Happy Journal-versary

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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.

A Passionate Pollinator

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A typical maypop pollination sequence in action. Note the shiny abdomen of the carpenter bee, and the oblong yellow anthers smearing pollen over the bee’s thorax. The round green stigmas, slightly above the anthers, will be jostled when the bee is preparing to move to another flower. Photo by the author.

Summer blockbusters at the multiplex are big and bold, but equally dramatic spectacles are happening outside as plants send up blooms to attract insect pollinators. While sunflowers and zinnias command quite a following, and anise hyssop and bee balm have their charms, the best show in town right now in central North Carolina is at the maypop—also known as the purple passionflower—hands down.

Colorful and vivid, with a curtain of tye-dyed strips surrounding a pillar of five anthers perched below three ovaries, any of the five hundred plus species of passionflower would fit right into a bouquet designed by Dr. Seuss. Some see the flowers as strangely clock-like; others view it as living metaphor full of religious symbolism. Despite its exotic appearance, however, the delights of passionflowers aren’t limited to the tropics. Five species can be found growing throughout the southeastern United States, and the maypop (Passiflora incarnata) is one of the hardiest of the lot, ranging as far north as Pennsylvania in the wild.

Unlike many native perennials, which need specialized environments in order to thrive, the maypop is not fussy about its living space. It’s aggressive and vigorous, flourishing in full sun and disturbed areas, even in years with little rainfall. It clamors up over other plants in a race to get ahead, twining tendrils and pulling no punches, to the point where it’s occasionally listed as an agricultural weed. It can grow as much as fifteen feet in a season before dying back to the ground with the frost. This drive to survive at all costs, coupled with its showy purple and white blooms and edible fruit, has made it a beloved staple of Southern gardens. And with it come the pollinators.

Eastern carpenter bees (Xylocopa virginica) look and act much like their bumblebee cousins, with a few twists: bigger, buzzier, and boasting black and shiny abdomens. Aside from the occasional misstep of burrowing into wooden structures, they rarely bother humans. Like all bees, they are important pollinators for flowers—except when they “cheat” by nipping flowers at the base to get a quick hit of nectar.

The maypop, however, has an ingenious mechanism to foil cheaters. Instead of having a curled base for nectar storage, all of the good stuff is located at center of the flower’s disk. In order to reach it, however, the bee has to brush against at least one of the five stamens—conveniently located just the right height for a carpenter bee—which smear pollen all over the bee’s head. Once the bee is finished at the first flower, it will have to rub up against the receptive stigmas of the next flower in order to drink more nectar, thus ensuring successful pollination. I’ve never seen any of them stop at just one flower! Occasionally, a tiny wasp or a Japanese beetle might slip in to steal some nectar, but the vast majority of insects I see on maypop flowers are carpenter bees, obliviously pollinating away while they gorge on nectar.

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Not ripe yet…. but getting there! Photo by the author

And thus arises the other wonder of the maypop—namely, its fruit, which closely resembles its commercially grown tropical cousins in size and taste. You may think you’ve never tasted a passion fruit, but guess again—its distinctive flavor adds a kick to the popular fruit drink Hawaiian Punch. The egg-sized fruits—technically berries—fall to the ground when ripe, and can be eaten out of hand. They can also be used in jams and jellies, although I’ve never met anyone who’s managed to make it that far with them.

Dinner and a show—who could ask for anything more on a hot summer day?

Southern Comfort

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The Southern magnolia flower in bloom. Photo by DavetheMage. Image licensed under creative commons by wikipedia.com.

The grande dame of its family, the southern magnolia dominates the landscape. There is simply no overlooking its stately elegance, especially when it is in full bloom. Bearing flowers as wide as your face—worthy of the epithet grandiflora, “big-flowered,” indeed—a southern magnolia is no mere tree. A southern magnolia is an experience.

