Tick Tock

A female Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum), an aggressive and common species thoughout the southeastern United States, waiting for her next victim. Photo courtesy of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Vector Borne Infectious Diseases.

Ah, spring time. The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming — and this week, I found a tick biting my leg. The first tick of the year is a phenological milestone no less significant than the first ruby-throated hummingbird or the first daffodil, but much less enjoyable for the observer. It’s one thing to study the life cycles of animals – another when you inadvertently become a part of one. Still, it has its own rituals no less significant and important than putting away the winter clothe, getting out the camping gear, or spotting your first migrant birds.

In my case, I fetched the tweezers and the bottle of isopropyl alcohol from the medicine cabinet, and, in a maneuver in which I have become extraordinarily well-practiced, extricated the tick off my body with the tweezers. I took especial care to remove its mouthparts, still gripping a tiny chunk of my skin in its jaws. After noting the species and gender of the tick for my records (as well as the time, location and any other relevant observations),  I watched the tick wriggle and squirm in my tweezers, clearly aware that something had gone wrong with its plan to suck my blood, but not entirely sure what to do about it. Then, in a cathartic and admittedly macabre release, I flushed said tick down the toilet and sterilized the tweezers and my leg with the alcohol. Just another day in the woods – or in the field, or in the yard or wherever I happened to pick up this unwanted stowaway in the first place.

In general, I abhor cruelty to animals, but ticks seem to bring out the worst in me. It doesn’t help that ticks are stubborn little beasts that are remarkably difficult to kill. Unlike mosquitoes or roaches, they are not easy to crush, and exposing myself to the contents of their insides is the last thing I want to do. Usually, I send them to their death via the municipal sewer system, but at times I have opted for more creative forms of execution: matches, nail polish, duct tape, sealing them in jars and watching them crawl around for days before succumbing. On one memorable occasion, I put a tick into a vial full of alcohol, thinking to preserve it as a research specimen. It took three days for the tick to drown, swimming circular laps in the alcohol the entire time. I ought to feel bad about this, but it proves my point: ticks are tough. Besides, they started it.

If ticks were just aggressive, blood-sucking parasites, that would be bad enough. But they are also the carriers for virulent and unpleasant bacterial diseases little studied by modern science. Lyme disease is the most famous of the lot, but it’s far from the only hazard. Different species of ticks carry less well-known but alarmingly prevalent infections with names that would work well in a genre thriller: babesiosis, 364D rickettsios, Powassan disease, tularemia. Some have no common name, and are known by the binomial Latin of their bacterial instigator, like Borellia miyamotoi, which is a mouthful to announce in social situations. Then there are those diseases whose names attempt to summarize their unpleasant symptoms: Rocky Mountain spotted fever (which is different, mind you, from Colorado tick fever), tickborne relapsing fever, Southern tick-associated rash illness (or STARI for short) and tick paralysis. The least deadly but perhaps most disturbing is the alpha-gal allergy, where a person can develop a reaction to proteins found in mammal tissue, effectively making them unable to eat red meat without the risk of anaphylactic shock. Often overlooked by doctors and frequently undiagnosed for years, tick-borne diseases, whether sudden or slow in their onset, can seriously mess you up.

You can see, then, why I show no mercy to any tick that bites me. Thankfully, most ticks don’t carry infectious diseases, but if I happen to be bitten by one that does, I want to make sure I take it down with me. It seems only fitting, somehow.

There are so many different tick-borne illnesses that it’s difficult for medical professionals, let alone laypeople, to keep track of them all. When my father called me from Massachusetts a few years ago, informing me he’d been diagnosed with ehrlichiosis after he staggered off the Appalachian Trail with a high fever, I was stunned by the diagnosis of a disease I’d never heard of before. “You’re making this up, right?” Turns out, I was just behind the times.

Happily for my father, and for most cases of tick-borne illnesses, the treatment is simple and straightforward. Commonly available antibiotics like doxycycline, applied in an aggressive two-week regime, destroy the bacteria responsible and cure the disease. The key is knowing to get treatment and having a doctor make the appropriate call. In my father’s case, his symptoms were prompt and straightforward and the Massachusetts urgent care doctors were familiar with the disease. It’s not always so easy to get a diagnosis, though, and many people suffer for years without treatment. But taking antibiotics indiscriminately for diseases you might not have isn’t a good idea either. So what’s a nature lover to do?

Like so much in life, prevention is the best way to avoid problems – but that’s easier said than done in a world where the tick population is exploding and you spend most of your time outdoors in prime tick habitat. So one of the rituals of spring is that I start checking myself over every day to make sure I don’t have any unwanted baggage after time in the field – or even a trip to the mailbox. It takes less than a minute, but sometimes I get complacent and forget to start in the spring after a winter of slacking off indoors. Then the next tick-bite teaches me to step up my game, and I get back on track.

