In Search of Herps

SpottedSalamander800x600April showers bring more than May flowers, and birds aren’t the only creatures producing fantastic choruses in the springtime. While birders will set their alarms for 5:00am in order to catch the rainbow of spring migrants arriving in Vermont, herpetologists – that is, aficionados of amphibians and reptiles – will spend the wee hours of the night up to their knees in muck and water to glimpse the bizarre courtships of frogs and salamanders.

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Lessons from Snow Geese

SnowGeeseBeating wings fill my view. The snow geese are stark white, and the black tips of their wings pulse in contrast with their bodies. Hundreds – no, thousands – of these meaty birds move in unison. They squawk and honk, thousands of calls melting into an urgent and persistent roar.

At least that’s what I envisioned.

I had never seen snow geese, but I set out confidently to find the birds. I wanted to feel the wind from a thousand birds taking off at once. I wanted to feel their thunderous calls in my chest. Read More

The Tangle Test

Bobcat5There are many ways to rate a day. Perhaps you determine a day’s merit by how many to-do items you’ve crossed off, how many hours you spent outside, how many friends you ran into around town. My personal favorite rating system is the tangle test. By this measure, the best days leave me with bits of the field tangled in my braid as I untwist it in the evening.

Take February 20th, so good I couldn’t even wait until evening to untangle the mess and try to force my hair back into some semblance of order. As our van pulled away from the LaPlatte River Natural Area in Shelburne, my fingers battled a bird-worthy nest of twigs. Apparently that’s what happens when I, in true naturalist form, try to be a bobcat. Read More

What’s in Your Backpack?

Rattling My Bones

connor

Dripping with cultural history and utterly unique, the objects cradled in Connor Stedman’s excited hands burned with sentimental value. Their glow reflected in Connor’s eyes and didn’t flicker for an instant upon the delivery of my first question.

“So, what are they?”

To the untrained eye, they were two pieces of wood roughly the size and shape of tongue depressors, but slightly heftier and square at the ends. Connor explained it was a set of bones: A historically Irish one-handed musical instrument that is played by holding one bone stationary while rattling the other bone against it.

While the traditional instrument was made from sheep’s bones, Connor’s version originated as the South American tree palo santo, or “holy wood” in Spanish. Palo santo’s use as a good luck charm and a cleanser of bad energy dates back to the Inca era. Connor says that he’s never heard of another pair of bones made from palo santo.

Connor carved his bones in anticipation of a local visit by Irish bard Gerry Brady, who described bones as “the only instrument you can play with a pint in the other hand”. Gerry blessed this set of bones himself. Read More

Trapped Under the Ice

iceStaying warm in the winter is hard. Chickadees eat constantly in order to survive long, cold winter nights. Squirrels spend precious time and energy creating complex insulated nests. Deer browse on nutrient-poor twigs to get as many calories out of their surroundings as possible. Yet compared to fish and other aquatic organisms, terrestrial wildlife breathe easy – literally. As fish battle the cold through the long winter, they are steadily running out of oxygen.

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Orion Rising

orionWe all have our routines, those mental checklists we complete to make sure that our day will run smoothly. Some are entirely rational, others seem almost ridiculous, but all are part of what makes our own worlds go around. One of my self-affirming habits each winter evening is to look for Orion, to make sure that his giant frame is poised for battle in the night sky as he has been since the ancient Greeks raised his mortal body into the heavens almost 3,000 years ago.

Orion’s nighttime traverses actually began long before the Homer immortalized his character in The Iliad. The configuration of the constellation has been visible from Earth for about 1.5 million years and should stay recognizable for about 1 to 2 million more years. Ultimately, the stars will rotate within our galaxy and change their relative positions to each other, as well as to Earth. In the current wintertime sky, Orion routinely rises in the south to southeast at sunset, big and broad, early enough to entertain those of us who aren’t night owls. Betelgeuse, the supergiant that is his right shoulder, is by far the reddest object on the dark horizon and holds the allure that it may explode at any moment, collapsing under its own weight and rebounding into fiery supernova glow. The odds that this impressive event will occur tonight are “astronomically small,” but it is always worth another look.

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Reflections

Sundogs over Huntington, Vermont.