Let’s start with the blooms. Following a design ancient by evolutionary standards, they are similar in structure to the first flowers that appeared in the Jurassic era millions of years ago, a testament to success. Large simple petals, pearly in color and texture, fold over a bizarre-looking yellow cone-like structure at the center. Yellow stamens fall like matchsticks from the base of each cone—actually compendium of simple pistils—and collect in the folds of the petals. Once the flowers have been fertilized, the petals fall back in a brown and crinkled heap as fleshy red fruits dangle on tiny white threads from the now-green and black cone. Until that happens, though, the scent is heavenly—alternately described as lemon, citronella, or jasmine—as an enticement to its beetle pollinators.

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The fruit, seeds and cone in all their bizarre glory. Photo by Pmsyyz. Image licensed under creative commons by wikipedia.com.

Meanwhile, the rest of the tree is equally impressive. The leaves are stiff and papery, green and waxy above and fuzzy brown velvet beneath. Typically boasting a single trunk, each tree stretches into a classic pyramid, broad at the base and narrowing to a single point at its apex. Given enough time and space to reach mature size, each magnolia tree becomes its own island, its lower branches hovering just above the ground, the evergreen leaves above form a dense canopy under which nothing else can grow. Blocking out the sounds and view of the world outside, each tree becomes a miniature oasis. A grove of mature trees forms a graceful archipelago—truly a sight to behold. Even in winter, the southern magnolia bears the occasional snowfall or ice storm with grace.

With the possible exception of live oaks, no trees are more evocative of the archetypal South than the southern magnolias. Yet they are true natives only to a swathe of the southern Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Known colloquially as “bull bay,” they join their cousin Magnolia virginica, the sweetbay, and the unrelated redbay and loblolly-bay to grace the swamps and pocosins with their presence. Left to their own devices, they would never have made it further into the uplands. Fortunately for gardeners everywhere, the southern magnolia thrives outside of its natural range, even when pushed to its limits. One such specimen can be found in Burlington, in the courtyard of Marsh Life Science building on the University of Vermont campus, where sheltered walls and a south-facing aspect create a microclimate warm enough for this southern tree to survive harsh New England winters.

Moreover, the southern magnolia is versatile in the human-dominated landscape: I have also seen it growing as a street tree in Monterey, California and lining parking lots and new developments in Cary, North Carolina. However, most of the trees used in the modern horticultural trade are dwarf cultivars that will never reach the width and stature the species is capable of. Although my heart is gladdened to see them, I cannot help feeling wistful, as if something important has also been lost.

Climbing those older, giant trees was an essential staple of my childhood. The wide, thick limbs were easy to scramble up with the ease of a squirrel, offering real height and perspective. For a time, I was removed from the cares of the world and fully immersed in the world offered by the trees. Attending college along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, the southern magnolias grove tucked away in a sheltered courtyard soothed my soul during times of anxiety and change. The arbiter of student discipline, the Assistant Dean, had an office directly facing those trees, so I never found the courage to climb them. Still, I valued those trees for the reminder that I was not too far, ecologically speaking, from home.

It’s May now, and the southern magnolias are blooming again in the gardens of my hometown in North Carolina. When I breathe in the scent of its blossoms, I am in my childhood again, that long golden summer where anything is possible and no height is unattainable.

The Noble Sporophyte

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Moss sporophytes emerging from a clump of moss. By Bob Blaylock. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

Moss sporophytes are tiny, slender structures that pop out of moss in droves. Their beauty, diversity, fun-factor, and cute little caps continually amaze me. Like a big buzz cut, they tickle my hand as I graze them. If I am lucky, they are ripe and release their spores in a small flurry, sending a miniature cloud of dust eight inches forwards. The spores melt away into the air, quickly invisible to the naked eye. Usually, I brush the clump again and again, and the sporophytes repeat the trick until the caps are emptied of their spore dust. Eventually, some of the spores will germinate to grow new moss plants.

