Fertility and Flight in a Winter Moth

operophtera-bruceataIN THE ANGLED DAYLIGHT of November, a moth crossed my path through barren woods. Yeah, a moth, in the cold – a lesson in adaptation, fertility, and feminine sacrifice going by the name Bruce Spanworm.

As a caterpillar, Bruce Spanworm (Operophtera bruceata) is one of the inchworms, a member of the large moth family called Geometridae (which means “earth-measuring”).*  As an adult, Brucie is not particularly showy. His forewings, about 1.5 inches across, are dull gray with dark flecking, and its hindwings are even less dramatic. But who needs pizzazz when you’ve got the audacity to fly around in winter.

By now virtually all our moths and butterflies no longer live as gossamer-winged adults. Instead, they’re overwintering as either eggs, caterpillars, or pupae (a cocoon in the case of a moth). But walk through deciduous woods in November, and Bruce Spanworm or a relative called Fall Cankerworm (Alsophila pometaria) will most likely be your companion, even fluttering among snowflakes into December. These moths are also called Hunter’s Moths because they fly in the company of deer hunters.

We normally think of moths as ectothermic (or, more commonly, by the confusing term “cold-blooded”), which means they depend on environmental heat sources in order to fire up their metabolism, including their flight muscles. It’s the reason most insects fly in summer.

So how is it that Bruce Spanworm is such a hearty iconoclast? Why does it fly when warmth and solar energy are in such short supply? Well, for one thing, insectivorous birds are also in short supply, most having left us by now for the tropics. So a moth that can fly when predators are fewer can presumably go about its business breeding (more on that later) with greater success.

Yet a cold-weather sex drive and avoiding getting eaten, while certainly important, aren’t enough for a moth to take flight in freezing temperatures. As it turns out, the male Bruce Spanworm, while dull in appearance, is buff; he’s a muscle-man. And his flight muscles perform in the cold.

One study by James Marden, a biologist at Pennsylvania State University, published in 1995 in The Journal of Experimental Biology, determined that Bruce Spanworm’s flight muscles can generate greater force at lower temperatures than a comparative summer-flying moth.

But physique also plays a role. Bruce Spanworm has more muscle mass as a percentage of his total body weight compared to the summertime moth used in the study. Sure, he may be small, but like a welterweight boxer, ounce-for-ounce he’s formidable. Perhaps more importantly, Bruce has a low wing-loading, which is basically the total weight of the moth divided by the surface area of his wings. Our pal Bruce gets a lot of lift for each flap. This lowers the energy he needs to flutter around with the hunters in November, a crucial adaptation for an insect that relies on solar energy for flight. (I’ll point out that University of Vemront biologist Bernd Heinrich, my former office mate, did amazing work on insect thermoregulation, including a 1985 paper on winter-flying moths. Bernd has contributed greatly to our knowledge of Bruce Spanworm and the thermodynamics of insects in general.)

Bruce Spanworm (Operophtera bruceata)None of this wing analysis applies to females. That’s because the females don’t fly. They don’t fly because they lack wings. Females, full of eggs, simply sit there on the trunks of trees and waft pheromones, chemical attractants, into the air to lure males for mating. In fact, one of the best ways to locate a female Bruce Spanworm is to look for a cluster of males fluttering over a spot on the tree trunk. It is a certain sign the boys are competing for a copulation with a flightless female. My pal Kent McFarland caught a pair in the act (pictured here). Read Kent’s post about it.

The female Bruce Spanworm is essentially an egg vessel; her body cavity is packed with eggs – an average of 143, according to Marden’s study – rather than large internal organs or tissue. Were she to regain the ability to fly, to develop wings and wing muscles, a female Bruce Spanworm might have to lose some of her eggs. She can’t get something for nothing. She’s given up wings for greater fecundity – a greater ability to reproduce.

In the course of her evolution, the female Bruce Spanworm has traded flight for fertility. To consider it from another angle, what might you trade in order to take flight?

* As it turns out, these moths might also be another member of the genus, Operophtera brumata; we probably need some genetic sequencing to be sure which is which.

Here’s my short indie film about all this called “Walking with Moths.”

Reference:

Marden, J.H. 1995. Evolutionary adaptation of contractile performance in muscle of ectothermic winter-flying moths. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 198, 2087–2094.

