Slug eggs.

16 04 2012

I often come across what I suspect to be slug eggs when digging or planting or just moving things from one spot to another. Today is the first time that I’ve found eggs I could identify without doubt as the nascent slugs were visible curled in their translucent beds, these tiny eggs of a transparent beauty to rival the wildflowers of early spring.

Slugs inhabit a no-man’s land of disquieting sliminess, small and harmless but unloved. Why is it, I wonder, that snails are beloved, cute, pictured on greeting cards and in children’s books, while slugs are so reviled? When I had a bed of strawberries I reviled them both equally, despoilers of my food; they would nibble the first bit of the berry that turned red, then eat it from the inside. I’d smash them and slice them and drown them willy-nilly, a fierce if futile war between farmer (such as I was) and pest. But now I have no competition with the slugs, so I mostly leave them alone and I’m able to simply appreciate the beauty of these tiny jewels enclosing tiny bits of life.


1 04 2012

 One thing is absolutely definite: not everything that enters our ears penetrates our consciousness. Anything too far out of tune with our attitude is lost, either in the ears themselves or somewhere beyond, but it is lost.


– Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Library Lion, a book review

2 10 2011

Should a children’s book aim to teach important lessons to kids or just exist to entertain? This is a false choice and Library Lion shows just how possible it is to do both. I loved this book about a lion who falls in love with story time at the library, breaks the rules – by roaring in protest when story time is over – and is allowed to stay only on the condition that he obeys all of the rules from then on. Eventually there is a choice to be made between following the rules and roaring to fetch help for someone who is hurt, and the lion chooses to roar and face his punishment. This book is quite plain about the key lesson it is trying to teach – that even good rules may need to be broken for the right reason – but, although the story was clearly written with that lesson in mind, it never strikes a false note in playing to its theme.
Children often relish stories with obvious morals – some of Aesop’s fables have stood the test of time and are still relished today, and the lesson of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is grasped again and again with glee as the story is enjoyed by generation after generation of preschoolers. But some stories with morals can be didactic or simply solemn, weighed down by the burden of an Important Lesson. This story, though, is anything but heavy and is completely natural and uncontrived. The illustrations make a fine first impression, drawn with such charm that they are certain to sway anyone even the slightest bit susceptible to such things: the lion manages to be both strong and cute (maybe even adorable, especially when he dusts the encyclopedias with his tail!) and the expressions of the people in the story are filled with life. The story is just as charming and lively, while also having more than a little drama. But almost every twist and turn has a kind of moral fiber in it that is enjoyable and fulfilling because it comes naturally out of the story and the characters.
I had fun mulling over some of the less obvious moral lessons tucked away in this little story. One is the basic moral choice behind civil disobedience: when the lion breaks the rules, he’s willing to take the penalty, in this case, never returning to the library. Another is the principle of judging people by their actions, rather than by who they are or where they are from. Mr. McBee clearly thinks that lions – just because they are lions – don’t deserve even the chance to be in the library; Miss Merriweather (a woman of some perspicacity) allows the lion to stay as long as he obeys the rules. There’s also, in the book’s final pages, a poignant lesson in empathy and treating others as you’d like to be treated. The lion is gone from the library and it seems likely that Mr. McBee is at least unconcerned by the lion’s absence –it never sat well with him to have a lion in the library in the first place. But one evening he stops by Miss Merriweather’s office on his way out:
“Can I do anything for you before I go, Miss Merriweather?” he asked her.
“No, thank you,” said Miss Merriweather. She was looking out the window. Her voice was very quiet. Even for the library.
(Never mind how delicious I find that fragment “Even for the library.”) Mr. McBee understands Miss Merriweather’s pain and knows what will make her happy so, instead of going home, he goes in search of the lion. It’s a moment of sweet redemption for the previously unlikeable Mr. McBee and in the end there are no “bad guys” in this story. That’s another lesson and, although it may not always come true, I find nothing wrong with the idea that anyone – or everyone – may be redeemed in the end.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression of this book – I love it because it is adorable, exciting and emotionally fulfilling. I love it in my gut, because it is fun and because I just plain enjoyed it (and because the pictures are so charming), not for its moral clarity. But the fact is that, just as in life, the lessons in this story are impossible to separate from the story itself.