Once the caps pop off the sporophytes, you can tell they are ripe or almost ripe. By Hermann Schachner. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

Over the five years that I earned my living teaching outdoor programs, I taught several hundred people about sporophytes. I would have the group help me find a promising patch of moss, and with reverent enthusiasm, I would show my students the petite sporophytes. Then, I would share the three reasons that sporophytes had captured my heart to become one of my favorite things in the forest.

First of all, I didn’t know that they existed until I was in my 20s, and once I knew to look for them, I saw them almost everywhere there was moss. This was an astounding discovery, and one of the most poignant, eye-opening experiences of my college years. I had been oblivious to the ubiquitous and entertaining sporophytes all around me, and it was amazing to have my eyes opened just by learning to look for them.

An example of moss sporophyte diversity and elegance. By Vaelta. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

An example of moss sporophyte diversity and elegance. By Vaelta. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

Next, I would demonstrate the gorgeous diversity of the sporophytes. The stalks are often iridescent, and many of them exhibit a gradient of hues. For example, some range from gold to deep, metallic purple.The spores are also often brightly colored, sometimes in surprising ways. I have dissected sporophytes that revealed bright orange, white, or dayglow green spores. And the stalks are always fine and flexible, which means that they “boing” in a tactilely-satisfying way.

Finally, I would show the participants, adult or child, how fun sporophytes are by running my hand through the tuft. If I judged the clump well, and was lucky, a cloud of spores would gently whiff from the cluster of stalks. Everyone would take turns helping the spores fly free. Invariably, some excited participants would spend the rest of the program looking for other clusters of ripe moss sporophytes.

A close-up of a sporophyte capsule. By Bernard DuPont from France. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

A close-up of a sporophyte capsule. By Bernard DuPont from France. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

Moss sporophytes illustrate some of the most important reasons that humans need the natural world. They invoke wonder, are beautiful and fun, boggle minds with their diversity and scale, and inspire curiosity. For those who have never really noticed them, they encourage humility by reminding us how little we see and understand each day, even when it’s right in front of us. Moss sporophytes provide an opportunity for people to interact with nature in a hands-on way, and in doing so, people help the little plants send their spores into the wind. The experience is tactile, guilt-free, and doesn’t require any special equipment.

As the spring rains feed the forests, fields, and yards around you, keep an eye on your local moss patches. The mossy marvel of a ripe sporophyte might be waiting at your feet.

The moss life cycle. The green moss is the gametophyte, which gives rise to sperm and eggs, which combine to grow a sporophyte from the tip of the gametophyte. The spores germinate to grow more gametophytes (the green moss). By Htpaul. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

The moss life cycle. The green moss is the gametophyte, which gives rise to sperm and eggs, which combine to grow a sporophyte from the tip of the gametophyte. The spores germinate to grow more gametophytes (the green moss). By Htpaul. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

Green Mountains Walking

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Mountains#/media/File:GreenMtns_fromJayPeak.jpg

The Green Mountains of Vermont, as seen from Jay Peak. Photo by from the nek. Image licensed under creative commons by wikipedia.com.

Eight hundred years ago, the Japanese Zen master Dogen wrote, “The green mountains are always walking.” I was instantly taken with the truth of his words. Of course the green mountains (and the Green Mountains of Vermont) are always walking! How could they not?

Dogen didn’t know what I know about mountains. Plate tectonics wouldn’t exist for another seven centuries. Unlike Christianity, an ancient earth did not violate accepted Buddhist cosmology, but I doubt he was thinking of the fossil record. Perhaps Dogen was inspired by the inherent vulcanism of his native landscape, where fire spewed from the earth in a continual spasm of creation. Or perhaps he felt this was a useful illustration of deliberately looking outside of the normal, everyday mindset. Whatever the reason, as a naturalist and a reader, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Even though it defies our usual sense of the world, the mountains are walking.