Happy Journal-versary

journal1

Five years ago this week, I asked myself a question—What is going on in the natural world today?—and wrote down the answer in a hardbound journal specifically reserved for the project. That day, at least, I wrote mostly about the weather, feeling mildly foolish as I did so. I had no idea where I was going, and it didn’t matter: I was sure that the world around me would show me the way. All I had to do each day was open my eyes, expand my senses, and write and draw my way to the answer—and keep on doing it. Whatever else happened was out of my hands.

Fast forward to the present. I’m halfway through volume nine, and still going strong. The space where I keep old journals expands like a rift basin, pushing my field guides further and further down the bookshelf in a bizarre biblio-version of plate tectonics. Every day, I keep asking myself that same question and seeing where it takes me. Every day, I’m surprised by the answers.

My approach is simple, yet eclectic. I write on blank pages without lines, so I can change the formatting of each page to suit my subject and my mood at the time. When I go somewhere new or interesting—and let’s face it, most places are interesting if you look at them from the right angle—I draw detailed maps, sometimes from memory and sometimes using printed sources or the Internet for reference. Instead of huge blocky walls of text, I separate out observations into smaller chunks, and use images wherever I can as shorthand and as the primary focus of a page. I sketch from life when I can, digital photos, field guides and museum specimens when I can’t. I copy factoids from books that seem relevant or anecdotal accounts that people report to me, citing my sources so I can find them again if I need to. I continue to detail the weather at the beginning of every day’s entry, but after that, all bets are off. There’s no telling where life will take me next.

Since I began this practice, my life has changed numerous times, for better and for worse, in ways both large and small. I moved across the country four times, and took numerous shorter trips across the North American continent and beyond. I held a variety of jobs, from farm apprentice to teaching assistant to hospitality help. I switched from pencil to an acid-free art pen, with forays into colored pencils when I’m particularly inspired. My handwriting mutated from illegible scrawl to neater scripts, with occasional wobbles depending on my mood and level of distraction. Sometimes I’m sitting at a desk with electric lights, with all of the tools of modern civilization at my disposal. Other times, I’m out in the field on my knees, with my back against a tree, or curled up in my sleeping back sketching by the sharp beam of my headlamp.

Despite the changes, through all the ups and downs, my journal has been my constant companion, especially at the end of the day when it’s time to recount the day’s adventures. It’s the record of where I’ve gone and what I saw when I was there, from the rocky tide pools of northern California to the Green Mountains of Vermont, from the rolling clay foothills of the North American Piedmont to the Inland Sea of Japan. The journal remembers what I tell it even when I’ve forgotten everything myself, and faithfully recounts my words back at me years later, stirring up long-dormant memories. The journal never yawns at my anecdotes or gets bored by the endless of stream of details; every day, it remains receptive and open, urging me silently to do the same.

The worst days in the world are the evenings when I come to the page and my mind goes blank: I have been too busy, I have noticed nothing, I have come up short, with nothing to report. However successful I might have been in the outer world, whatever I might have accomplished, inwardly I know I have been a failure as a naturalist no matter what the numbers and reports and outside observers might say. The journal forces me to be clear about my priorities. If I neglect to pay attention to the life around me, coming back the journal is my reminder that course corrections must be made if I want to stay true to my values.

I work hard to keep noticing, to get outside whenever I can, so I always have something to report, so I can face the blank page with an active and engaged mind and memory. The journal forces me to get creative, even when I’d rather not, to stay connected even when it would be easier to disengage. On walks, I pick up leaves, nuts, twigs, stone and shells and carry them home to examine in the relative calm of the evening with a hand lens. Cooped up indoors, I draw houseplants, vegetables, flower arrangements, pets, and sprouting seedlings on the windowsill. I comb through field guides and document infrastructure and land use patterns, where human ingenuity meets the natural world. Even on my sickest days, confined to my bed, I still make the effort to look at the window, describe the weather, and sketch the view outside.

I don’t know where I’ll be five years from now, or what my life will look like. I don’t know what I will see or experience during that time. The future is inherently unpredictable, and I know from experience that even a seemingly smooth course can change on a dime. But after five years of continually asking the same questions, noticing and recording the answers has become a habit I’m unlikely to shake. I feel confident of this much, at least—that no matter what happens, I will keep exploring the natural world day by day, journal in hand as I go.

Beauty from the Beast

hale-secondaryscrewworm-post

After spending its youth feeding on carrion, the adult form of the secondary screwworm drinks nectar from flowers during the summer and fall.