Library Lion

How many flowers do we see…

15 07 2011

Every day that I get out and look at the world around me and try to identify and catalog what is there I find that I am comprehending more about the things that are going on around me or simply seeing more. Yesterday we went for a walk up the logging road behind my house and tried to see how many different flowers we could spot. The phenomenon I’ve been experiencing — where identifying some things causes me to notice others — was on in full force, and by the end of the walk we’d identified (and I’d photographed) at least 31 different flowers. (although many were spotted by James, Rachel, or Robin!) There were many variations on the general dandelion-like flower; I only chose 3 of the most distinctive, so I’m sure that this is an undercount. (Although I did include 3 classic clovers — I’m sure the white and red are distinct, I’m not sure that the pink isn’t a variant of the white.)

I can’t say that I know what all of these flowers are, and I’m posting this without labeling even those that I do, but it’s fun for me to see how many of them I do know. (Sorry that a few aren’t photographed in a way to facilitate identification, if you are taking a stab at it yourself.)

Although they aren’t all great pictures, I am amazed, even if I’m saying it myself, at how beautiful so many of these pictures are. Yes, I have a nice lens and I did think a bit about how to compose the pictures, but the credit is really due to the flowers themselves. Yet another thing that is becoming clear to me is how easy beauty is to find in the natural world. It is, in a word, cheap. But, once again, the distinction between price and value couldn’t be more clear. It’s easy to get ones sense of beauty set to such a level that the dark colors of a Starbuck’s seem to delineate a space to linger for a day and a walk though the luxurious lobby of a hotel seems the epitome of refinement and beauty. But a few minutes looking down a patch of beautiful pink flowers flecked with delicate freckles or walking through the coolness of tall alders makes me long to just lie on the grass surrounded by life and its incredible diversity, never mind the comforts of civilization, or the bug bites and showers — why do I spend so much time indoors?

Anyway, here are all 31 — I only chose one of each and even so it’s kind of overload. But it was quite fun to spot each and every one.

Klamath Weed

12 07 2011

A few days ago we had one of our summertime traditions: the watermelon flower shop, where the kids run around bringing flowers to me and are paid pieces of watermelon in return, a holdover from the days when they used to set up every kind of shop at a moments notice; this was my way of joining in. James really looks forward to it – it was the thing he mentioned that he really wanted to make sure he did this summer. In past years, it’s been about dandelions – quantity and quality. This year, as I’m trying to learn about the life on my property, I requested novelty, and, sure enough, there were lots of flowers that I didn’t know the names of.

Today, I tried to identify one, a lovely yellow flower with five petals and lots of stamens. Although it is a weedy looking plant, the flowers are really pretty – bright five-pointed stars that seem to have a bit of an explosion of stamens in the center – or are they alluring eyelashes? Metaphors are misleading, perhaps, but the flower does somehow remind me of batting eyelashes, and the cheerful yellow seems designed to banish any blues in a wash of simple happiness. So I decided to take a stab at identifying it.

It’s always a bit intimidating to start poking through the books and trying to make an identification, and it can be hard to be sure I’ve found what I was looking for! This time, I am completely confident.

The process of studying and identifying a flower is a lesson in observation. It seems an old magic that still satisfies me to find Klamath Weed in the book, to be told that there are small black dots near the tips of the petals and then to look at the petals and…I didn’t notice them before, but there they are!

..or the dark dots on the leaves that are translucent when the leaves are held to the light?

And then, there’s the beetle, which the guidebook also mentioned, but didn’t name – I only noticed it well after I started studying my various guide books — and its mention in the flower field guide led to a very satisfactory identification in my fairly inscrutable beetle book! (there are so many different kinds of beetles that it sometimes seems kind of ridiculous!) Anyway, the plant is called Klamath Weed, so naturally the beetle clinging to it is the Klamathweed beetle! (or Chrysolina quadrigemina, one of the 212 members of the skeletonizing leaf beetles)

With all of those dots and the beetle, as well as the color and petals and “many stamens in 3-5 bunches”, I was sure I’d the right plant. The guide book also mentioned an intriguing story of the invasion of the Klamath area by this plant, which I later found online:

Klamath weed, also known as St. John’s wort or goatweed, is a native of Europe and Asia that was accidently brought into northern California around 1900. The plant, which is poisonous to livestock, spread rapidly throughout the pasturelands of California and adjacent states. By 1945, it had rendered over 4 million acres of rangeland unfit for grazing livestock. In the late 1940’s, several leaf beetles collected in the weed’s native Europe were imported to California and released on infested rangelands. The most successful of these species, Chrysolina quadrigemina, soon became established and by 1956, it had largely eliminated klamath weed as a threat to livestock in the western United States. Today, small pockets of the weed still exist in shady sites where the beetles do not survive well. These isolated weed populations are sufficient to maintain the beetle population at a level that effectively suppresses further outbreaks of the weed. (from )

