Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mystery dance

I got felt up by a daddy longlegs this morning.

I was standing in a little glade that's surrounded by pine trees. It's one of my favorite places to stop and just be when I'm out walking. The scent of the trees and the feel of all the pine needles underfoot is so soothing. I was lost in my bliss when I felt something tickling my ankle. I looked down expecting to see a tick, but it was a daddy longlegs parked on the tongue of my shoe, reaching up to feel my bare skin with his one of his fragile limbs.

He'd tap in one spot, then shift a little and tap in another, always touching my flesh, never the top of my sock. He was so absorbed in trying to figure me out that I didn't have the heart to brush him off. I just stood there and allowed myself to be examined. He kept at it for a minute or two, then seemed to come to a conclusion and abruptly departed.

I wonder what I was to him: Predator? Potential meal? Unusual plant? Impossible to know. I can't even say what he was to me.

Photo by Danny Steaven from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Castor canadensis

I spent a little time watching the beavers this morning. (No snickering. If you can't keep your mind out of the gutter, go to the other blog.) There's a good-sized lodge in the shallow end of the lake that I've passed by many times, but the inhabitants have always been hidden away. This morning they were out--or rather, one of them was out, cruising around the lake and climbing up on his house to give me a suspicious stare. The other was inside the lodge. I could hear her in there, scratching around furiously and making querulous beaver noises. She sounded a lot like my mother in housework mode. Mr. Beaver appeared to be offering no domestic assistance at all. He was just enjoying a nice swim, and occasionally paddling over to irritate a lone Canada goose.

When I was a kid we had a family friend who trapped beavers to sell the pelts. I guess there's still a market for wild beaver fur, or at least there was then. I remember him driving by the house one day to show my dad a particularly large one he'd just caught. He lifted it up by the leathery tail and I touched the fur, which was incredibly soft and smooth. I was in my first hardcore vegetarian phase, so I was appalled that he was trapping (actually, it would appall me now)--still, I couldn't resist the touch of that fur. It wasn't just the sensual pleasure of feeling it. There was also a faint atavistic thrill of admiring the kill. I always think of that moment whenever I see a beaver or one of its construction projects.

The beavers weren't the only ones out and about this morning. A little ringneck snake--pretty and utterly harmless--slithered by my foot on its way to the water's edge. I saw a great blue heron take off just as I got to the lake, and there were a couple of very noisy turkeys playing some sort of game in the trees. They were perched maybe 12 feet up on different trees, and they'd alternate choppering down to the ground, then quickly swooping back up. The whirring of their wings was very loud, and they were taking down the maximum amount of foliage on their descents. All this was punctuated with brief outbursts of turkey chuckling. They kept at it longer than I was willing to stand there and watch. If they'd been humans I would have sworn they were high.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Friday, August 22, 2008


House cats are not a welcome sight in parks and nature preserves, and for good reason. They are rapacious alien predators that wreak havoc on the songbird population. I've certainly done my share of preaching to people about not letting their cats run loose and not feeding feral cats--and yet, I have to admit, I always smile when I see a somebody's spoiled tabby creeping around in the woods enjoying an unauthorized adventure.

A couple of weeks ago I came across a fat orange kitty on a pretty isolated trail. It was very early in the morning and he was clearly in search of something small, furry and delicious. He was crouched in a hunting posture with his back to me, about to go after some unlucky varmint hiding in the leaf litter. He heard me and turned around with an expression of absolute outrage on his face. Then he lumbered off through the trees projecting that particular air of disgust for the human race that only cats possess.

In all the time I've spent hiking, I don't think I've ever seen a dog wandering through the woods on its own. Dogs, whether they're strays, escaped pets or truly feral, just aren't interested in getting away from it all. Left to their own devices, they seek people, garbage and other dogs--not necessarily in that order. Cats, on the other hand, are in the woods to escape from people and to kill things. In other words, they're there for the same reasons we usually are. Personally, I leave the hunting to my gun-toting neighbors, but I completely understand the cat's desire to be where humans aren't. I always feel a little sorry when I intrude on a prowling cat's solitude. We're kindred spirits, unable to resist the lure of a place that would be better off without us.

Photo by רוליג from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Going nocturnal

As the days grow shorter, I sometimes find myself out on the trail before sunrise. This morning I got an especially early start, so it was quite dark in the woods. Some of the places I walk are pretty heavily traveled and there are plenty of other early risers around, but today I was someplace a little more remote. There wasn't a soul around but me...and whatever it was that went crashing through the trees at the sound of my approach.