What does it mean to fully know the Green Mountains’ walking? 480 million years ago, the movement of the North American continental plate began a collision course with a volcanic island arc in the midst of the ancient Iapetus Ocean. Over the course of the next thirty million years, the Green Mountains arose out of the jumble of continental crust, hardened lava and silty ocean mudstone, squeezed by the intense heat and pressure into schist. The geological record is peppered with such mountain-building events, taking place on a time scale almost too vast for our minds to contemplate. By human standards, mountains don’t walk, they crawl at a pace so slow a snail looks like a speed demon. And yet—the mountains are moving still.

In the case of the Green Mountains today, that movement is mostly downward, in the form of erosion, as wind and water dig out chunks of rock and sediment. As trivial as these forces might seem in the short term, over time, the mountain ranges can dissolve, sometimes even faster than they formed. For the Green Mountains of today, it’s less walking forwards or backwards in space, and more like running in place.

Of course, Dogen wasn’t talking about the Green Mountains of Vermont when he penned those lines. He may not have even meant “green” mountains—in Japanese, the character he uses, ao (青) can be used to mean blue, green or some subtle variation in between. I find it fitting that Dogen’s language neatly encapsulates the variation in the the Green Mountains I see on the horizon— shimmering blue through fog in the distance, deep rich green closer up, especially at the higher elevations where the darker evergreen conifers overtake deciduous trees.

Why should we even care about the mountains’ walking? For Dogen, it offers a true test of our understanding. Beyond words and phrases, beyond preconceived ideas, the true nature of the world beckons, just waiting for us to look closer and study it. As a naturalist, slowing down to see the mountains walking takes me out of the normal human scale of time and into the older, grander, cosmic story. In my mind, the mountains rise and fall as with a time-lapse camera, millennia pouring away like so many grains of sand, and the mountains flow, just as Dogen insists that they do. From the perspective of walking mountains, ordinary human difficulties no longer seem so challenging. The mountains, by their very nature, remind us that what we think we see is only a part of a larger, ongoing story.

Katherine Hale is a first-year student in the Field Naturalist program.

Winterizing

By Sean Beckett

winterization_bear_SB-3038One good thing about a mild winter is we avoid that familiar experience of leaving a warm house to enter the arctic interior of a frosty, morning car. Imagine sitting down in that frigid seat: Your shoulders tense and tighten like old taffy, you shiver spontaneously, and the chill leaks into your soul at the space between your pants and socks. Your heart accelerates and your blood pressure spikes. Eventually, either your mental resolve or your car’s heating system recalls you from distress.

Your rational mind knows that things could be a lot worse, so why does our very evolution invoke this intense response anyway? When hit with cold, skin receptors tell the brain to dump a hormone into our system that forces all these unpleasantries. And being cold is so intensely unpleasant because the same chemical, norepinephrine, also floods your body in times of fight-or-flight-style crisis. According to your system, this is an emergency, so your body reacts by pulling out all the stops to maintain core temperature. Veins constrict, shunting your warm blood away from the skin and extremities to prevent heat loss. Your muscles tense to double metabolic heat production, or you shiver to increase it tenfold.

This response is handy for someone freezing to death on a mountainside, but is a supreme overreaction to sitting in a cold car. The reaction is the same because an uncalibrated nervous system doesn’t know the difference between chilly air and certain death, so it plays it safe by overreacting to everything. The body is trying everything it can to maintain homeostasis (that magic core temperature of 98.6 degrees).

branches covered in snow emerge from the smooth, pristine snowpack

branches covered in snow emerge from the smooth, pristine snowpack

Fortunately, like any good piece of hardware, the human body can “winterize.” Regular and sustained exposure to cold trains the body to react more measuredly. After a couple weeks, the brain no longer pays as much attention to unhappy skin receptors. The norepinephrine dose attenuates, and with it the body’s response: Vasoconstriction diminishes, circulation is maintained to the hands and feet for longer, and body temperature can dip before shivering commences. When these responses are really needed (when it gets really cold), they feel less psychologically distracting. This is ultimately why we can wear a t-shirt on the first nice day in April, but need a jacket at the same temperature in September.

