Acorns Keep Falling On My Head


White oak acorns cover the ground near Durham, North Carolina. Photo by Jane S. Richardson of Duke University, licensed by Creative Commons.

Forget peak oil. Right now, I’m more worried about peak acorn. There are five large white oaks outside my door and the acorns are falling with vigor. Every few minutes, they tumble to earth with a clatter—muffled if they hit the ground, with a thud or clang if they encounter patio or metal lawn furniture on the way down. And that’s when conditions are calm. If there’s even the slightest hint of breeze, the trickle of plant hailstones turns into a cascade. I don’t look up when I leave the house—I get out of the danger zone, fast. I’d run, but when there are so many acorns loose on the ground, moving quickly is a recipe for a quick fall and a trip to the emergency room. So instead I saunter quickly—but with purpose.

This isn’t even a mast year, a time when the oak trees conspire among themselves and go all out in a nonstop orgy of acorn production. 2014 was the last mast year in North Carolina, where just venturing outside in September and October was a hazardous activity requiring a hardhat. I learned from an experience that when a small projectile like an acorn falls on your unprotected scalp at high speeds, it hurts enough to necessitate some serious swearing. Unlike Isaac Newton, who allegedly faced a similar problem with apples, I did not go onto to invent the calculus when this happened to me—my contributions to humanity were significantly less coherent.

During the fall of 2014, the acorns fell in an endless rain. Even when I could avoid them from above, they lay so thick on the ground like so many ball bearings that I needed to tread carefully. Camping in the mountains, I strategically sited my tent to avoid getting woken by an acorn to the face in the night. The squirrels, always busy, ramped up into overtime mode. The deer were happy, too, and more of them survived the winter than usual, even when a January polar vortex sent the temperatures plummeting to eight degrees in the central Piedmont.

There were so many acorns outside, I decided to imitate the animals and consume them for myself. Reading My Side of the Mountain as a child, I dreamed of imitating teenage mountain man Sam Gribley’s feasts of acorn pancakes and maple syrup on cold winter days in the Catskills of New York. If he could do it and enjoy it, I could do it, too. But how to go about it?

Collecting acorns in buckets was easy enough—there were so many on the ground, after all. Even so, I still needed to exercise discernment. Ripe acorns are brown and slip out of their caps easily, with little fuss, and they only fall of their own accord when ripe. Unripe acorns might be green, brown or some combination of the two, and cling fiercely to their caps. They sometimes get knocked out of trees by strong winds or impatient squirrels. I learned to quickly let those be, along with obviously empty, damaged, or rotten ones.

The next step was to outwit the acorn weevil (Curculio sp.) and the other critters that feed on acorns and make them unpalatable for consumption. In the case of the acorn weevil, the female drills a hole in the acorn using her impressive snout and lays her egg at the center. By the time I got to the acorns, the eggs had long since hatched and a white, wiggling grub had consumed much of the nutmeat, leaving a scattered trail of black feces behind. Sometimes the grub had drilled hole in the shell, and wiggled out into the ground to pupate, other times it was still in the acorn when I found it. How to separate out the weevil-damaged nuts without examining every acorn individually?

Living in California, I learned the secret of sorting acorns courtesy of a massive live oak that would scatter leaves and acorns into a nearby swimming pool. Good acorns sank, rolled around around at the bottom of the pool and need to be fished out with a net; non-viable acorns floated and need to be fished out with a net. Good acorns would occasionally send out little bubbles, swell up, and sprout if you got to them before the chlorine killed them; bad acorns had holes in the shells, a grub inside, or proved to be hollow and empty when you picked them up. Buoyed by this knowledge in 2014, I hosed down my buckets of acorns and skimmed off the ones that floated to the surface. Easy.

Cracking the acorns was more tedious and time-consuming. Lacking a machine, I did it the way Sam Gribley did it—by hand. It was relaxing to sit outside in the crisp fall air, cracking the nuts, peeling back the shells, and tossing the contents into a bowl, but it took a long time to process a few pounds even when I got into the groove.

But I still wasn’t done yet. Acorns are bitter, full of tannins that must be removed if they are to be even remotely palatable. Acorn lore said that white oaks tended to have fewer tannins than red oaks, and that the exact amount varied from tree to tree, but I was still going to have to soak my shelled acorns in order to leech the soluble tannins out in the water, and change the water frequently over time.

Every forager on the Internet has their own preferred methods for leeching acorns, and the array of practices was dizzying. Do you grind first and then soak, or soak first and then grind? The former is easier because the tannins leach faster from a greater surface area. In the interest of science, though, I tried both. How long do you soak, and how often do you change the water? My method was to change the water every few hours until I got tired of doing it, and let the results dry on a cookie sheet. Then I poured the resulting flour—the color and consistency of instant hot chocolate mix—into a jar, shoved it into the back of the freezer and completely forgot about it.

