Sunday, May 24, 2009

Conditional love

This week I moved my walks from the rural state park near my home to a nature preserve in Nashville. This was not a happy choice, since I really prefer the big park. The paths there are rougher, there's more wildlife, and during the week I rarely meet another person on the trail. Unfortunately, the heavy rains we've had lately have created perfect breeding conditions for mosquitoes, and being the lone hiker for miles around makes me absolutely irresistible to them. Why should they bother tormenting the deer and the birds, with all that troublesome fur and plumage, when they can chow down on a thin-skinned human? They nearly drained me dry on a couple of outings early this week.

So for now I'm getting in my car and driving 35 environmentally irresponsible miles to the city green space, where there are precious few mosquitoes. Nashville has had as much rain as my home town and ought to have just as many of the tiny bloodsuckers, but since the first West Nile scare a few years back, the city has been spraying and using larvicide to keep the population down. The program is actually pretty moderate in its use of pesticides, but it seems to have had a dramatic cumulative effect.

My home county doesn't have the money to spray for mosquitoes, and it's the sort of thing that paranoid anti-government types (we have a few of those) would be quick to protest. Actually, I've got a little of that anti-government paranoia myself, not to mention an opinionated inner tree hugger who disapproves of poisoning a creature that happens to be an essential food for bats, dragonflies, and other delightful beings. Nevertheless, I am literally voting with my feet in favor of a more controlled--and more toxic--environment. I fear this makes me a fickle and neurotically demanding nature lover. I do not want to share my blood with Mother Earth's pesky children, even if it's only natural for them to desire it.

If you're wondering why there's a picture of a firefly on this post about mosquitoes, it's because last night, as I watched the fireflies float around my front yard, it occurred to me that these pretty glowbugs always appear around the same time each year as those miniature vampires. That's the justice of nature for you. All the pleasure in the world is tied, in one way or another, to a curse. You can't have one without the other, and most attempts to make it otherwise cost us dearly. Firefly populations appear to be dropping dramatically in many places around the world, mostly because of our distortion of the environment with artificial light, deforestation, and yes, pesticides. You can read more about the issue here and here.

Firefly photo by 6th Happiness at Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Missing the narrow fellow

The whole purpose of walking in the woods is to leave longing behind. I walk to take pleasure in what the world offers, not make demands or chase fantasy. I try to avoid making my time outdoors a hunt for interesting specimens or experiences. My task is simply to be there and accept whatever gifts come my way.

And yet, lately I find myself yearning for an encounter with a snake. I investigate every rustle in the grass with a little hopeful flutter in my chest. Any snake would do. A 4-inch ringsnake crawling across the trail would satisfy me. It seems unfair that I haven't met one. They've been out and about for weeks. I see them along the highway nearly every day, and a good-sized black rat snake turned up in our front yard (dead, alas), but they've been AWOL in what should be their proper habitat. One will probably appear as soon as I stop looking, but I can't seem to banish the craving in the meantime.

A narrow Fellow in the Grass

by Emily Dickinson

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met Him - Did you not
His notice sudden is –

The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –

He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy, and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone –

Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me –
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality –

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

Text from Poetry Foundation

Snake Charmer, Henri Rousseau, 1907

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A morning with the turtles

There had been a storm with heavy rain before dawn last Wednesday, and it was still drizzling when I got to the park around 6:00 a.m. The air was warm and the trail was a soggy mess, which made conditions perfect for the box turtles. I came across one every fifty yards or so, and they were all moving along at a pretty brisk pace by turtle standards, heads up, looking alert.

I was really enjoying the turtle parade, thinking how nice it was to see so many emerge at once, and then I came across the star-crossed lovers. Boy had succeeded in meeting girl, but something had gone haywire with the consummation. Normally, the male mounts and enters the female from behind, and hooks his rear claws into the edge her shell. Sometimes he flips over on his back, which looks like this. They can stay that way for hours.