I really struggle to get good photos of these tiny creatures – and not just because they are eye-strainingly small. Like any wild creatures, they tend to move around and go where they want to. But the rewards of close examination are such that, even if I didn’t capture the beetle completly on film, its beauty and the beauty of the noxious weed it eats are cemented in my brain; I learned so much from the short hour I spent with this pair. Look at the knobby antennae of this beetle – that’s something I’d only seen in guide books, not really looked at in life. And do you see those tiny dots on the carapace? When you look at this beetle with only your eye, it appears to be almost a perfect thing, but the colors and dots, on closer inspection, seem like aging metal or a tropical creature.

So often I find that more I dig into the natural history of any creature or plant, the more trails I uncover.

One such trail is visual – evidently this beetle has striking wings hidden under that shell. (and what are those holes for?)

Another is more complex. As you may have noticed above, Klamath weed is perhaps better-known as St. John’s Wort, the once-popular herbal remedy for depression. This forks off to many trails; for example, a vocabulary trail, which I quickly settled – wort is a Middle English word for plant, one often used for medicinal plants, as in liverwort, which was thought to benefit the liver. But there is also medicine, evolutionary biology and so on…

As I understand it, one of the side effects of eating the leaves of this plant is a sensitivity to light and this sensitivity is what makes it impossible to use as forage for livestock. A continuing theme this summer has been the ongoing dynamic – one might call it a war – between creatures, even between humble ones like weeds and grazers. I’d like to understand more about this – how does it work? How are – or would be – my cells made more sensitive to light? And how could this subtle effect have developed in the plant? These questions, like my quick one about wort, probably all have available answers, but I can’t just ramble on, researching and regurgitating.

Instead, I’ll exit with one more picture of the beetle, the way it was usually sitting, rear-end facing the world, with bits of frass laying around. I have to say that I feel quite satisfied with this whole process – I managed to identify the plant, notice things about it that I would never have otherwise – including the beetle eating it – and I feel the richer for the whole process.


8 07 2011

Without a doubt, I have taken more pictures of salmonberries than of any other plant on my property. As a result, I know what time of year salmonberries show up and can say with some authority that this year has been a particularly late one for these berries. That’s really too bad, because I’m pretty sure that their chief appeal to the birds is that they come so early in the year and it looks to me that even more of them than usual are going uneaten. The salmonberry flowers bloom as early as possible in the spring and the fruit is generally setting before we have any really warm days. I often walk down the driveway in late June and interrupt robins who are using the driveway as a table and picking off the individual fruitlets from the berries. What a clever design: the whole fruit is a nice size for humans and other large creatures to eat as one bite but still easily teased apart into nice pieces that are bite-sized for the birds.

Their chief appeal to me is their appearance. There seems to be two distinct varieties of these berries — one ripens to a rich yellow or orange, the other to the spectacularly shaded reds and oranges that shade from bright to dark and attract my eye. They are so beautiful — one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Although they are starting to develop sweetness now at the end of their season, they usually don’t have much besides freshness to offer in the way of taste; the seeds are, quite deliberately I’m sure, bitter. They seem adapted to suit our eye and sense of beauty just as blueberries, plums, and other fruits are adapted to please our tongue and sense of taste. Fruits are designed for consumption by us and other frugivores and frugiphiles (I made that second word up) who also love sugars and vitamin C and prefer soft ripeness to the fibrous cellulose of grass and leaves. Part of ripening is, quite properly, referred to as self-digestion as the plant prepares the fruit to be eaten. (Likewise, the seeds are laced with unpalatable or even toxic chemicals — cherries, apples, plums, almonds, apricots, peaches and many other fruits all generate cyanide when their seeds are digested.

But what to make of the beauty of the salmonberry? Although it always remains a wonder to me, it’s become a commonplace observation that our sense of beauty is somehow shared with the animals, as witnessed by the beauty of a peacock or a bird of paradise, along with so many other examples. Could it be that a robin is also entranced by the beauty of its food, and ends up eating a salmonberry, as I have, simply because it couldn’t resist examining it rather than because it thought it would be delicious? It’s just possible that salmonberries are adapted to please my eye specifically: humans, have been eating salmonberries for as long as they have lived in this area — they were an important part of native diets.

Gathering them today with James, keeping this in mind, I noticed that the most beautiful ones were also the ones that tasted the best — the best of the berries was also the shiniest and seemed to glow from within in the morning sunlight.

Cute as a bug: Polyphemus Moth

30 06 2011