I love the little thrill of uncertainty the darkness brings: Was that a squirrel? A deer? A skunk? A person? It could be anything, and the fact that there's no way of knowing presents a small challenge. I can decide to be uneasy, possibly even retreat to the safety of my car until the sun's up--or I can let go of my attachment to clarity and try to join the murky current of the night.

Moving through the darkness is much like being in the water. You're in another element, one that's less familiar but not unnatural. Consciousness shifts to accommodate the different sensations, the different requirements for navigating the environment. You feel the earth, roots and rocks underfoot more distinctly than you ever do in the light--you have to if you don't want to wind up sprawled on the ground. Your visual field is reduced to a few feet, so distance gives you only sound. Curiously, that makes both sight and hearing more acute.

There's a wonderful feeling of being awake that happens only in the dark. It's a kind of exaltation, a transformed sense of possibility that is unavailable in the well lit world.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
(Companion post at BitterGrace Notes)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The curse of Eve

This is a photo of our apple tree. She's dying in childbirth. She stands right behind our house, so we can look out the kitchen window and enjoy the blooms in the spring, and watch the birds and deer that come to feast in late summer. The first few years we lived here she bore a tremendous amount of fruit and we were careful to keep her pruned. She was already an aging tree and her trunk was dotted with sapsucker holes, but she was basically healthy. She did well even in drought years, since she had the good fortune to be placed near the field line.

Unfortunately, our second apple tree fell to the borers seven years ago, and since apple trees have to cross-pollinate, the elderly survivor went barren. She still had gorgeous flowers every year, but produced just a handful of apples. Our neighbors planted a few apple trees near her and we hoped for more offspring, but even when theirs got big enough to flower, ours didn't conceive. We figured she just didn't have it in her any more, and we didn't bother with pruning because it seemed like a pointless expense.

This spring she flowered more spectacularly than she ever has. I posted a picture over at BitterGrace Notes, which you can see here. The bees were swarming over her like mad, but we still didn't expect any results. How wrong we were. As if to make up for all the barren years, she's produced an especially abundant crop of apples. Every branch is laden with big clusters of fruit--and that's the problem.

The old branches can't take all that weight, and the tree is literally falling apart under the burden. She's lost 4 big branches--one took down the phone line--and she may lose yet more. Dave has been out there cutting and trying to forestall more damage, but it looks as if it's too late. The core of the tree is weakened and it's not likely she'll just bounce back from this. Plus, all these openings in the bark invite pests, which will only weaken her further. We could spray for that, but I worry about the birds.

So, it's a sad situation--partly our fault, of course, but as I said, she was already old, and fruit trees never seem to last long in this part of the world. If she goes, when she goes, I'll miss her. One of the best memories I have of living here is seeing a dozen bright cardinals perched on her snow-covered branches one January morning.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Being and moss

I was doing my “signal to noise” exercise at the lake this morning, trying to pick out all the voices I could hear: cicadas, crows, wrens, jays, squirrels, woodpeckers, etc. It’s actually harder than you might expect. The critter sounds meld together like the instruments in an orchestra. Your ear gets hooked on a particular pitch and deafens you to the others. I had probably been listening carefully for more than a minute before I heard a cricket which had actually been chirping like mad the whole time.

While my ears and brain were engaged with listening, I saw a pretty patch of moss, and I crouched down to run my hand over it. I did it absent-mindendly, the same way you might finger the fabric of your clothes, or pet the cat when it rubs against you. Somehow my intense awareness of sound shifted itself to the sight and feel of the moss, and I experienced one of those moments of pure consciousness. There was no sense of separation between me and the thing I perceived. There was no sense of “me.” There was just the event of perception.

I’ve had those moments before, but usually after meditating or doing ritual. Ordinary life doesn’t produce them very often—at least, mine doesn’t. It’s such a joyous thing, a little glimpse of perfect freedom.

The spell was broken by the arrival of a solitary duck on the lake. He flew in and commenced diving for his breakfast. I started counting off how long he stayed submerged with each dive—One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. He averaged 25 seconds. Try holding your breath for 25 seconds. It’s a nice little stretch of time. I always marvel at the way waterfowl move between the elements.