Vultures are stereotyped as patient, but they do not appreciate interruptions during meals. The two black vultures on the sidewalk took off with disgruntled, clumsy flapping, temporarily abandoning their dining experience as I approached. They perched awkwardly in the trees and shifted their weight from foot to foot, ruffling and shaking their wings before settling down to wait me out. Dark silhouettes in the rainy autumn afternoon, they hunched their shoulders like teenagers engrossed with their smartphones—except the object of their attention wasn’t a glowing screen, but the deer carcass stretched out before us.

When I found the buck two days before, he was mostly intact, with only a small wound on the rump from where a car had grazed him as he leapt across the road. The shock of the impact was what had killed him. Now the vultures had joined the party, and transformed the deer from a recognizable animal to a smear of bloody meat on the concrete. They focused the bulk of their efforts on the torso, but the eyeballs were missing, too. I suspected those were a vulture delicacy, and had been eaten first.

In the first two days after the deer’s death, there had been relatively little insect activity, but now that there was an opening in the skull, the flies could enter in greater numbers. Forget the mousey grey of houseflies—these were bigger, brighter, shiny green blow flies, psychedelically iridescent and perpetually spasmodic as they zipped about. Many of them had three distinctive stripes on their back, marking them as secondary screwworms (Cochliomyia macellaria). Unlike primary screwworm adults, which lay their eggs in the tissues of living animals, secondary screwworms require openings in dead flesh. The adults of this species are harmless to humans, feeding on nectar from flowers, but, like the vultures, were drawn to the scent of decay to mate and start their life cycle anew.

Meanwhile, the original wound at the rump was a flurry of activity. The maggots that had hatched over the previous day had drastically increased in size and numbers. They writhed in fierce intensity in the wound, the anus and in the hair and skin surrounding both of those openings. There were so many that they jostled each other off the body entirely and tumbled to the ground below, flopping wildly on the way down. Were they leaving to pupate, or were they now doomed to starve? It was difficult to tell. The smell was intense, rank and primal—simultaneously foreign and intimate.

“…the flies were buzzing round the putrid stomach
from which was emptying black battalions
of larvae, which flowed like a heavy liquid
down the length of those living rags.

All this rose, fell like a wave
or emerged fizzing.
One could say that the body, inflated by some obscure exhalation
now lived by multiplying.”

So wrote the French poet Charles Baudelaire, in his poem “Une Charogne”, at least as I translate it. Charogne is an ugly word, even for native speakers—the last syllable sticks in the back of your throat like an unwelcome head cold, roughly approximating the English word ‘carcass’. It is dead flesh, spoiled meat, an object no longer human (though it might be used to refer to a corpse), some thing bestial, alien, strange and disgusting. Une charogne goes beyond the established boundaries in society to something thoroughly unwholesome, something that has no place, to the point where it can be used as the ultimate insult for a truly loathsome individual.

Poets were the 19th-century equivalent of rock stars, and just like their modern peers, the notorious one were emboldened by uncoventional sexual mores and plagued by depression, debts, drugs and addiction. Baudelaire was no exception in this regard—and, in many ways, a trendsetter. Nothing was too risqué or taboo for his personal and professional life. He enjoyed shocking Victorian readers of his verse with constant juxtapositions of their high ideals with the grim realities of modern urban living he observed on the streets of Paris. The title of his masterwork, Flowers of Evil, succinctly summarizes his aesthetic— beautiful things emerging out of the disturbing and depraved. Unsurprisingly, upon the release of the first edition in 1857, Baudelaire and his publisher were promptly fined for offending public morals.

In “Une Charogne,” Baudelaire’s speaker recounts a charming anecdote to his lover—on a stroll, he encounters a decaying carcass, which he describes in exquisite, and, I could see now, technically accurate detail. Except for the fact that the my carcass’s maggots were grey, not black, I could find no fault with Baudelaire’s depiction of events. Had it been a sunny day, no doubt I would have heard the flies buzzing like the “winnower’s fan,”, but the cool rain made them quiet and the writhing maggots made no sound.

Baudelaire’s realism wasn’t due to an interest natural history. Nor was he into gory descriptions without a purpose. Instead, he goes for the jugular, capitalizing on the age-old human fear of death and decay as he addresses his lover: “And so you will be like this garbage, / this horrible infection, / star of my eye, sun of my being, / you, my angel, my passion!” But not to worry: “Tell the insatiable worms / who will devour you with kisses / I have kept the form and divine essence of my decomposing loves!” (Presumably, he means in his verses, and not in a locked masoleum straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe short story, but you can’t always tell in this genre.)

