kind of pleasure to be the kind of neighbor to whom folks bring amazing crea‐ tures in plastic pails. This unlikely beast is the Hickory Horned Devil‐‐a hideously beautiful creature that might just as well have come direct from the lot of a B‐grade science fiction movie as from a modern‐day real‐life forest floor. It is the unlikely preparatory stage required to build the elegant Regal Walnut Moth, a Beast and Beauty story if ever there was one. (Notice the different trees involved in this sinister to noble metamorphosis?) The Horned Devil is remarkable for size alone. It has the heft of a roll of quarters, and is as fleshy and chunky as a hotdog—gargantuan by land‐invertebrate standards, and indeed, it is the largest caterpillar in North America by most reckonings. But would you reach into the bucket to lift such a thing up into the light of day? If you agitate this creature by poking it, the thrashing and rolling is reminiscent of an Nile Crocodile feeding‐frenzy. That makes you think twice! But it is all just bluster: those spiny horns are harmless; there are no teeth in the terror for those who would merely hold and admire. However, to an actual predator hoping to make a meal of him (I read that waiting snakes have a strong taste for them) itʹs my guess that the Devilʹs thorny, bright orange warning antlers are there for a reason‐‐and bad taste, bad smell or bad digestion probably lurks within, natureʹs fair warning to look but not touch if itʹs a meal youʹre thinking about. But unfortunately, these defenses (and pretensions) are not enough to protect this wonderfully‐ horrific animal from going the way of the dinosaur. They are disappearing from our woods, and this may be the only view you get of them before they are gone entirely from green plastic pails or the neighborhood forest or park.
Do you think the Hickory Horned Devil “wants” to be hidden, or to stand out? Hmm.
Wonder what’s the opposite of camouflage? Would your children bring this home to keep, run from it, or worse: torment it? The moths that mature from this caterpillar are “walnut” moths. Is that because of an exclu‐ sive diet, or their color, you suppose? Find the Royal Walnut moth on the web and decide. If they disappear, so what? Does a creature you’re unlikely to see matter? Why?
Snake in the Grass
The energized air of those utterly clear, crisp days of October encourages a fella to find some‐ thing to do outdoors. By then, the woodpile needs tending, and the garden, long gone by, needs a few more final acts of closure to see it through until spring. The leaves have reached their glory and begun to fall, so leaf‐raking is a great pick‐up job that lasts for weeks, done now and then just out the back door. And I was doing just that beside the shed one fall afternoon. A flat rock needed moving so I could rake a clean slate of the gravel pad where we planned to stack a quarter‐cord of fire‐ wood in the shelter of the shed roof. And there in the cool shade of that rock, in the midst of the reds and yellows of autumn, coiled a brilliant green six‐inch snake! I gave up a WHOOP! like a miner who’d discovered gold. (My wife’s quite used to this, and she doesn’t expect precious minerals.) We’d seen two 18” adult green snakes here in the six years on Goose Creek—only two. Their emerald disguise makes them notoriously hard to see in the grass and low bushes where they hang out. But also they are increasingly rare. As insect‐ eaters, their populations have taken a nose‐dive in locked step with the number of acres cleared for agriculture, housing and commerce and gallons of pesticides used. This six‐inch juvenile was sluggish, having already bedded down for the cold months, only to be exposed suddenly to the warm afternoon sun. The wildlife paparazzi would torment him for a few minutes with their cameras. Then he’d go back next to the shed. I’d imagine him coiled cozily, dreaming of crickets there every time I brought in an armload of wood. The word “snake” is reflexively associated with danger, death and evil. Maybe it goes back in our culture to the Garden of Eden story. And there are dangers, to be sure, just as there are in our own species. But there are also small, harmless snakes, too small and passive to strike. Don’t put the idea into your child’s head that the only good snake is a dead one. That means you have to be brave and hold a tiny ring‐neck snake in your hands. You can do it!