Photo by Dick Mudde from Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Where have all our hummers gone?

Well, not all the hummers. I do have perhaps a dozen who are visiting my feeders, and the dry spell we've had has encouraged them to spend a lot of time squabbling over the food. Most years, though, I'd have at least 2 or 3 times that many. By mid-August I'm usually measuring my weekly nectar production in gallons, not quarts. The population does vary from year to year, but we've been in this house for a decade, and this is the slowest hummer season by far. This afternoon I finally got around to doing a quick Web search to see what other folks are saying, and sure enough, lots of people are noticing a dearth of hummingbirds.

This kind of population drop-off happens with a lot of bird species. A few years ago everyone was concerned about the reduced numbers of bobwhites, and I have certainly seen fewer of them here. The reasons for a species' decline are hard to determine, but it seems likely that the hummers are victims of last year's drought. I had a reasonable number of hummingbirds come through here during migration in 2007, but they had to get through a lot of drought-stricken territory on their way south, and there simply may not have been enough food along the way to sustain them all.

One consolation is that the hummingbirds I do have this year are very pushy and entertaining. The other day I was reading a book on the porch and two flew right up to me and hovered in front of my face. Another one harassed me while I was picking tomatoes. I love that. I hope they're all feisty enough to make it through their long journey, and come bug me again next year.

Photo of rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) from Wikimedia Commons.

(The rufous hummer is not considered native to Tennessee, but it does stray here pretty often. One was banded in my yard several years ago. Click here for this guy's page at the Cornell Ornithology Lab.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The predator at the party

The heat wave here finally broke a couple of days ago, and the gorgeous weather is a nice preview of fall. It'll get hot again, so I've been trying to get out and enjoy the cool as much as possible, which is one reason I've been away from the blog.

All the animals seemed to be at play in the woods this morning. I was circling the lake when there was a sudden noise of something crashing through the woods on the opposite side. It was quite a racket, sounded like a herd of buffalo, but it turned out to be just a single doe and her fawn. Deer are always thought of as dainty and quiet (except when they're fighting over sex), but these two were feeling rowdy and enjoying the opportunity to disturb the peace. They ran into the water and splashed around like kids. I hate to use the word, but it was incredibly cute. Unfortunately, the doe soon saw me. They retreated back into the trees and hid, perfectly silent. Game over.

Sometimes it sucks, being a predator. I wonder if coyotes and cougars ever get depressed and feel that no one likes them.

Happily, I was no threat to the little group of blue-gray gnatcatchers that were feeding in the trees along the shore. I stopped to watch them--they're such pretty little birds--but they were, as always, so hyperkinetic I couldn't even get a reliable count of them. There were at least 6, possibly 10. They're that manic. I soon gave up watching and just listened to them twitter at each other. You can hear their sound at their Cornell Lab page here, and there are some more nice photos here (scroll down.)

As I was leaving the lake a flock of Canada geese took off and made a couple of wide circles around the perimeter before settling back to earth. It looked a lot like flying practice. Fall is definitely coming.

Photo of blue-gray gnatcatcher by Daniel Berganza from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Herping with Dylan

I stumbled onto this guy while looking for other snake stuff on YouTube. He's not only adorable--he also knows his snakes! He's got a whole collection of herping videos, which you can find here. I particularly like this one, especially the tragic ending.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

What the tick knows

This has been a bumper year for ticks. They are usually worst here in the spring and early summer. By August the population dwindles—thanks, I suppose, to drier weather and all the hungry young birds. But this year is an exception. The woods are literally crawling with dog ticks along with their accompanying “seed” ticks, which are far more annoying. These infant ticks are so tiny you can hardly see them until after they’ve gorged themselves on your blood. Sometimes you’ll look down to find a swarm of them crawling up your shoes. I’ve always been a tick magnet, ever since I was a kid, so I ought to be used to pulling the little bastards off by now, but they still disgust me.

I was extracting a stubborn little guy recently, and remembered a debate I once had with a friend. She absolutely refused to believe that the little brown ticks and the blobby gray ticks were the same bugs, pre-and post-prandium. This was before the days of instant bet settling with Google, so I never was able to convince her.

I was a little exasperated with her at the time, but her skepticism actually makes perfect sense—how could two such radically different things be the same creature? More to the point, why is it that I think they are the same creature? Why do I perceive a persistent identity between skinny tick and fat tick, given that they appear so radically different? I feel that my perception is simple, intuitive, ineluctable—but, of course, my friend felt the same way about her perception.