My third-floor office is a commanding venue for a nap.  Reclined in a worn swivel chair with my unsheathed feet stacked on the heat grates, I slip into my best unproductive hours.  When my eyes deign to open, the scenery is ripe for a Chamber of Commerce brochure.  The golden chapel domes and brown brick mortar of the university sit regal and prim before the white speckled ribs of New York and the glass pool of Champlain.  It’s plain lovely.  Especially on biting cold mornings, near 10:00, when some change of guard ushers students out from every academic pore to wade the gray salty paths to their next nook.  It’s one vain pleasure up in my aerie, watching without sympathy the cold scholars scurry. Read More

Icy Romance

During this arctic grip on Burlington, when almost anything outside seems to groan or crunch or crack, when the cold itself seems evil, a drama begins each morning in frigid waters off Perkin’s Pier. In Lake Champlain, Common Goldeneyes are getting hot.

These perky ducks bob and dive, lunge and flutter, cavort and compete. Nearly four months before our woods will glow with a rainbow of migrating songbirds, Common Goldeneyes are already courting – proof that icy water doesn’t necessarily put a chill on carnal desire. Read More

Considering Crows

I stopped running because I was surrounded by hundreds of crows.  It was dusk on the bike path along Lake Champlain.  Great masses of crows were flying in from the east to roost on the cottonwood trees along the shore.  They fed on sumac fruits along the train track; they mobbed the tree-tops and hop-flew from one twig to the next; they perched all over the bare branches of the trees.  In the light of the setting sun, their black feathers shone glossy and strong.  More kept arriving almost continuously from the east, flying in over the barge canal.  As they flew in they gave these weird, multiple-part calls, not at all like the usual “caw-cAW-CAW!”  What were they saying and why were they gathering here? Read More

The Shoemaker Taxonomist

Inside the eight-foot tall olive-green metal cabinet are stacks of black, sturdy shoeboxes. Inside these are small cardboard boxes decorated with Victorian-style script announcing that they contain the finest buttons and sewing needles. These little boxes hold hundreds of dried mushrooms with brittle, yellowed tags looped around them, labeled in the faded, elegant hand of Charles Christopher Frost. Everything in the shoeboxes is over 150 years old.

Charles Frost described and named dozens of new species of fungi, collected specimens that are treasured by researchers, and wrote numerous scientific papers. For a living, he made shoes. Taxonomists today may make their living doing other kinds of biological research, but not one of them, as far as I can imagine, makes shoes.

Every day at lunchtime, Frost closed his cobbler shop in Brattleboro, Vermont, for one hour. He spent that hour studying fungi. He did so well at shoemaking that he cobbled together (pardon the pun) a sizable fortune.

Before he became a shoemaker, Frost attended school, but dropped out when he was 15 because a teacher beat him with a ruler. He left the schoolhouse carrying the broken ruler and never returned. In spite of this, Frost was far from uneducated. He consumed books on mathematics, languages, physics, chemistry—anything he wanted to learn, he did so from a book.

When Frost got dyspepsia (known nowadays as indigestion), his doctor prescribed two hour-long nature walks per day. These walks quickly transformed into fungus-collecting trips. He woke up early and stayed up late identifying new species, describing them in words and drawings, and writing scientific papers. His fungus collection was given to the University of Vermont’s Pringle Herbarium after his death in 1885.

Species description is at the core of taxonomy. The Pringle Herbarium archives hold five fat hanging folders full of hundreds of Frost’s meticulous notes and graceful, detailed drawings. A taxonomist today must be as detail-oriented as Frost. Frost couldn’t just say, “I’ve found a new species and it’s called Boletus pretendus.” Whenever a taxonomist claims a new species, he or she must describe in great detail each part of it, every organ, and how it is different from other species. This allows other scientists to judge whether the claim is legitimate.

Today, however, species description is just as likely to include diagnoses of differences in genetic codes as morphological details. Since the 1960s, taxonomy and systematics have undergone a molecular revolution; now both sciences are heavily reliant on analyses of DNA and RNA, though they do still depend on morphological distinctions.

If Frost was alive today, he wouldn’t be able to do taxonomy without access to a laboratory. His delicate drawings and thoughtful descriptions would be rejected from modern scientific journals without a second glance. Shoes, not fungi, would be his purview.