The necessary contortions of love seem a little challenging for a turtle under the best circumstances, but this particular pair had failed completely. When I found them, the female was on her back, completely withdrawn into her shell, and the male was upright with one foot hooked into her leg opening--on the wrong side, no less. Worse yet, they had fallen down into a little crevice along the side of the trail, and were wedged next a 2 X 4 that had been pushed into the hillside as a support.

I’m not sure whether the trouble was male incompetence or female recalcitrance—probably a bit of both. In any case, things weren’t looking good for baby turtle production, and I wasn’t entirely sure they would be able to get themselves out of their predicament. The male’s foot was twisted at such an odd angle I wondered if he could let go even if he wanted to, and it seemed unlikely that the female could right herself if he remained attached.

So, with some reservations about violating the Prime Directive, I picked them up as a unit and set them down on the path. I gently prodded the male’s foot, trying to get him to release the female, but he hung on tight and didn’t even retreat into his shell. He had found his woman, and he was damn well going to keep hold of her. There were at least two other males nearby ready to move in if he surrendered the field, so I suppose his determination was understandable.

Hoping they’d work things out on their own, I moved about 10 feet away, to a spot where neither of them could see me. And waited. A long time. He didn’t budge a millimeter. She never made any attempt to turn over, or even poke her head out. As I stood there, it dawned on me that a) it was still raining and I was getting extremely wet; and b) if turtles can fuck for hours, there was no reason to think they’d be in any particular hurry to abandon a troubled attempt.

So I gave up and went home, feeling stupid for interfering, but also frustrated that I lacked the patience necessary to witness the resolution. Did she finally relent and give him a second chance? Did he give up and let his competition take over? Whatever happened, the uncooperative female survived it just fine. I recognized her unique shell markings when I saw her at the same spot on the trail yesterday. She was calmly munching on some delicacy she'd found in the leaf litter. Her determined boyfriend was nowhere in sight.

Illustration by John Edwards Holbrook, 1842. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Passing season

May arrived here with heavy rain that knocked the last of the blossoms off the dogwoods. The woods are littered with fallen petals. The photo above is one of our trees at its peak, around the 3rd week in April. It's always a little sad to see all that beauty disappear, but the fading spring has some special pleasures of its own.

The rose-breasted grosbeaks have been showing up at our feeders for the past couple of weeks. There were 4 gorgeous males squabbling over the sunflower seeds today. The grosbeaks are late migrants through these parts. They don't stay to nest, and since they don't breed here, we rarely get to hear them sing. Their too-brief appearance is a sure sign that summer is not far away.

I always look forward to the reappearance of the box turtles. They don't get out and about until the weather is reliably warm. I saw my first lovable monster of the season last week. It was a large male (I think), parked right in the middle of the trail as if he owned it. He didn't even bother to retreat into his shell when I stepped over him.

And of course, one of the sweetest things about the passage from spring to summer is the arrival of the first babies. This morning as I walked the trail along the creek, a tiny, fluttering creature dropped out of the trees ahead of me. I thought it was a butterfly, which seemed bizarre since butterflies don't generally cavort in the rain. It turned out to be a chickadee fledgling, just out of the nest. He landed on a tree root sticking up from the path and perched there, slightly dazed.

Chickadee youngsters look like smaller versions of their parents, but this one still had a couple of wispy bits of down sticking out of his black cap. I tried gently to encourage him to move off the trail, where he'd be less likely to get stepped on or attract the attention of some hiker's dog, but he refused to budge. I considered moving him myself, but in my experience a chick that is picked up and relocated will immediately head straight back to the spot he chose. So I left him there to get on with his confused but determined navigation of the world.

(Click here to see some photos of chickadees in the nest.)

Photo of dogwood flowers by BitterGrace. Grosbeak photo by John Harrison from Wikimedia Commons. Chickadee photo by Ken Thomas at Wikimedia Commons, and box turtle photo by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.