I found that acorn flour from 2014 a few weeks ago while cleaning out the freezer, just as a fresh crop of acorns was starting to fall. What better way to celebrate than to finally make the pancakes and taste the results of my labors?

I mixed the acorn flour with water, added a few beaten eggs and mashed bananas to hold everything together, and cooked them on a cast iron skillet. The results were flat and dense, chocolate-brown and crumbly in consistency, barely holding together. They were ugly but delicious, with a dense, rich taste that was nutty and flour-y at the same time, no doubt full of terroir—or terre-oak, I should say. A few of the undercooked pancakes had a faint trace of the slippery, bitter tannins, but that taste vanished when I toasted them. Tasty and filling, I ate them with maple syrup (of course) with a little jam on the side. I only had enough flour for a few batches, but overall my first venture into acorn cooking was a wonderful, if laborious, success.

I won’t be harvesting acorns this fall. So far, I consider it a success just to have avoided being hit on the head. But I suspect that when the next mast year is upon us, I’ll be convinced by the sheer weight of edible food outside my door to give it another shot. The exact cause and trigger of masting is a mystery—it’s difficult to predict exactly when that will be. With any luck, by the time the next mast year is upon us, I’ll have mast-ered the system of acorn processing, ready to feast again on the abundance. If I can’t dodge the acorn strikes, at least I’ll have way to get even.

Six Feet Under


The famous red clay soil of the North Carolina Piedmont. Photo by Dr. David Lindbo of the Department of Soil Science at NC State University, licensed by Creative Commons.

“When I die, bury me in a plain pine box six feet under in the backyard,” I announced to my family at Sunday dinner. “Nothing too fancy, please.”

My father paused, momentarily distracted from his spaghetti. “I think there are laws against that,” he said, with diplomatic aplomb.

Surprisingly, no. It’s not illegal, though the exact regulations vary from state to state. Here in North Carolina, you only need to fill out some paperwork for a legal burial on private land. It’s easier than renewing your driver’s license. As long as it’s your land, and you use the proper channels to inform the authorities, there are few obstacles to a home burial for family members.

So if bureaucracy isn’t the problem, why don’t more people do it? Here in the Piedmont, one problem is the soil—you’ll need to hire a backhoe, especially if you’re in a hurry. Traditional grave-digging just doesn’t cut it these days. To get six feet under in compacted red clay, you can bust out your back and break your shovel halfway down, or you can rent a machine to do it for you. Your choice.

It wasn’t always this way. We don’t have the deep, rich earth that makes the American Midwest such a hotbed of agriculture, but we used to. We lost it. Not only did we do it to ourselves, we don’t even know what we’re missing. Our topsoil—the light, fluffy soil, dark black from decaying organic matter, bursting with life—is gone.

The English surveyor John Lawson recorded at least six feet of topsoil in the Piedmont when he passed through North Carolina in 1701.That’s not true today. In the three hundred years between Lawson’s time and mine, deforestation and European agricultural practices left the rich Piedmont topsoil exposed, subjected to frequent, heavy rains. All of the rich, fertile topsoil washed away, leaving only heavy, iron-rich red clay subsoil behind. Dense and heavy and not so good for crops, farmers wore out their clay fields after a few years of farming, abandoning the fields until the forests regrew and the cycle started over again. Log, rinse and repeat for over a century—the effects are visible the moment you stick your shovel in the ground.

It’s still happening. Rainstorms turn my local rivers and streams a rich, reddish-chocolate color of a melted Fudgesicle as more sediments wash out on a one-way trip to the Atlantic Ocean. Even in calm times, the waters rarely runs completely clear, and aquatic life forms sensitive to sediments, are rare. John Lawson looked into the crystal clear waters of the Haw River and saw the bottom ten to fifteen feet below. I can’t do that, even on the best of days.

Even on the highways, far from any farmer’s field, you’ll know at once when you hit red clay country. Any clearing or grading for roadwork or new developments resembles the surface of Mars. When wet, the exposed red clay forms a dense, sticky network, clinging to your shoes and staining any pale fabrics with distinctive smears. When dry, dust clouds form, an impenetrable haze surrounding and coating bulldozers and construction equipment as they grind through the ground. When I visited the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro this summer, I watched the elephants roll in the mud to beat the heat, the dull grey of their skin vanishing in a rusty haze, as if they had just emerged from a trip to the Red Planet themselves.

Most people here accept red clay for granted. I certainly did, until I traveled more widely, and I learned the truth about the ecological history of this landscape. Some take pride in it, others bemoan its difficulties to work and shape for agriculture and other human uses. For me, it is a lesson, a warning and a call to action all rolled into one. I cannot change the past, but I can work to bring the soil back, and I can tell other people this story. We do not have to accept what history has given us, but we can only make changes if we realize the extent of what we’re missing.

