To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,Emily Dickinson
One clover, and a bee.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
No matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all the salient facts about any one of them.Aldo Leopold
“Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree – and there will be one.”~Aldo Leopold
Sometimes we glimpse the pure volume of life here and it’s nearly overwhelming.
We were watching the woods flickering with fireflies this evening, and began talking about the other nearby critters, just the ones we know about, who were also going about their evenings, on the ground and on the plants and in the trees around us.
The phoebe sitting on her eggs, in her nest on one of the logs that make up our house. Who periodically cliff-dives down past the living room window, to catch a bug or have a sip of water.
The robin, on her own clutch, sitting on top of the nest box by the wood’s edge.
The hawk who flew over the yard today, carrying a snake.
The four swallowtail caterpillars in the carrot patch.
The flying squirrels, whose day begins as ours ends. Who take off from our roof, each evening at twilight.
“Scrappy”, the eastern cottontail missing a chunk from his ear, who visits the yard every evening, and who seems to have developed a taste for milkweed as well as the other forage.
The eastern grey squirrel we saw building a new drey today in one of the junipers.
The monarch babies on the milkweeds, some of which are evading Scrappy.
The cabbage white eggs on the kale.
The bat who has been using the roof’s overhang as a sometime roost. Leaving little bat poop “I was here” sign on the deck.
The hummingbird who buzzed my head today, intent on getting a drink from the red flowers of the scarlet runner beans.
The tiny bees in the yard’s clover.
The wolf spider carrying her egg sac.
The mystery russet-coloured bird who flushed from the ground up into the trees, when I rode past on my bike.
The veerys, singing their pan-flute songs as dark sets in.
The barred owl, whose call drifts through the night and in the bedroom window.
Just a few of the critters we happened to notice today. Just the ones whose paths crossed ours.
Each one of them living their lives, coming and going and breeding and eating and resting.
Goodnight moon, goodnight birds and bees and bugs and beasts. Goodnight all.
Agent of destruction. Ah, no, I don’t mean the caterpillar shown here. I mean humans. We’re capable of a lot, and not all of it is great. This hungry hungry caterpillar — Lymantria dispar dispar (“gypsy moth”, hereafter “LDD moth”) — is only here because in 1868 one man thought he could use them for silk. Étienne brought them over from Europe, and “kept” them at his house. They got out, of course. When will humans learn it is one of life’s truths… Death, taxes, and they will get out.
We live here in a forest full of oaks, the LDD moth’s preferred food. Many of our trees are completely bare. In the middle of a green spring, dry leaves crunch underfoot. If we step out of our house *at all* recently, we get caterpillars all over us. The ground is slick with their frass. Later this summer, the moths will fly so thick they’ll hit us in the face. Maybe they should be called “truth moths”…
But I do not hate the LDD moth. It is a caterpillar eating leaves. There is no malice there, no forethought. Humans, on the other hand, might need a time-out to think about what we’ve done. And, importantly, what we plan to do. For nearly anything ecological today, not much has changed. We still chase quick fixes. How quickly, how quickly can I stop looking at this and pretend what I want to be normal is normal. But the complex fights our efforts to make it simple. And nothing complex will be simply solved. At least not without making more problems…
The good news is that while some outbreak years are brutal to witness, the data to date shows that these moths, even though they’re not from here, now collapse very much the same way as endemic species with outbreak cycles do. From diseases and the weight of their own populations. We are already seeing here the extraordinary number of caterpillars beginning to die off in equally extraordinary numbers. The crawling masses suddenly gone still. Healthy (deciduous) trees can withstand a couple of years defoliation. And if trees are unhealthy, well that’s a different string to follow…
It’s a tangled web indeed, but the bugs didn’t start this.
We try to have days in balance here. I have a new policy that if I think I am too busy to go walk the woods, that is exactly when I have to go walk the woods. It turns out that it is just good math. Even a half hour “off the clock” and in the woods generates many hours of a much calmer, happier, more productive me.
Some days though, even with this policy enacted, I just can’t seem to find that half hour in my day, or the steep hill just looks a little too tall for a tired body.
I believe the world is made up of rich and complex interactions between life forms of all shapes and sizes. The wild worlds of microbiomes and mycelliums. Big and little worlds, in, on, and around us. But while I don’t think I believe the woods has a singular sentience that keeps an eye on us here, some days it certainly feels that way.
On the days we can’t or don’t make it up to the woods, nature has a tendency to send an emissary to us instead. “Look at this!” the world seems to shout, or whisper. Nudging something marvelous in our direction. When we don’t go to the woods, the woods comes to us.