A few days after I removed the tick from my leg, the bite site is red and swollen, itching uncontrollably. Happily, though, it doesn’t look as though I have any disease this time. I was bitten by a lone star tick (see photo above), an aggressive, common species in the region, with notoriously irritating saliva – an insult to injury, sure, but not a crippling one. It’s a reminder to me while I’m watching for warblers to keep an eye out for what else might be lurking about – and a reminder that my spring time appearance is an important part of their own yearly rituals of renewal.

Weeding Out

A classic weedy species – the common yellow dandelion – deliberately left to flower at The Farm Between in Jeffersonville, Vermont, to provide food for honeybees and other pollinators. Nearly every part of the dandelion is edible (and, just as important, palatable) at some point during the plant’s life cycle.

It’s hard to find someone with a kind words for weeds. Home owners pay big bucks to spray the dandelions out of their lawns. Farmers uproot them without mercy. And even in a crowd of people who care passionately about the minutiae of plants, you won’t find many fans. For better or worse, botanists focus on plants they consider “interesting”–which usually translates to “showy,” “rare,”, “obscure,” “native,” or some combination of the above. Weeds, almost by definition, belong to none of those groups. They literally slip through the cracks.

Instead, weeds tend towards the small, the quick, the omnipresent, with flowers that can be euphemistically “insignificant” at best, and downright ugly at worst. Like most of us, they tend to come from somewhere else, landing here by quirks of fate in search of a better life. They are also fantastically successful, dominating suburbs and cities, wetlands and waterways, farm fields and roadside right-of-ways with vim and vigor. Think about the last time you saw one. It was probably the last time you stepped outside, right?

But the conquest of the landscapes of our daily life comes at a steep price for so-called weeds. They are deeply, deeply, unpopular, easy targets to hate, subject to perpetual calls for total extermination sponsored by botanic gardens and pesticide manufacturers alike. Instead of being a gateway to the natural world, we refuse to celebrate their existence, no matter how many pollinators they host or “ecosystem services” they provide. No matter how many generations they’ve lived here, they will always be foreigners, perpetual outcasts, never quite fitting in. Weeds bring out our darker side – we spray, burn, cut, pull, curse. And still the weeds return.

So what is a weed, exactly? That depends on who you ask. Perhaps, like pornography, you know one when you see it. Perhaps it is the wrong plant in the wrong place, usually right where you don’t want it, or where you’d rather something else grew instead. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously called a weed “a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered”. Sometimes “invasive” is used interchangeably with “weed,” but that label’s not quite accurate: a scattering of dandelions doesn’t ruthlessly eliminate grass and clover the way that kudzu might smother trees. Most invasive species tend to be non-native, but that’s not always true, either: cattails are often considered to be weeds in wetlands, for example, and black locusts and blackberries can be “weedy” in park edges and power line right-of-ways.

In an attempt to eliminate confusion with all of these conflicting buzzwords, botanists invented a new one. Most of the classically weedy species are also “ruderal” – particularly well-adapted to thrive in disturbed areas. In other words, every time we plow a field or bulldoze a forest to build a subdivision, we are creating exactly the right habitat for these so-called weeds to thrive. We are subsidizing the very species we love to hate with most of our activities – and then getting frustrated when they respond so well to our efforts to destroy them! It’s a vicious cycle.

As it turns out, though, Emerson was onto something. The very qualities that we love to hate in weeds — their sheer ubiquity and tenacity — are the very qualities that make them useful to me as an urban forager. No matter where I am in the human-dominated landscape, no matter what I’m doing, I can usually spot at least one edible ruderal species to harvest in abundance. Perhaps it’s a crowd of garlic mustard in the forest understory. Burdock along the roadsides.  Japanese knotweed in the floodplain. Pigweed in the summer field. Even in places where collecting is ostensibly forbidden, no one thinks twice if you pull up a dandelion for a spring salad. Call it “weeding,” “invasive species removal,” or “dinner,” – everyone walks away feeling like a winner. Try and pull that stunt with a beloved native plant in a city park, and you can get into a lot of trouble.

It’s no secret that wild plants tend to be more nutritious than their cultivated cousins. In search of larger sizes or thicker skins to survive cross-country travel, we’ve inadvertently bred the taste and nutrients right out of most of our food plants. Just compare the taste and texture of a tiny wild New England strawberry to the supermarket behemoths, and you’ll get an idea of the intense changes that the horticultural whizzes have wrought. Sometimes that gets us wonders – sugary sweet corn, ruby-red grapefruits, tomatoes that can weather the apocalypse without bruising – but sometimes that leads us into trouble. What survives in the Darwinian system of our food supply may not always be the best of for us.