But, as local author Dave Cook reminds me, it was a different world then. In The Piedmont Almanac, he chides me, “It is easy to be critical [of 19th century farming practices] when one doesn’t have to do the work. … Handling a 900-pound mule and trying to plough sideways on a hillside is easier said than done.” He notes that mechanical tractors made farming on contour and other soil-conserving practices more expedient, a point I will easily concede. But he makes no mention of the farming practices of the native peoples, which left the topsoil intact, or the cultural biases that kept settlers from adopting them along with New World crops of squash, corn, beans and tobacco. So rather than blame the past or perpetuating the cycle, it’s time to move forward, to do better now that we know better. But we have a long way to go.

While I applaud the work of government agencies like the National Resource Conservation Service and the Soil Conservation departments operated by individual counties, it’s clear that to restore our missing six feet of topsoil, we need to move beyond mere conservation and actively move into soil building. How do we restore what was lost? In nature, soil-building is a slow process, as rocks and organic matter are ground down and gradually transformed by chemical weathering and mysterious soil organisms whose lives are barely understood. Yet certain agricultural practices like cover cropping or terra preta can build topsoil much faster than previously thought. But even with these methods at our disposal, soil—just like oil and natural gas—is still essentially a non-renewable resource in most places.

If restoring the soil is the work of a lifetime, or several lifetimes—or even a few decades—all the more reason to start recreating what was lost right now. And what happens when we die? What better way to build soil than to become a part of it?

So I continued with my end-of-life announcements at the dinner table, despite my family’s nonchalance. “When you’ve got the hole all dug, pop me in, mix up some compost, and plant an apple tree on your way out,” I told my family. “Holes are hard to dig and all, so no sense wasting an opportunity.” As the tree grows, it will appreciate the extra nutrients, transforming elements from soil and sunlight into food and shelter for people and animals who wander by in the future. It’s a perfect plan. Too bad I won’t be able to see it happen.

What I do with my life matters. That doesn’t stop with my death. When I die, I’ll still be here in this red clay landscape, still a part of the action. Some might call it becoming dust, but I prefer to become soil—one that will be all the more fertile and vibrant because of my actions. It may take a hundred years to build an inch of topsoil, but at least I’ll have done my part.

A Tale of Two Butterflies


Pinned specimens of the Xerces Blue in the Field Museum of Natural History. Photo by Brianwray26, licensed under Creative Commons via Wikipedia.

There are no graceful ways to mention extinct species in casual conversation. Years ago, on a visit to San Francisco, a local friend asked what I thought of Golden Gate Park. “You’re a naturalist, right—isn’t that just your thing?” I made the mistake of answering honestly. “It’s very pretty,” I agreed, “but there are too many eucalyptus trees and I think it would be better if the Xerces Blue were still around.” Awkward silence followed. Our conversation had taken a sudden nosedive, just like the population of Xerces Blue.

The Xerces Blue (Glaucopsyche xerces) was a small, delicate butterfly belonging to a group poetically dubbed the gossamerwings. Tiny flecks of iridescent sky on the wind, they bumbled low over the sand dunes along the Pacific coast in search of their host plants, weedy, insignificant-looking vetches, or wild peas. Aside from a few naturalists at the nearby California Academy of Science, nobody paid much attention to them. Life went on.

As the developing city of San Francisco swelled and grew, enterprising settlers changed the environment to suit themselves. They filled in the marshlands on the eastern edge of the peninsula, planted windbreaks of eucalyptus and Monterey pines to stabilize the dunes for Golden Gate Park, and paved over everything in between. The population of the Xerces Blue flickered like a soap bubble, and abruptly vanished. The last one was spotted in 1943. The very traits that allow the Xerces Blue to flourish as a species—their isolated population, their dependence on specific plant species—meant their populations could not recover from any damages. Once they were gone, they were just… well, gone.

Unlike most extinct insects, which vanish unnoticed and unmourned by humans, the Xerces Blue enjoys a moderate degree of fame and notoriety in its afterlife. Officially, it was the first insect species documented to become extinct from habitat loss and urban development. And it became the namesake for the Xerces Society, a conservation non-profit dedicated to preventing any further insect extinctions from happening. But unlike the passenger pigeon or the dodo, there are no plaques, no statues, no monuments, and its name is barely mentioned in popular literature. All that remains are occasional references in books, a handful of specimens in sealed cases in natural history museums and perhaps a few flickers of memory from those lucky enough to see one alive. On my visit to Golden Gate Park, I grieved the loss of the Xerces Blue. The possibility of ever seeing one alive was gone now, and it felt unbearably tragic.

Even as I found myself enjoying the city of San Francisco and all it had to offer (including Golden Gate Park, despite myself), I could not help but question—was it really always a choice between urban development and natural history? Was the destruction of the Xerces Blue inevitable? What could we do differently in the future?