There are two green snake species in our area. This one is the “rough” variety, so called because
it has a ridge or keel down each scale. Got your hand lens handy? In poking around to learn more, I discovered this species of green snake had not been recorded from our county. It is now, a new dot on the map! Whoop! When this six‐inch juvenile warmed up, he was wiggly and wanted back under the leaves. Con‐ tained briefly in a pyrex pie plate with leaves pressed underneath, I grabbed this glamour shot first, then confessed to the wife I’d used her cookware for scientific purposes. 13
Eastern Hemlock: Rest in Peace
Sadly, we’ve not yet seen the first black throated blue warblers this year, and I’m afraid they will become more and more uncommon as our once magnificent darkest green hem‐ lock trees succumb to the insect called the wooly adelgid. Our hillsides were once covered with the black‐green dropping branches of hemlock—my favorite tree. Now they stand gaunt and gray, sad skeletons with boney arms uplifted, frozen in a final unanswered prayer. —from Slow Road Home
I first discovered Eastern Hemlocks (by all means not to be confused with Socrates’ poison) in college, on my first hike in the Bankhead Wilderness in northern Alabama. Ever since, they have been one of my very favorites in our forests. And when we moved to Goose Creek in 1999, our hillsides and ridges were dark green with them. Just a couple of years later, they joined the rest of the eastern forest die‐off, doomed to suffer a slow but sure death. The cause: the wooly adelgid, an imported scale insect that sucks the life out of our hemlocks, an invasive with no natural predators to check their spread. They look like tiny cottony masses and you’ll see them—should you find a hemlock that clings to life—on the underside of the needles of this evergreen tree. While individual trees may be successfully protected in several ways by direct application of insecticides—should you be so inclined—so far, nothing has promised to save the day for the forests. Imagine: an entire species disappearing before our eyes. But of course, this is happening invisi‐ bly and at an alarming rate across the planet. More often than not, the extinction of plant and animal species is due to another invading alien: us. As there are more of us, and we travel be‐ tween continents transporting spores and seeds; as we clear land for roads and shopping cen‐ ters; as we burn coal to sate our appetite for electricity: we are the agents of extinction.
We lost the American Chestnut from our woods long ago. Now, the Hemlocks are going. What would
happen if a blight killed all the oaks in the eastern forests? What will become of the dead trees? The inset shows a fungus growing happily in the furrowed bark of a dying hemlock. One creatures death, another’s feast! A fallen Hemlock leaves a patch of sun. Opportunity knocks. 15
What Tiny Little Birds!
Mulch. It’s everywhere these days. If there is anything good about the huge number of trees we “process” each year to meet our need for paper, 2 x 4s and plywood, maybe mulch is on that short list. This is es‐ pecially true if you’re a fun guy. Make that a fungi. Lawn and garden mulch is to mushrooms and their kin what a Petrie dish is to bacteria: a solid carpet of food. And so mushroom fan‐ ciers keep their eyes open for discoveries that used to mean a long walk to the forest to search for fallen logs. Now the decaying woods comes right to the foundation plantings outside the front door, or along the walk at the office! The “birds nest fungus” here is perhaps one of the more interesting of the mulch regulars. But to ap‐ preciate the name fully, you’ll have to look very closely: these little “nests” are only a fraction of an inch across. And inside each are up to a half‐dozen flat “eggs” that are this mushroom’s investment in the next generation. Each nest is a splash cup, and when a big, fat drop of summer rain hits dead center, the gray spores are thrown up several inches into the air; the surrounding mulch is in this way “egged” and the single little cluster of a dozen nests can come to cover tens of square feet of your foundation plantings. So: next summer rainstorm: Raincoat, hand lens, and patience. Be there when it happens!
Starfish in the Forest?
I’m not a bad person. I just occasionally en‐ joy being perfectly serious and straight‐ faced while I inflict some impromptu na‐ ture‐farce upon my children (in those days) or a gullible walking companion. “Oh yes!” I told my new friends long ago as we walked in the national forest, having discovered some specimens such as those in the picture. “It’s not widely known, but yes, there are land‐living starfish.” And I shamelessly elaborated a fictional natural history: what they ate, how they repro‐ duced, their natural enemies, and so on. When in truth, and with apologies, they are Earthstars (genus Geaster, from geo– meaning Earth, and aster, meaning star: see, scientific names are not so hard to understand!) It is a kind of puffball mushroom. When the time is right, the thick “rind” peels back in wedge‐shaped “walking legs” leaving the soft puff full of spores exposed. In that same summer rainstorm we just spoke of, and while you’re sitting out there in your slicker, wait for another KerPLUNK of a raindrop to fall on the Earthstar and enjoy the show. It will release a smoky cloud of spores, not accidentally just when there is moisture adequate to help them germinate. The spores will come out of a tiny mouth right in the center. There are also wee, sharp teeth just inside the mouth, so don’t get too close. (I’m just making that last part up. I am so sorry. I can’t stop myself. I need a twelve‐step program for bull‐shooters.)