Yesterday I was “too busy” and a raccoon wandered past my office window. This morning while I was on a call, a wild rabbit lay down languorously in the grass of the front garden, nibbling greens while recumbent and resting. A tiny long-eared greek god supping grapes off its chest.
Having chickens means we pop out to the garden a few times a day no matter how full the daily docket gets. And between tasks the other day, while swapping chicken waterers, I was buzzed by a good-sized (broad-winged?) hawk. It was not alone though. It was flying fast away from a pursuer! Which turned out to be… two robins. They were the literal vision of “hot on your tail”. Whatever the hawk’s original plans, the robins were having none of it.
Though this is an extremely common occurrence, little birds attacking big ones, I had never witnessed it before moving here. Though now I see it all the time. Tiny birds, birds we often classify as such a hawk’s “prey”, little winged timbits, dive-bombing a “predator” an order of magnitude larger than they are. And, surprisingly, astonishingly, the prey is winning.
It’s a subject I’ll likely come back to here again and again — these misconceptions of predator and prey. Of “good” animals and “bad” animals. Dangerous animals and tame animals. Clean animals and dirty animals… it goes on and on. I structured my understanding of the world around models that aren’t just out of date, not just expired, they were never true. Mama animals take care of the babies, dad animals get the food. Bears growl, bunnies are sweet, the tiny are afraid of the large. “Not so” the world keeps shouting at me here, “not so”. “Look, look, look and begin to see.”
Ask someone who works with bears and they will tell you that bears hardly ever growl. It’s just not how and when they vocalize. As Mike McIntosh who runs the bear rehabilitation centre Bear With Us put it: “They don’t make a lot of sounds that we often hear and think they make. Bears are usually only vocal when they’re either afraid or in pain. Most of the time they’re quiet”. The cartoon version, the scary bear in the movie, it’s not just a caricature, it’s a lie. Like the lemmings who were dumped over the cliff in the fake-umentary that shaped all our understanding of those rodents, it was not is not never was true. Sweet little rabbits will rip each other’s fur out in territory disputes. Father birds will sit on eggs, mothers will build nests. We either just didn’t look, or didn’t see.
This evening we were having dinner when the character of the birdsong out the window suddenly changed, like someone had abruptly clicked to the next song, mid-track. I looked out the window and saw a fine feathered kerfuffle unfolding in the large maple in our yard. A sizeable hawk was perched on a branch, but not for long. It was being pelted at all angles by tiny birds. A variety of tiny birds it seemed. Nearby nesting moms and pops and various bystanders were having none of this large predator in their midst.
It is not uncommon to see a group of blackbirds or swallows chasing a hawk or eagle, or a group of songbirds fluttering and calling around a perched owl. Such “mobbing” behavior is probably the most frequently observed overt antipredator strategy. Nevertheless, the exact purpose of such noisy group demonstrations remains a matter of some debate.
…one function of mobbing may be educational–to teach young birds… Another may be to alert other birds to the presence of the predator, either getting them to join in the mobbing or protecting them, since a predator is unlikely to be able to sneak up on an alert victim.
Much is lacking in our understanding of mobbing. It is not clear why predators don’t simply turn on their tormentors and snatch up one or two of the mobbing birds. If they did, presumably mobbing would quickly disappear; that it persists suggests that surprise is an essential element in raptor hunting.The Birder’s Handbook by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye
I won’t end here though on the victory of the tiny birds over the big mean hawk. Though David and Goliath stories stir the soul, no one is the villain in their own story, and the tale is of course different from Goliath’s perspective. A “predator” has its own beautiful babies to feed. Its own soaring life to support. Life-Death-Life, around and around we go. The fierce and the delicate, wrapped up in one package.
A world without good and bad guys, without roaring bears and ever-sweet bunnies is a confusing place to be. Up is down, down is up and your generalizations won’t save you now. But the truth, it turns out, is so much stranger than fiction. So much more interesting. So much more beautiful and compelling and frightening and hopeful. Look look look, and begin to see.
“…And then — this is the real trick in living on a planet that contains many other human souls that are as valuable and multitudinous as your own — you must find a way to really listen to this other person’s answer, and to believe in their experience as fully as we believe in our own.”~John Green
I went for a barefoot walk of the woods yesterday. A thing to be savoured before the bitey bugs wake up. Sleep tight mosquitos…
One of many many things I like about walking barefoot is the quiet. I’m certain that to the critters in the woods I still sound like a bipedal animal (tripedal if you count my walking stick). And I certainly still have human scent and shape about me. But even my human ears can tell that my footfalls are not the same, when my feet are out. The leaves rustle instead of compress. The sound is more of foraging chipmunks than clomping shopping malls.