Another species of native butterfly offers new insights into my questions. The California pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor hirsuta) is a smaller, bulkier subspecies of the more widely distributed pipevine swallowtail, found only in California. The caterpillars in their later instars memorably resemble black and orange alien slugs, waving poisonous tentacles as a deterrence to predators; the pupae bear an uncanny resemblance to Metapods from Pokemon Go. The caterpillars only feed on the endemic California pipevine (Aristolachia californica), and their populations were crashing along with that of their food plant. It seemed like the usual extinction narrative was up and running. I braced myself for the worst.

But the story abruptly changed directions. Tim Wong, a biologist working in Golden Gate Park, started growing California pipevine and raising swallowtails in his backyard. The population of swallowtails in the city swelled rapidly. The more pipevine he and others planted in the area, the more butterflies there were. The California pipevine swallowtail is still threatened—there are no real ends in this kind of work—but at least this was a step in the right direction. There is hope. Not too far from the last home of the Xerces Blue, another threatened butterfly species is rebounding. For me, haunted by dreams of vanished butterflies, it felt like a kind of absolution. Maybe this time we wouldn’t screw up.

I think it’s safe to say that no one loved the Xerces Blue the way Tim Wong loves the California pipevine swallowtail—not, at least, until it was too late. Certainly, the simpler biology and wider range of the swallowtail made it easier for its populations to recover. But having human champions, people who were too crazy and too dedicated to sit back and do nothing, turned the tide in San Francisco. And what exactly brought the butterflies back? Creating habitat. Propagating their host plant, California pipevine, planting it in gardens and raising caterpillars. Nothing too big or dramatic. Just small changes, expanded over a wider scale. Anyone could do it, and someone did. And everything changed as a result.

Actions like these remind me that my dreams of gardens full of life and hope are not pipe dreams—or pipevine dreams, for that matter. They offer us an alternative to the usual doom-and-gloom framework, the long, slow, slide or the short, abrupt route to to extinction. They depend not on helplessness, but on personal involvement, personal responsibility, personal action—a reminder that all our actions matter. If everyone cared about just one species or place the way Tim Wong cared about the California pipevine swallowtail—enough to go out of their way to help them flourish in their own community, literally their own backyard—the world would be a vastly different place. Certainly more diverse, anyway. And if just a few people cared—well, that, too, would make a difference between life and death, endings and beginnings, at least for the time being.

Looking back to our awkward conversation in San Francisco, I now know what I would say to my friend, and to everyone else who cares to listen:

“Somewhere, not too far away, there is something so precious you cannot bear to lose it. Find it. Help it. Plant the seeds in your garden; make space for it in your heart. All is not yet lost. All is not yet gone the way of the Xerces Blue. Those that remain, like the California pipevine swallowtail, can still come back to us. All they need is the opportunity. Let us help them come home.”

Learning to Love the Corn Earworm

Hale-Corn Earworm16-08-26

I fall in love the way some people drink coffee—quickly, all at once and at the slightest opportunity. This time, the object of my affection was a tiny tan moth, fluttering among a haze of purple tick-trefoil flowers in a power-line clearing in early evening. Every now and then it would alight on a blossom and feed before hovering away again, its wings fuzzy blurs of motion as it zigzagged through the field. I stalked it with a camera for several minutes, never removing my gaze from my quarry. It posed obligingly for me on a nearby stalk of tick-trefoil, its wings fully spread. As I held my breath and snapped the picture, I couldn’t help but notice its piercing green eyes. I was beyond infatuated—I was hooked. What was I looking at?

Zen master Fayan claimed that not knowing is most intimate, but the Greek philosopher Aristotle countered that all humans by nature desire to know. In this case, Aristotle won out. I posted the picture to an online community of naturalists and awaited their verdict, but I was unprepared for the truth. This beautiful moth and I had met before, under strained circumstances, and I hadn’t been so impressed with the results. The delicate creature that had captured my attention was actually the Corn Earworm (Helicoverpa zea) in an entirely different guise.

You’ve probably met the Corn Earworm, too, even if you didn’t know it at the time. It’s the caterpillar lurking at the tip of your newly-purchased summer sweet corn, fresh off the roadside stands, the proverbial serpent in paradise spoiling any illusions of perfection. Just like us, the Corn Earmworm loves those tender, developing kernels, and leaves a nasty trail of brown feces behind as it works its way down the cob.

Though unpalatable in their feeding habits, I’ve always found a few Corn Earworms a small price to pay for the sure knowledge that the corn in question wasn’t treated with synthetic pesticides. I don’t like them much, but I tolerate their presence, and I work to find ways to avoid them when possible. When I grow corn myself, I look for varieties that are naturally less susceptible to damage—like the heirloom ‘Strawberry Two Inch’ popcorn—and I’ve never had any problems with the earworms. (The European Corn Borer larvae, on the other hand, were not so easy to write off.)