I’ll Scratch Your Back, You Scratch Mine
Every flower tells a story. The fact that it exists at all in our times is a record of adaptability and success over thousands, perhaps millions of years. That success is measured in this: there are enough plants and flowers on them left each year to reproduce; and their means of reproduction— of getting sperm (via pollen) to egg—has somehow worked out. And each kind of flower has a different tactic to make this happen. For the common plant called “Spanish Bayonets” (Yucca filamentosa) a chicken‐and‐egg conun‐ drum is contained in its survival story—one that provides text books with wonderful examples of both mutualism (both participants are benefited) and co‐evolution: as one has changed through time, it has been dependent on and helped insure the success of the other. The tiny, white moth you see here is adapted to do just exactly what the Yucca plant needs, and in response, the Yucca provides perfectly for the next generation of moths. The female moth’s mouthparts are unusually shaped to scoop up the distinctive pollen packets from the tips of the six vertical male parts. (See them?) The plant’s female parts are also uniquely shaped so that the eggs are hidden deep in the central column‐like pistil, requiring a pollinator (guess who!) to both have the key and know how to use it. The moth knows. Bingo! Eggs are impregnated and will soon grow into nutritious seeds. The female then lays her egg in a future seed—an incubator for her young that will both protect and nourish. It costs the plant a few seeds of its hundreds. It costs the moth a little effort. But because of this mutual exchange of services, both go on for another generation. Amazing! At first glance, it’s a bug on a plant. But when you give them names and learn their stories, “there is nothing ordinary.”
Inset of full yucca plant goes here
One of the most conspicuous things about a yucca’s dozens of blossoms is that instead of facing up, they hang down. Do you suppose the moths are glad about that? Why? There are three moths here. My guess is that they hatched from last years pupae that fell at the feet of this same plant. Could be that many generations call this one plant home. One of the most conspicuous things about a yucca’s dozens of blossoms is that instead of facing up, they face down. Do you suppose the moths are happy about that?
A Trick Question: How Many Flowers?
What you see here is a Sunflower—one huge yellow‐petaled bloom perched up on top of a thick, seven‐foot‐tall stalk out in the garden. Look again. How many flowers to you see here? You’re likely to get dizzy and lapse into a trance following the gold‐to‐green path counting the tiny individual flowers hypnotically spi‐ raling from the center (and more about that pattern in a minute.) The garden sunflower is a member of the Composite or Aster Family. This group can carry two kinds of flowers in a type of arrangement (or inflorescence) known as a “head”—a fleshy platform on which its flowers develop. So in truth, there is a single inflorescence pictured here, and hundreds of flowers, now gone to seed. Every sunflower seed you eat is the product of one flower from the center (disk) that as it grows is surrounded by non‐seed‐producing specialized flowers (yellow ray flowers) whose job it is to advertise that dinner is served to its potential pollinators—like these bumblebees. Now back to the very precise arrangement of disk flowers you see here. Do the spirals turn clockwise or counterclockwise? The answer is—both! If you examine a pine cone, you’ll see a very similar pattern. They both reflect the beautiful economy and geometry of nature. The take‐home lesson here is to ask how form is intimately related to function with everything you see in your nature‐watching. Why is the insect that color and shape? What does the size and form of a plant’s flower or its seed say about its pollinators or manner of seed dispersal? Rekindle curiosity. Teach your children to ask why. Expect wonder, and welcome it. Note: for more, look up Golden Mean, Fibonacci Series, and Phi.
In nature, what happens to a single heavy sunflower seed? How does this compare to the fate of the small, light seed of another familiar relative: the Dandelion? From a plant’s point of view, why is more seeds better? What will happen to most? Our sunflower stems are an inch thick. Of course they are! Why must they be?
I bet you know “mud wasps” that make the tubular nests under the eaves of your tool shed. Those tubes are full of sedated spiders gathered by the female wasp. She’ll lay an egg in each, the baby wasp will feed off the spider, grow up, eat its way out of the nest, and begin a new generation of mud “daubers”. My son was brave enough to hold the contents of one tube of mud in his hand, but it sort of gave him the creeps. (How would you feel?) Look at the variety of colors here (different flavors?) The black and orange of the Monarch Butterfly is one our favorite sights of summer and fall. This one is feeding on the Butterfly bush outside the window near my desk, but most prefer milkweed. Its sap contains substances both distasteful and poisonous to would‐ be predators who have come to recognize the Monarch’s pattern and color and largely leave these “winged wisps of will” to mi‐ grate thousands of miles to their wintering grounds. Unfortunately, due to habitat loss and various toxins and other agricultural alterations, Monarchs are not as plentiful as they once were. Spare your milkweed when clearing brush and borders. This lovely if menacing 1/2 inch caterpillar is the Saddle Back and I recommend keeping your distance. I discovered this one in our corn when it brushed against my arm. Its sting is enough to bring a grown man to tears. Like the Horned Devil earlier, the bizarre color and shape advertise “you don’t want some of me” to would be predators. And its deception makes it hard to say which end is the head, both ends bristling with venom‐tipped spines. Leave this bad boy alone!
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