When you walk barefoot, you notice your steps. Shoes steamroller. They walk over, on top of, and through. When you can step straight onto any and every little thing, you tend to. Shoes make your feet callous to the world, while ironically your foot’s calluses let you feel it.
In bared feet, where your foot falls is part of your walk. The ground under your skin is a part of your moment. I pay more attention to what is coming just ahead, and what is directly beneath me right now. Where I am. This mud is soft, when that mud was firm. This moss is plush, that moss was crunchy. These leaves rustle, others were silent. There are many sticks here, when a few steps ago there were none. The ground here is cool, the ground there was warm. Hmmm this stone is chilly underfoot… ah, it’s light-coloured, and not absorbing the day’s heat. The last one was dark and toasty. That soft moss covered stone… how could I not divert my path, to go feel it underfoot?
One woman, who did not wear shoes until she was 20, said that having shoes on felt like walking “con los ojos vendados”, with blindfolds on her feet. Taking your shoes off is like peeling the blindfold back. Allowing your feet to see the ground. To simply chuck off your shoes and go walk the woods is not advised — it is too much too fast too blinding too sharp. I have a good sense now of what grows and scuttles in our woods, and there is no trash here, no broken glass. I have grown familiar with what I am likely to find where, and almost none of it is truly hazardous to me, though I show respect to the unknown by stepping mindfully.
I am also a practical lady who lives in a northern climate, and I have many pairs of practical shoes. There is a time and a place, and my steel-toed boots are best when, say, splitting wood. But if you are outside and you find a good spot, a bit of soft moss, or a smooth log, why not take the blindfold off for a few moments at least, and let your toes see the earth.
I went for a gentle jog in the woods the other day, barefoot. I saw two deer, two turkeys, two ruffed grouse, and a bluebird. Some of that is chance, each day in the woods is different, but I can’t help but notice that the days when my footfalls are softer, I often see more and from closer than the days I am shod.
But you want to know about the spiders. 🙂
Again yesterday, I walked a gentle lap of the woods. This time a slow walk. Slow enough and quiet enough that my ears eventually noticed that underneath the spring bird song was another sound. Or sounds. A sound I didn’t recognize, but that was persistent, and all around. A sort of … crickety noise? Like the leaves were… humming?
I looked closer, and saw some familiar shapes skittering around in the leaves. Wolf spiders. These jewel-eyed beauties are all over our woods. We sometimes see them scooting around, but most often notice them when the reflection of their eyes catches the light of our headlamps, when out for a walk after dark. A quick dazzle of sparkle on the ground.
Could this sound be coming from… the spiders?
I got closer and watched one of our fuzzy friends in his fast skittering path across the leaves. Sure enough, the sound was coming from him! A sort of humming, vibrating sound. From him, and from many many many others nearby.
I say “him” with confidence only now — having untangled this mystery once I got back home. This was the song of the wolf spider — a mating “call” played on the forest floor.
Male spiders actually produce vibrations, which hit surrounding dried leaves and cause them to vibrate. The vibrating leaf produces a low “purring” sound audible to humans, and that sound travels. If it hits leaves near a female spider, causing them to vibrate, she can pick up on the vibrations.
For this to work, male and female spiders need to be on a good surface that can vibrate. Dead leaves, in particular, are ideal. Leaves serve as a sort of telephone line or radio wave through which the spiders call females, and they’re essential to the wolf spider communication system…~”Listen to the Dulcet Purr of a Wolf Spider”, SmithsonianMag.com
And if you missed it in that video — here is the sound thanks to SmithsonianMag. I don’t know about you, but when I woke up today, I didn’t even know that “purring spiders” was a thing in the world. And now, here we are. I for one now feel that much closer to these little leaf kittens.
A Poem, for April
by Morgan Harper Nichols
Let this be the April you always remember.
The April where you chose to believe
there was more to the future
beyond what you could see.
The April where you learned to trust:
no matter the unknowns before you,
the sun would still rise and you would still find:
you still grew how you were meant to.
Let this be the April where everything changed,
for you decided you were free to heal and move on
and never be the same.
With much thanks to ReWild Wellness for sharing it.
“Vai. E, se der medo, vai com medo mesmo.”Brazilian motto