More annoyingly, I find the Corn Earworm wriggling at the center of my best and juiciest tomatoes. There are all sorts of things that go wrong with tomatoes—early blight, late blight, cutworms, hornworms, blossom end rot—but the Corn Earworm is particularly vexing because you are so close to finally getting that ripe tomato in your mouth… until you notice the hole on the side conveniently hidden by foliage and the trail of frass smeared across the outside. Lovely.

Unlike most caterpillars, which tend to eat only one or two kinds of plants, and only those plants, the Corn Earworm is not a picky eater. Its common name shifts to reflect wherever you find it—the Cotton Bollworm, Tomato Fruitworm, Sorghum Headworm, and Soybean Vetchworm are just a few of its many incarnations— but by no means is it limited to those particular plants. In all of its larval incarnations, it feeds with gusto on developing fruits—and its fellow caterpillars, if it can get them—before dropping down to the ground to pupate in the soil.

After a rapacious juvenile delinquency, the adults settle down to relatively harmless existence nectaring on flowers. They are also, as I discovered, staggeringly beautiful in their own quiet way. But a female can lay thousands of eggs in her brief lifetime and perpetuate the cycle of destruction throughout the growing season. They don’t intend to vex me; it’s just an inevitable side effect of continuing their lineage. Once I knew them as adults, I could still squish the larvae when I found them, but I no longer mourned quite so much about the ones that got away.

Learning to love the Corn Earworm might seem like a challenge, but this story ends better than most of my love affairs these days. Unlike most species I fall for, it is abundantly common and ubiquitous wherever agriculture is practiced. Its populations are continually increasing despite vast quantities of pesticides sprayed to control them. Its larval form is an obnoxious pest in my plantings, but they are not going away any time soon. Now that I know what to look for, I find the adult Corn Earworm Moth nectaring on the garlic chive flowers in the evening, just outside my doorstep. The adult Corn Earworm Moth comes to sit with me on an urban patio four stories off the ground, where few other flying things dare to tread. In the age of the Anthropocene, the Corn Earworm will be with us always. It’s just as well that I’ve found a reason to love them.

A Prairie Home Companion


Grasses do not have a reputation for sexy among gardeners. In May, a chance encounter left me with dozens of leftover plants in need of a home, rejects from a sale at a local organization. It was immediately clear to me why they hadn’t sold: they were scraggly bits of green stuffed into plastic pots, primarily perennial bunchgrasses with a handful of obscure wildflowers thrown into the mix. For those who could read botanical Latin, however, the labels promised treasures: Virginia wildrye, wild quinine, purpletop greasegrass, scaly blazing-star, eastern gamma-grass, little bluestem, tall switchgrass, white doll’s daisy, redtop panicgrass. Just like at a cocktail party, I recognized most of the names, but I was hazy on the details; nevertheless, I recognized the call to adventure when I found it. And as it happened, I knew just the place to put them.

At first glance, the rain garden that came with my sister’s house was just a big hole in the ground. It wasn’t until we found the intake pipe, buried under rocks and clogged with debris, and connected it back to the gutters on the house that we realized it was a rain garden at all. Even though it was perfectly functional, catching and filtering runoff from the roof before it entered the creek on the edge of the property, it needed some work if it was going to be anything more than an eyesore.

The previous owners had their hearts in the right place, but landscaping was not their forte. There were some nondescript evergreen boxwood bushes around the edge of the pit that never flowered, a few irises in the late spring, and that was it for most of the year. In early fall, a cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) popped up out of nowhere and made us popular with the local hummingbird before he migrated to Mexico. I stuffed some spindly leftover wild hibiscus I’d grown from locally collected seed into the pit and completely forgot about them. Life chugged along and the rain garden, well, just went with the flow.

I had no idea if the species from the plant sale were appropriate for a rain garden. But free plants and empty spaces bring out boldness in me. I planted randomly, mixing up species, colors and textures as best I could, until the entire pit was covered with tiny fluffs of green. They were up against the heat of summer and my Darwinian approach to gardening: whatever survived would do it on its own merits, without much coddling from me.

When I came back in August after months on the road, the barren pit had been transformed into a lush, overgrown jungle courtesy of a series of conveniently timed thunderstorms rolling through in the afternoons. The spindly hibiscus had managed to survive after all, the cardinal flower had come back for a second round, the wild quinine blooms had flopped over from their own weight, and the grasses had swelled both horizontally and vertically into massive clumps. Some had even sent out flowering plumes. “It needs to be mowed,” my father quipped. Meanwhile, as a student of botany, I saw the rain garden through new eyes now that the plants had matured. Inadvertently, unintentionally, almost completely by accident, I had re-created a patch of one of the state’s rarer ecosystems in my sister’s backyard: the Piedmont prairie.

Prior to European settlement in North Carolina, the uplands were patchworks of shady forest and open fields, grazed by bison, elk and white-tailed deer. Prairie meadows formed in areas where the soil was too poor to support trees, maintained by periodic fires. Unlike the annual grasses that make up most modern lawns, the Piedmont prairies were dominated by perennial bunchgrasses and specialized wildflowers. Once Europeans arrived, however, they cleared the land for agriculture and fires were suppressed. The patchwork prairies vanished, except along roadsides and utility right-of-ways where periodic mowing and spraying kept the trees from taking over again.