Forget the pricey supermarket superfoods from South America. The real wonders may be growing just outside your door – for those with the eyes to see them and the willingness to stop, listen, learn and harvest when the time is right. In permaculture circles, “waste” isn’t really waste – just a resource waiting to be tapped – and this transformation is especially vivid with weeds. Suddenly, that curly dock on the side of the road isn’t an ecological blight – it’s a literal free lunch, a garden you didn’t have to plant, tend or pay for.

On my part, I try to eat something wild at least once a week, just to add some spice and excitement to my life. Most of the time, that just means harvesting the chickweed, purslane, or lambsquarter coming up amidst my collards. and raspberries. Other times that means field trips to local farms and parks for a foraging tour. Although I make a point to always ask landowner permission, most of the time, people are happy to have these species gone, and seem surprised that I even bother to ask. Still, it’s good etiquette and a great conversation starter.

Foraging, of course, is not without its hazards. Like any human task, it functions best as part of a larger cultural framework, with hands-on learning and teaching-by-example to prevent mistakes that might cause harm. It’s important to be absolutely sure of your plant IDs because you’re literally betting your life on them – plants are “all natural” but that doesn’t mean necessarily mean “harmless”. And some challenges are situational: just because there’s chickweed growing out of the sidewalk crack or plantain in the sewer line right-of-way doesn’t mean that you should eat that particular plant. Herbicide sprays aren’t something you want on your salad, so not every place that weeds grow is a great place to harvest. But good judgement, common sense, trustworthy mentors and a healthy dose of experience has made me a comfortable.

Eating the weeds transformed my relationship with them. No longer are they nuisances to bemoan, ignore or eliminate. Suddenly, I’m happy to see them, even when I’m not particularly hungry – like encountering old friends or familiar faces in the landscape. Even if I don’t harvest them in the moment, it’s comforting to know that I could, and I feel the abundance all around me. What most people dismiss as trash has become my treasure. And, frankly, their loss is my gain. But given the sheer fecundity of weeds, I don’t think I’ll need to worry about running out soon. Even if “wild” dandelions become the next big health craze, I’m sure there will be more than enough for everyone.

Salad Days

hale_lettuce

Iceberg lettuce no longer reigns supreme, but from a botanical perspective things still look pretty sparse at the salad bar when it comes to leafy greens. Despite the growing popularity of upstarts like kale and spinach, chances are that when you think about salad, you’re probably thinking about lettuce, full stop. Certainly things have gotten more interesting on the lettuce front in recent years—a quick stroll at the local farmer’s market will introduce novices to cascades of ruffled oakleaves and colorful romaines with evocative names like Deer Tongue, Red Salad Bowl, and my personal favorite, Flashy Trout Back. With so many choices, it’s easy to forget that all of this diversity derives from just one species: the edible lettuce, Lactuca sativa, the foundation for the majority of salads as we know them.

But lettuce, it turns out, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg (so to speak). Historically, salads encompassed a wider range of botanical possibilities—so much so that John Evelyn, a famous Restoration garden writer, devoted an entire treatise on the subject. Published in October 1699, Acteria: A Discourse of Sallets proves once and for all that monotony is not destiny when it comes to dinner.

Salads might seem like a frivolous choice for a formal write-up, but they offer a unique window on the potent intersection of human culture and the natural world. As Evelyn argues in the book’s dedication to John Somers, the president of the Royal Society of London (the most distinguished body of scientists at the time), “My Lord, this Subject, as low and despicable as it appears, challenges a Part of Natural History, and the Greatest Princes have thought it no Disgrace, not only to make it their Diversion, but their Care”. In Evelyn’s eyes, the lowliest hyssop as no less worthy of study than the famous cedars of Lebanon—“but my Reputation is in danger….should Your Lordship hence suspect that one could never write so much of dressing Sallets, who minded anything serious”. The end result is, in Evelyn’s words, “Part of Natural History, the Product of Horticulture, and the Field” as well of “Part of Philosophy” and a tour of classical literary and culinary history to boot.

Many of Evelyn’s ingredients are familiar denizens of the supermarket produce aisle—basil, beets, radishes and scallions. His artichaux, sellery and sparagus are still recognizable to our tables even though their historical spellings are not. Other vegetables—skirret, orach, scorzonera and sea-kale— are commonly eaten in Europe, but only available from specialty seed catalogues in the US. Then there are ingredients whose names grace our weed lists instead of our menus, untasted by all but the most adventurous foragers—horse parsley, English daisy, wood sorrel, stonecrop, dock, mallow, nettles, cleavers, and sow-thistle, to name just a few. Evelyn’s Jack-by-the-Hedge is “eaten as other Sallets, especially by Country People growing wild under their Banks and Hedges”; we know it as garlic mustard, and bemoan its encroachment across wide swathes of land in New England. Other plants, like sampier and scurvy-grass, have not traveled much outside of Europe and remain relatively obscure.