Spend enough time in the cold, and the body acclimatizes in extraordinary ways. Instead of vasoconstriction, blood vessels in an Inuit’s hands dilate: His hands receive extra warm blood so he doesn’t lose manual dexterity. Australian aboriginals, who experience near-freezing temperatures every night, can comfortably sleep nude— and actually enter a mild hypothermia to conserve energy— at temperatures that make most people shiver uncontrollably. Some of us even develop special heat-generating fat deposits (called brown fat) around the organs that we recently assumed were only found in human infants and cold-hardy wildlife. Cold temperatures activate brown fat production, and subsequent cold activates its metabolism— the body’s equivalent of stacking firewood to burn for warmth later.

We will never be able to weather the cold like a polar bear, or even like the chickadee chirping delightedly on a bird feeder at -20F. After all, we are a species of naked apes that crawled out of Africa’s tropical rift valley. So how do some of us live perfectly happily in conditions cold enough to freeze snot? Perseverance and willpower, the traits we often find backing most impressive human endeavors, are again the assets that carry us to our biological limits. So while we wait for winter to truly hit, prepare yourself with some light suffering. In a rude example of literally “no pain, no gain,” our affinity for hot cocoa and wood fires during the holidays just prolongs our discomfort once we actually make it outside. A little chill today will winterize your body for the months ahead.

Sean Beckett is a naturalist, guide, photographer, and graduate student in the Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs at the University of Vermont. See more of Sean’s writing and photos at www.thegreenmanblog.com

For more on winterizing yourself, check out:

Snapping Turtles Meet Their Match

snapping-turtle-bryan-pfeifferAt first I thought the big black shape in the lane was a piece of burst tire. Then the tire held out a slow, prehistoric foot and took a step. Its long neck shifted into view as I drove by, and I realized it was a huge snapping turtle. In the few seconds I’d been watching, several cars had already whizzed past, missing it by inches. It was halfway across the first of eight lanes of traffic it would need to traverse to reach the other side of I-93.

I don’t normally cry over road kill. But a mile down the road I pulled into the breakdown lane and burst into tears. I imagined a cop stopping to help with the emergency and discovering, inside the Subaru Forester with, of course, Vermont plates, a young woman sobbing over a turtle who last she saw was unharmed.

The futility of its journey had overwhelmed me. The turtle, moving with the confident plod that has served its species for 40 million years, had looked so out of its element on the highway. It had completed only a fraction of an impossible crossing. This creature, steadfastly putting one foot in front of the other, was utterly screwed.

Early each summer, snapping turtles leave the water to lay eggs on land, traveling up to four miles from home. The one I saw last June may have been a mother looking for a good spot to dig a nest, or a young turtle dispersing from its original home range. Unlike most animals, female snapping turtles disperse over greater distances than males and keep similarly sized home ranges (eight acres on average, in the north). Some nomadic females have no home range at all; others return to the same nest site annually. Since they can retain sperm in their bodies and use it over multiple seasons, they do not need to mate every year.

This strategy has worked well for Chelydra serpentina—so well that it is the ancestor of 80 percent of all living turtles. In fact, snapping turtles have hardly changed in appearance from the earliest turtle, which evolved over 200 million years ago. In other words, proto snapping turtles had already been around for 150 million years when Tyrannosaurus rex appeared on the scene.

Having survived two major extinction events in close to their current shape, modern snapping turtles faced virtually no predators once full grown until a century ago, when the automobile was invented. Now most females living in developed areas die on roads after only a few nesting seasons. Their natural life spans, although they average 30 years, can last over 80 years. In other words, the individual I saw on I-93 could have been older than the highway itself.

This time of year, snapping turtles have buried themselves in the mud of a pond, swamp, or slow-moving stream and begun hibernation, deep enough that the mud around them will not freeze. While they often do spend the winter within their home range, they can travel up to two and a half miles away to hibernate and then return to their territories in the spring. Individuals sometimes stay faithful to a few particular hibernacula, rotating between them year after year. If a site becomes popular, turtles can end up stacked on top of each other for the winter. This group hibernation makes them vulnerable to occasional predation by otters.