These days, the few remaining prairie remnants look remarkably ordinary—just another overgrown field—until you take a closer look within the sea of green. Those seemingly random species I had acquired from the plant sale were actually prime representatives of this fragmented and vanishing ecosystem. None of them were rare in and of themselves—but having all of them together in one place was unusual, a hearkening back to a not-so-distant past.

My tiny patch of prairie isn’t a perfect representation of what used to be here—we’re heavy on grasses, but missing many of the charismatic wildflowers like smooth coneflower and starry rosinweed that are now significantly rare in the state. That said, there’s only so many species you can cram into a few square feet, and the few anomalies grandfathered in just add to the garden’s own special character.

Ironically, my father was right—periodic mowing (or perhaps scything, in our case) is the way to go to maintain a prairie in the long run. Unlike the lawn grasses that grow scruffy after two or three weeks, though, the prairie can get by with one mowing every two or three years, unless an errant bison wanders by and trims it for us. Until then, I sit out on the porch and survey my tiny empire of grass. In the evening, after the afternoon thunderstorm passes through, I swear I can see them growing.

Graze On


Goats in landscape management at German Highway. Photo by Spielvogel licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

I have always learned that invasive species come into an area due to imbalances in the ecosystem, such as a lack of natural predators or loss of nutrient resources necessary for native vegetation. Yet, the only solutions I ever heard were very unnatural. We could spray chemically engineered herbicide over landscapes, bring in heavy machinery to destroy anything in its path, or personally rip all the unwanted plants out of the grown. So, what about a more natural method of removing invasive plants? Thankfully, they have arrived.

Goats are the natural predators of many common North American invasive plants and have been eating them for thousands of years. Goats have evolved naturally grazing on many of the troublesome invasives that are dealt with today, such as, kudzo from East Asia or Phragmites australis from Europe [1]. The goats are so efficient because the seeds of the plants are often crushed in the goats’ grinding mouths and multi-chambered stomachs [2]. A herd of 35 goats can consume roughly half an acre of thick vegetation in only 4 days! [3]

Machinery and herbicide removal often creates additional disturbances in ecosystems. Equipment may trample or remove native, sensitive species as it takes out invasive species and herbicides can contaminate water and soil. Herbicides can also be toxic for insects who live on or eat plants, and may cause cascading imbalances in the food chain. However, the goats are able to restrict their feeding and removal to specific problems areas with fences, without leaving harmful chemicals. Once one area is done, the fences are moved and the goats graze on [1].

I often struggle to pick a side when it comes to invasive species removal. Do we pull everything out, just to see them return? Or, do we let nature take its course and leave the invasive species there? What designates a species as “invasive”? How long does a species need to be in the area to be considered “native”? But, by using goats to control invasive species, balance is being brought back into the ecosystem and the species are removed without harming native plant or animal species. Besides, I’m sure the goats are happy with the decision; they are being paid to eat multiflora rose and bittersweet all day! [1]

Watch them work!

Mary Kate Lisi is a rising UVM junior Wildlife Biology and Environmental Science double major taking part in a undergraduate field naturalist pilot program this summer.





If you give a monarch some milkweed

                                       1280px-Monarch_Butterfly_Danaus_plexippus_Feeding_Down_3008px Monarch caterpillar photo by Derek Ramsey and licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

Monarchs are one of Vermont’s most recognizable butterflies. Their distinctly patterned orange and black wings are both well known and loved; making them the state butterfly of Vermont, as well as six other states [1]. There are many commonly known facts about monarchs and their fondness for milkweed, but there are also many misconceptions.

One commonly mistaken belief is that monarch butterflies eat solely milkweed. Rather, it is the caterpillars that rely on the milkweed vegetation for food. The butterflies lay their pinhead-sized eggs underneath milkweed leaves as the foliage is the one and only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat. Meanwhile, the adult butterflies are often seen sipping on nectar from a variety of flowers.

Many people also think that if there is milkweed around, then monarchs should then be thriving. Young caterpillars actually have a relatively low survival rate when eating the milkweed, only about 3-11%. About 30% of larval losses are due to the mandibles of the caterpillar getting stuck in the sticky latex glue. Monarch researcher Stephen Malcolm wrote that a caterpillars first bite into the milkweed is “the most dangerous thing the ever do in their life”. However, some caterpillars have developed strategies to protect themselves from the latex. Some will chew through the midvein of the leaf to cut off latex flow to the area they are eating [2]. Every time you see a monarch caterpillar metamorphose, it has beaten the odds of survival.