For Baudelaire, poetry and art triumph over death, even when we find the details of that death to be emotionally and physically repellent. There is still “divine essence” to celebrate even when the beauty of the physical body is lost in the process of decay. It’s the flip side to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, the “marble and gilded monuments” of Shakespeare’s sonnets given a gothic twist. Other poets gloss over the gory details, but Baudelaire gives them center stage and even celebrates them, in a twisted way, in rhyming verse.

Just like Baudelaire, I encountered my own carcass on a stroll, but our reactions could not have been more different. Then, as now, death is hushed up, hidden away. We slaughter animals in factories, not in open fields, and quickly bury our pets. Reading Baudelaire in college, I calmly translated and analyzed the lines of his poem, discussed the uses of literary devices and the social implications of his work, but it lacked the vivid intensity of coming face to face with the dead buck on the side of the road. It was very clear to me now that Baudelaire had not been exaggerating for the sake of effect; he had been merely telling the truth. The shocking part was not what he had written, but that he had written of it at all.

Yet when I saw the deer, I was not repelled. Whatever else could be said, there was something inherently real about the maggots, something that could not be edited out, smoothed over and ignored. Almost everything else I had seen on my walk that day was in some way contrived, the result of human ingenuity: the smooth sidewalk appearing out of nowhere on the edge of the subdivision; the cookie-cutter houses with their neatly mowed lawns, the non-native landscaping. Here, I saw life literally emerging out from of death. Even the smell was real – unpleasant, rank, raw, nothing artificial or contrived about it.

Was it the fact that the new life was mostly flies that was the source of the problem? Would we find butterflies so beautiful if their caterpillars devoured flesh instead of plant tissue? No, I decided, it was just as Baudelaire had put it: we hated this sight, and feared it and found it disgusting because we did not want to think about becoming the maggots’ dinner ourselves. This was why Baudelaire had tossed this disgust back in his lover’s face, and why she had undoubtedly recoiled. I began to understand why the Buddha had encouraged monks to go to the charnel-grounds to look at death directly—in order to lose their fear and revulsion of it. After staring at the maggots transforming the deer from dead flesh to new life, and the vultures turning it from food to feathers, I felt appreciation, more than anything else. It certainly wasn’t pretty in the coventional senses of the world, and yet the process was somehow fitting and appropriate. And as I studied them, the flies and vultures became beautiful to me, too.

A few days later, most of the carcass was gone. There were eight black vultures feeding now, and they had stripped most of the edible flesh except for the head. Had they been the ones to drag the body farther from the sidewalk, or had that been done by squeamish humans who didn’t want reminders of mortality intruding on their walks? The majority of the maggots disappeared with the flesh, but a few clung to the remaining skin and bones, or wandered on the ground nearby.

The next day, a solitary turkey vulture picked serenely at the skeleton. (Unlike black vultures, which feed communally, turkey vultures always dine alone.) Most of the flesh was stripped entirely off the head, and the lower jaw had been dislocated. Now there was only a few tattered bits of skin, the connected spinal column, and misceallaneous scattered bones. The smell had mostly abated, but flared up strongly when I lifted the antlers to look inside the skull. The brain was the last thing to go.

In less than a week, the deer had all but vanished into a flurry of black feathers and buzzing wings, now dispersed across the landscape. The swiftness and efficiency of the process was startling, even as it unfolded in front of me. The tissues and sinews of the buck lived on in a multiplication of life forms, just as Baudelaire had described. He was a keen observer with a poet’s eye for details of beauty’s inevitable decay. But had he lingered longer over his carcass, he might have also seen what I saw—that beauty, too, emerges from the beast, and we need not fear the process.

Acorns Keep Falling On My Head

white_oak_quercus_alba_prolific_acorns

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

nc-red-clay-soil-2

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

glaucopsyche_xerces

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

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_A_59._Spielvogel_2013

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! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1iZ2JkJrnc#t=69

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.

 

[1] http://www.vtinvasives.org/news/goats-take-notorious-invasive-species

[2] http://www.eco-goats.com/why-goats.shtml

[3] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30583512

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.

800px-Swamp_Milkweed_Asclepias_incarnata_Flowers_Closeup_2800px

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 http://www.statesymbolsusa.org/symbol/vermont/state-insect/monarch-butterfly

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

 

Skip to toolbar