We confront this problem a thousand times a day, and we are oddly arbitrary about how we solve it. On the one hand, we’re very prone to assigning persistent identity to people. Most everyone (including me) would say I am the same being now that I was in the first grade. Likewise, I’d be the same person if I gained 400 pounds or became severely brain damaged. The person Maria Browning will even persist when I’m dead and buried—anyone who assumes my name and social security number will be said to have “stolen” my identity.

One the other hand, we’re much more fickle about the identity of things. Scarlett’s curtains and her dress are different entities, in spite of the fact that their substance is identical. Ears of corn and tortillas are different things. An acorn and an oak are different things, though everyone recognizes their connection. We can’t seem to decide whether their human counterparts—fetus and infant—are the same thing, which just shows how muddled our thinking is on the whole issue.

Philosophers have spent a lot of time puzzling over this one, and it causes us a lot of emotional agony. Even though we’re desperate to hang onto our individual identities—we order our entire existence around them--the inevitable changes in the organism assault our confidence in who and what we are.

Aging is the universal change that seems to throw everyone into a tizzy, as we each try to reconcile the transformation of decay with the static concept of “me.” Everyone deals with it differently. Some of us do battle with the flesh. Others try to tweak their behavior and ideas to fit the changing form without surrendering some fundamental sense of self. A few people just refuse to engage the issue and go on believing themselves to be children well into withered old age—which may keep them happy, but causes a lot of trouble for the people around them.

Which brings me back to the tick. The tick does not have this identity problem. Nothing in nature has this problem, except us. Not that identity is never an issue for the rest of the world. Deer have to know the difference between poisonous snakeroot and all the similar-looking greenery that is good to eat. The natural world is filled with deceivers and identity thieves, from the harmless scarlet snake who mimics the deadly coral snake, to the cowbird who sneaks her eggs into other birds’ nests.

But those practical, real-time identity problems are different from the one we inflict on ourselves when we recoil from the crumbling face in the mirror. The tick doesn’t mourn the loss of her figure, and she doesn’t have intimations of her own mortality as she happily sucks away someone else’s blood. She doesn't wish she could do anything over or be the girl she once was. She doesn't wonder whether she's "authentic" or leading a purpose driven life. She simply is what she is at every moment, and she changes without protest or resistance.

Photo of lone star tick from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


There was a light ground fog this morning, with mist on the lake. A faint breeze was moving the water just enough to force the mist to swirl up in gauzy columns. The light from the rising sun played off them as they moved over the surface. Some stood up, tall and independent; others stayed low and joined with their brothers to swirl together in a ghostly spiral dance.

The sun rose higher, the lake warmed up and the ghosts went away. It was just a trick of temperature, humidity and dust in the air—one routine act in the endless magic show the planet puts on. But I couldn’t look at it without seeing the spirits dancing. I would never want to.

Photo by Mila Zinkova from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Lizard weather

The fish were jumpin' this morning, just like the song says.** It's still hot here, humid and overcast--perfect fishing weather, but nobody was taking advantage of it. I had the lake shore all to myself and the fish were left to play unmolested. Most of the birds were sleeping late, so it was quiet except for the cicadas and the periodic splash from a leaping bass. It's a very cheerful sound, that splash.

The whole park was oddly depopulated for a Saturday morning. On a typical weekend there are anglers, hikers and maybe a gaggle of boy scouts entering the park as I leave it. Today I met only one very intense-looking runner, and a big guy with a lot of tattoos who was gathering firewood. I guess everybody's hiding from the heat.

The lizards love this weather, and they seem to be everywhere. A startled skink ran over my foot as I walked the trail. Skinks make me feel very nostalgic. I only have to look at one to be reminded of all the hot summer days I spent as a kid just hanging out in the woods. I loved to catch the little blue-tailed ones and play with them a while, then turn them loose in the grass. I'm sure I enjoyed that more than they did.

The walk back from the lake was pretty sweaty, and I rewarded myself by stopping for a few of the remaining blackberries, which have been very juicy and sweet this year. I scarfed a couple of cherries, too. Why should the skunks get them all?

**Click here for a nice little essay on why fish jump.

Photo of skink by Patrick Coin from Wikipedia.