Another misconception about milkweed is that it is only good for monarchs. In reality, there are actually dozens of other species that feed exclusively on milkweed as well, including many different types of the milkweed beetle, the cycnia moth, and the milkweed tussock moth [2]. There are also many pollinators such as bees and butterflies that use the nectar from milkweed as a food source, this in turn attracts other predators to the plant, which then attracts scavengers, making milkweed a valuable plant that contributes to diverse ecosystems.


Swamp milkweed photo by Derek Ramsey and licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

It is often assumed that mowing milkweed is harmful to monarchs. However, it is actually the opposite. The chemicals given off by milkweed’s toxic latex glue allow the adult butterflies to help locate the plant and then lay eggs on it. Caterpillars absorb the toxins and become poisonous themselves. When a milkweed plant is cut down, it grows back with an even higher concentration of latex glue, so naturally butterflies tend to prefer milkweed that has been regrown. Here in Burlington, a field off of the bike path, just north of North Beach, is known as monarch meadow. The field is currently being mowed and managed to encourage milkweed regrowth and help provide a breeding area for migrating monarchs.

Stop by the field during the late summer and you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the migrating monarchs!

Ben Fisher is a rising UVM senior studying Environmental Science and taking part in a undergraduate field naturalist pilot program this summer.


[1] Official State Butterflies. Retrieved August 02, 2016, from

[2] Eastman, John (2003) The Book of Field and Roadside Open Country Weeds, Trees, and Wildflowers of Eastern North America, Stackpole Books.


Newt Tales

Photo by Griffin Dahl, around a dried up vernal pool in Raven Ridge Natural Area.

While hiking below a vast dolostone face within the Raven Ridge Natural Area on the border of Hinesburg, Monkton, and Charlotte, a bright orange figure caught my eye waddling along a patch of leaf litter. The area was most likely a dried up vernal pool, a seasonal breeding pool for amphibians, covered thoroughly with wet leaves, fallen snags and mossy cobble. Captivated by its silent presence and clumsy strides, I was in awe of the fact that I had never notice this gentle forest dweller in the past. This adolescent salamander was an Eastern Newt, a complex amphibian migrating between Vermont’s waterways and the moist crevices of a typical Northern Hardwood Forest.


The breeding process for an Eastern Newt begins during early spring, as the egg filled female searches for a mate near potential breeding ponds. The females are attracted to a male’s spots and appealing pheromones that waft through the water as they wiggle their broad tails. Males then drop sperm packets in the water, awaiting the female to pick up these packets with their cloaca, a cavity located at the end of amphibians digestive tract, in order to fertilize her eggs successfully [1]. Finally, a female will lay her eggs one at a time and scatter  them upon aquatic plants, leaving them to survive independently for around a month or two before hatching [2].  

Incubation/ Larval Stage:

These 200 to 400 jelly covered eggs now go through a 2 to 6 week incubation stage before hatching, followed by their larval stage lasting another 2 to 6 months. During this stage larvae are brownish-green and develop gills, growing to about a half inch in length. These larvae feed on small aquatic insects and crustaceans until they leave their birth ponds into the summer, lose their gills and start their first terrestrial stage of life [1].

Eft/ Juvenile Stage:

At last, the larvae develop into their juvenile, terrestrial stage where they are known as Red Efts. Efts use their bright orangish-red coloration to warn predators of their poisonous skin secretions. But don’t fear, handling these creatures is perfectly safe. Red Efts grow up to 5 inches in length and reach sexual maturity around 3 years old [4]. These juvenile efts feed on small invertebrates like snails, springtails and soil mites. Eastern Newts can survive in the eft stage for up to eight years before maturing into their adult stage so long as their habitat is sufficiently moist for survival [3].

Mature Stage:

As efts reach their mature adult stage, their skin darkens reaching a brownish-yellow or green coloration, their tails flatten, and their underbelly brightens to a yellow color with black spots. They now return to aquatic environments, searching for temporary and seasonal habitats anywhere from small lakes to marshes, though mature newts prefer abandoned beaver ponds [4]. Here they feed on immature aquatic insects, larvae and other amphibians breeding in nearby vernal pools, continuing the life cycle of the Eastern Newt for further generations to come [2]. The Eastern Newt is a delicate and often overlooked species found throughout the eastern United States, so remember next time you’re walking in the woods, especially in the rain, keep your eyes peeled for orange flashes under logs and rocks… it might just make your day.

Griffin Dahl is a rising UVM junior studying Natural Resource Ecology and taking part in a undergraduate field naturalist pilot program this summer.







What’s In a Name When It Comes to Moths?

toothed somberwing

National Moth Week has come and gone, but it’s still a great time to get outside and look for moths. Why bother with moths, you ask? Well, they come in a dizzying variety of colors, shapes and sizes, and occupy just about every terrestrial habitat in North America. They have fascinating life cycles and strategies for survival, lurking literally behind every leaf and branch. Many of them come to electric lights at night, so you can sit back, relax, and wait for them to come to you (a plus for fieldwork). But there’s another reason to study moths, something that rarely gets mentioned in the literature – their amazing names.