Of course, no treatise on salad would be complete without mention of lettuce, and Evelyn does not disappoint on that score. Lettuce “still continues the principal Foundation of the universal Tribe of Sallets…of Nature more cold and moist than any of the rest; yet less astringent, and so harmless it may be safely eaten raw in Fevers…. [it] conciliates Sleep, mitigates Pain” and improves temperance and chastity to boot. “In a word, we meet with nothing among all our crude Materials and Sallet store, so proper to mingle with any of the rest, nor so wholsome to be eaten alone, or in Composition, moderately, and with the usual Oxeloeum of Vinegar, Pepper and Oyl &tc.” Or, to put it a different way, the reason why lettuce is so popular is that it goes with everything and doesn’t necessarily taste like anything in itself. It is the perfect neutral player of the vegetable kingdom.

Evelyn is not an impartial commentator. A firm believer in the doctrine of four humors popular at the time, his notes reflect a preoccupation with the medicinal benefits of his meals and their effects on moral character. (A quick flip through popular magazines suggests this obsession will always be with us.) His prejudices, however, do not always conform to modern tastes. Raw spinach, for instance, is “of old not us’d in Sallets, and the oftener kept out the better” but redeems itself when “boil’d to a Pult…with Butter, Vinegar, or Limon, for almost all sorts of boil’d flesh, and may accompany a Sick Man’s Diet”. Purslane is best “in moderation, as having been sometimes found to corrupt in the stomach, which being Pickl’d ’tis not so apt to do so”. He weighs in on a furious debate about mushrooms—“I think them tolerable only (at least in this Climate) if being fresh and skillfully chosen, they are accommodated with the nicest Care and Circumspection” yet acknowledges there is “something malignant and noxious in them” responsible for “the many sad Examples, frequent Mischiefs, and funest Accidents they have produc’d, not only to particular Persons, but whole Families”. He’s partial to elderberry flowers pickled in vinegar, and a big fan of melons, lauding them “Paragon with the noblest Productions of the Garden”  if grown under the right conditions.

For Evelyn, assembling a salad requires skills that should not be taken lightly or ignored. The most important is basic botanical knowledge. “How many fatal Mistakes have been committed by those who took the deadly Cicuta, Hemlocks, Aconits, &tc for Garden Persley and Parsneps,” Evelyn bemoans. Even today, people die from the same errors. Yet the effort is worth making, not only to show one’s skills as a gardener, but because salads are so healthful, nourishing and tasty when constructed correctly.

Furthermore, salads are a model for harmony and art in Evelyn’s universe. “Every Plant should come to bear its part, without being over-power’d by some Herb of stronger Taste, so as to endanger the native Sapor and vertue of the rest; but fall into their places like the Notes in Music, in which there should be nothing harsh or grating,” he comments. The dressing offers the final touch in an ultimately pleasing composition, bringing the dish together. Looking good is important, but the real definition of success is how it balances on the palate and how it nourishes body and spirit alike.

For all his quirks and eccentricities from a modern perspective, I find Evelyn refreshing. He’s so earnest and emphatic—or earnest and emphatic, I should say—that it is impossible not to be throughly charm’d by his Writing, no matter how humble or obscure his Subject Matter. Not only does he included detailed descriptions of seventy-three distinct ingredients, often encompassing multiple species in each entry, he provides readers with separate denoted which ingredients are best blanched versus raw, and when they should be harvested in the garden. There’s even a three-page description of how to make the perfect salad dressing. As someone whose life goals include consuming as many different (edible) plant species as possible, I find Evelyn’s treatise especially fascinating. I’ve always been one to pause in line at the salad bar, and Acetaria continues to inspire me to look more closely at what I’m eating and examine my own preoccupations and prejudices about food. What have I been missing out on all these years? What other culinary delights await me on that fruitful edge between the wild and the cultivated? What exactly is it that makes a really good meal? Perhaps most importantly, what should I have for lunch?

Inspired by Evelyn’s musings on the botanical and culinary arts, this morning I took meal creation to a new height. I shredded cabbage, mixed it with a little wild chickweed I found emerging from the vegetable beds in the garden, and sprinkled chopped apples, walnuts and pumpkin seeds on top. I mixed up an impromptu dressing of freshly ground mustard seeds, vinegar and a smattering of honey with enough olive oil to transform a dense paste to a passable liquid, and doused my concoction liberally. Before I picked up my fork, I studied the character of my salad and judged it pleasing and harmonious to the eye. My palate agreed: this botanical smörgåsbord tasted good, too. John Evelyn, I thought, would have approved—of the approach, at least, if not all the particulars.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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