Still, I think a turtle stands a better chance unconscious against an aquatic carnivore than crossing an interstate highway. I can only hope that my turtle had already laid her eggs and was on the way back to her pond. Perhaps her hatchlings, if not she herself, now lie safe in the mud, waiting till spring.

Sonia DeYoung is a second-year student in the Field Naturalist Program.

Information gathered from “Snapping Turtles” by Susanne Kynast on The Tortoise Trust website, Naturally Curious by Mary Holland, and Animal Diversity Web.

Giving Thanks For Nature: A Meditation

solidago-550x764Despite the concrete, compelling realities of pine-cone gall aphids, winter buds, and migrating waterfowl, I head indoors as Thanksgiving approaches, trading adventures afield for the familiar comforts of food and friends. Chopping squash and garroting cabbage, I’m preoccupied with the wonders outside, even as I think about the purpose of this holiday—gratitude.

What do we celebrate on Thanksgiving? Family, of course. Not to mention food, football, and Black Friday shopping—maybe not quite precisely in that order. But something is missing for me, something that doesn’t neatly fit into that cozy human narrative. What else gives meaning to my life? Sunflowers and snow buntings, mourning cloak butterflies and polygonia orchids, mysterious fungi peeping from the trunks of trees. How can I bring them fully into the folds of my celebration? Where are they in all of this?

Across the waters of Lake Champlain, the Haudenosaunee people of upstate New York begin every gathering by thanking all of the beings of the world in a prayer they call “Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen” — literally,“The Words Before All Else.” Although it is often called “The Thanksgiving Address” in English, it was not limited to one day of the year. Sacred and holy, yet simultaneously woven into the fabric of everyday life, the words thanked everything in the universe for being exactly as it was and supporting life. The human folk, the earth, the sky, the winds, the animals, the food plants, medicinal herbs, trees, birds, the sun—the list seems exhaustive. Yet, at the end, anything still left unnamed is incorporated into the fold. Even the mysterious and unknown is worthy of honor and recognition. And every section ends the same way:Now our minds are one.”

So it can be done. We can bring all of the wonders outside into our kitchens if we want them there, whenever we want, by naming them and appreciating them as they are. But it’s not enough for me to see the world and appreciate it on my own; I want to share it with others and hear their own words in turn. Perhaps it’s too much to expect that level of connection every day, but on Thanksgiving, of all days, it feels more doable. We’re already gathered together, already here. Why not venture a few steps further in the outdoors and make the connection with a wider, marvelous universe?

But let’s keep it simple for now. Let’s start by expressing our gratitude for the natural world on this day of all days, for just one day. Let’s eat our turkey and pumpkin pie, and head outside for a walk. Or even a glance out of the window. There’s so much to see. The naked silhouette of sugar maples against the morning sky. The full moon on fallow fields burned by the frost. The rabbit skittering into the bushes, the chipmunk that skirts our path, the red-tailed hawk on the telephone wire. Look around. Try it out. See how it feels. Speak out, to family and friends on this one day, about all the things we experience and value in the natural world throughout the whole year. And maybe from those experiences will come new traditions—not dictated by some outside authority but welling up organically inside our own hearts.

Whether you’re spending Thanksgiving ensconced in the kitchen, up to your elbows in entrails, counting down the hours until Black Friday, or wandering afar in fields foreign or familiar, I hope your day is a joyous one. Wherever you are, find a way to stay connected to what truly moves you. The world is so big and rich when we take the time to stop for a moment and see it as it is. And complete the circle by sharing what you see with others and seeing the world through their own eyes in turn. Our minds may not be one, but we’ll be closer to being on the same page.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

 

Katherine Hale is a first-year student in the Field Naturalist program.

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