Where else on a summer night can you encounter the Cynical Quaker, the Unarmed Wainscot, Drexel’s Datana. the Georgian Prominent or the Toothed Somberwing (photo of this last moth above)? Aren’t you intrigued by the existence of the Confused Haploa, the Girlfriend Underwing, the Honest Pero, and the Friendly Probole? What’s the story behind the Shattered Hydriomena, the Retarded Dagger, or The Laughter? How can you sleep at night when the Black-Blotched Schizura might be resting on your porch? What about the Goat Sallow, the Abrupt Brother or the Grateful Midget?

There are moths with more prosaic names, of course. The Reed Canary Grass Borer, for instance, leaves precious little to the imagination. Others, like the Spiny Oakworm Moth or the Yellow-Necked Caterpillar Moth, are named for their juvenile appearance, and bear little resemblance to their former selves. Many species are named for the plant their caterpillars feed on, or some youthful quirk of habit, like the Pecanleaf Casebearer and the Basswood Leafroller. Other species go by multiple aliases, depending on their age: Woollybear Caterpillars grow up to be Isabella Tiger Moths, and Hickory Horn Devils mature into the elegant and reformed Regal Moths.

Other names invite questions. Is the Dubious Tiger Moth any less trustworthy than its fellows? What happened to the Once-Married Underwing? Why is it not the Divorced Underwing instead? (That’s different, of course, from the Widow Underwing, which is an entirely different species.) Is the Nameless Pinion actually nameless? What is the Grieving Woodling’s problem, and is the Disparaged Arches moth really that bad?

Clearly, lepidopterists have a lot fun (and more than a few beers) when it comes to moth names. It’s time for the rest of us to catch up on the action. Fortunately, it’s never been easier to learn about moths. Flick on a light switch in the evening and see who shows up. Take pictures with a camera or smartphone and post them online to websites like BugGuide or iNaturalist for identification suggestions and tips. You’ll be amazed by how much is out there once you start looking.

If you live anywhere between Maine, Minnesota, Iowa and Virginia, you can flip through the excellent Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie, which has color photographs of 1,500 of the most charismatic species you’re likely to encounter. Unlike old-school entomology displays, where dead moths are pinned with their wings spread, the Peterson Guide features live moths in their characteristic poses, just as you see them in the field. The endpapers have silhouettes of the family groups, so with a little practice, you’ll be distinguishing your Tiger Moths from your Tussock Moths and your Prominents from your Geometers, just like the pros. Similar volumes for the rest of the continent are expected to follow.

Sure, most people are excited when a charismatic megamoth like a Luna Moth shows up in their lives. The bright colors of the Showy Emerald or the Pandorus Sphinx will make even the most jaded naturalist’s night. But I’m always happy to see a Dusky Groundling or the Cloaked Pug, however drab and grey their markings. The Beggar and The Neighbor (not to mention the The Slowpoke) will always have a place in my heart. Even a Simple Wave is a cause for celebration. My field notes sound like I’m auditioning for comedy night at the local club – and that’s before The Bad-Wing shows up. And I can promise you this: as a student of moth names, I will never, ever be bored.

Vermont’s State Musician



“Is that a bird?” asks one of my fellow Field Naturalist Interns, as we stand on an outcropping at Raven Ridge Natural Area on the border of Hinesburg, Monkton, and Charlotte, Vermont. When I told him that the song he was hearing was that of the Hermit Thrush he said that he had “never heard a bird sound so much like music”. I had never really considered the musical elements of birding before this comment and then felt compelled to look into the compositional stylings of the Hermit Thrush.

This medium-sized member of the genus Catharus (which also happens to be the state bird of Vermont) sings a song that is perhaps that most magical string of notes I have ever heard. Being somewhat of a musician and much more of a birder, I love listening to the song of the Hermit Thrush with its melodic, tumbling trills, like a flute harmonizing with itself. According to a number of auditory studies, the notes of the song of the Hermit Thrush are related to each other by pitch ratios that differ by simple integers of harmonic notes [1]. This discovery highlights the fact that the song is more similar to music produced by humans than to the songs of other birds that have also been studied in this way. It is also noted that certain harmonies produced by the Hermit Thrush are in line with those made by human music [2]. On top of all this musical jargon, it has also been discovered that this bird could be capable of producing other notes in its song, meaning that the species chose to sing in such an ethereal harmony.

You don’t need to have a musical background to appreciate the sounds of nature, the birds singing, the creaking of young trees as they sway in the wind, the croaking of a distant frog, or a stream gurgling and dripping down a mountainside. Among all of these sounds, however, nothing resembles music quite as closely as the song of the Hermit Thrush.

Hear it for yourself!

Emily Hamel is a rising UVM senior and Wildlife Biology major taking part in a undergraduate field naturalist pilot program this summer.





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