Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

I had almost given up. I wasn’t worried that spring would never come, but that something had happened to the whippoorwills. Had they forsaken this troubled planet?

They’re not really whippoorwills, and they don’t even make the whip-poor-will sound, but that’s what we call them here in rural Florida. If I told a neighbor I heard a Chuck-wills-widow call last night, I’d get a blank stare that would last into next week. If I say I heard a whippoorwill, I’d have full understanding.

You can’t describe their call as a song. It sounds almost like they’re spitting out, “Chuck! Will’s widow,” or something like that. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak.” You can find a recording here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chuck-wills-widow/id. On summer nights, I can hear several in the woods around me, calling ceaselessly through the night, the same call over and over. Sometimes one comes close to the house, but if I go outside to try to locate it—immediate silence.

Chuck-wills-widow. (Photo courtesy of Dick Daniels)

I’ve never seen one clearly enough to recognize it. They are active mostly at night and are so well camouflaged they blend in with dead leaves and tree bark during the day. Sometimes, driving down the road at night, a bird will suddenly shoot up from the roadway and fly off. That’s a Chuck-wills-widow that has been picking up grit from the road. I suppose they sometimes get hit by cars. I read that their numbers are declining—the usual story— pesticides and loss of habitat. They must be too shy to stick around when their forests are taken over by housing developments. They don’t build nests, but lay eggs on the ground, which puts them at risk despite their camouflage. They’re vulnerable to pesticides because their diet is mostly insects, although they’ve been known to eat small birds and even bats.

I hear them only from March through July. They winter in the Caribbean and Central America, but I don’t know what they do in late summer and fall.

I wasn’t too surprised they were late this spring. We had another weird winter. Winters in Florida are typically weird, but these last two were worse. Not hard winters, but warm for the most part, and late. My dog fennel, loyal predictor of the first frost, has been dead wrong two years in a row. No frost in November, as predicted. Not until after Christmas.

Last spring I still had nearly a full cord of firewood left over. I usually stock up before my firewood man goes away for hunting season, but I didn’t run low until after the first frost. When I called him, he delivered right away and said I was lucky to catch him before he took one last trip to his hunt camp. After the second frost, it appeared my supply would last me again into the next fall.

Our tomato plants

A few weeks before Spring Break, I had the school kids start tomato plants and told them that after the break we should be past the threat of frost and could set the plants out in their gardens. Boy was I wrong! After the children returned to school, we were hit with the coldest spell of the winter. I woke to a half inch of ice in the bird bath.

(I can hear you northerners saying, “Now really, just get over it!” I know. You’re digging out from under three feet of snow. Spend a few winters here and see how soft you get!)

So, we held back on planting our spring gardens. Everyone I talked to said they hadn’t heard a whippoorwill yet, either. The next part of the conversation goes something like, “My mama/granny/grandpa always said we can have frost up ‘til Easter.” This year, Easter comes in the middle of April! Can Spring really be so late? The whippoorwills have never been this late. What’s wrong?

On mild nights, I slept with a window open, hoping to hear one call. If the night was too cool, I’d step out on the porch every few hours to listen. March melted away, but no whippoorwill.

Finally, on March 30th, I heard the call! Far away, faint, and short lived, one called. My world was set right again. I heard the promise of Spring, and it was music to my ears.

 

Read Full Post »

Like some people, some plants don’t get the respect they deserve. One of these is Dog Fennel. The name suggests an inferior type of fennel, but it’s not at all related to fennel, which is a culinary herb imported from the Mediterranean. Dog Fennel is a native plant that grows mostly in the southeastern United States. You should not eat Dog Fennel because it contains a toxic chemical called pyrrolizidine. This won’t kill you right away but it can cause liver damage, and you don’t want that.

Dogfennel2

The plant I’m talking is Eupatorium capillifolium. The Latin name is important because there are three other plants called dog fennel that also are not related. If you google either name you will find scads of information on how to eradicate this plant. It’s considered a nuisance weed which will overtake pastures, hay fields, and cropland if not kept in check. If you don’t watch out, it will also invade your yard and garden.

However, I let a few plants grow in my yard and along my driveway. I’ve always liked Dog Fennel, in moderation. In spring, feathery green shoots emerge from last years’ roots or seeds. Over the summer they grow into graceful fountains, three or four feet high, or taller. Sometime in October, tiny white blossoms burst out, abuzz with bees, butterflies, and other insects. If you get close enough, you can detect the flowers’ delicate scent. When winter comes, Dog Fennel is reduced to brown skeletons that persist until you, or time, knock them down. I break off any stems that are in my way, but I leave a few to shelter beneficial insects and their larvae during the winter.

There is an old saying that when the Dog Fennel blooms we have six weeks until frost. Over the years I have observed this and found it to be generally true. The past two or three years I’ve recorded the time of blooming on my calendar and found it to be uncannily accurate. In fact, Dog Fennel blooms earlier in open areas than in more sheltered ones and the frost follows accordingly, within a few days of the six weeks’ date.

A few years ago, a dog fennel seed landed inconspicuously on one of the garden beds at the elementary school. That compost-rich soil nurtured it through the summer. By the time school started, it towered over all else in the garden beds. When we weeded the gardens in preparation for fall planting, I left it alone, for a time, because it looked nice and wasn’t in the way, yet. When I tried to pull it out, I found that the root system was as massive as the upper part. The time came to use extreme measures to get this weed out of the garden, but first I wanted to know if it had any redeeming qualities other than those I already mentioned.

Googling and following links, I came across a reference to the Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moth. This colorful insect may look like a wasp but it’s really a moth and doesn’t sting. In fact, it is not known to cause any damage to nature or mankind. The larvae feed on wild hempvine, a plant with heart-shaped leaves and white blossoms.

Be on the lookout for this beauty if you live in Florida, along the Gulf Coast or in coastal Georgia or South Carolina.

Be on the lookout for this beauty if you live in Florida, along the Gulf Coast or in coastal Georgia or South Carolina.

Here’s where things get interesting. Adult butterflies and moths usually feed on nectar. That’s why they are considered pollinators. The adult male of this species feeds on Dog Fennel. He pierces the stems with his proboscis to obtain the toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These chemicals do not poison our moth but make him distasteful to whatever would otherwise eat him. He also stores the chemical in little pouches under his abdomen.

The story gets more interesting. When he finds a lady friend, our gallant moth showers her with these compounds, which in turn protects her from predators. And even better, when she lays her eggs, they will contain these protective chemicals. The Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moth is the only insect known to transfer a chemical defense in this manner.

The caterpillar is quite harmless.

The caterpillar is quite harmless.

So, if the male doesn’t have Dog Fennel to feed on, his mate and their eggs are more susceptible to being eaten. In other words, no Dog Fennel plants mean fewer Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moths. Doesn’t this earn Dog Fennel our respect? It earned mine, and that of the children at the school. With no other Dog Fennel in the vicinity, we decided to leave the plant alone for the time being.

I don’t mean you should let your garden or pasture become overrun with Dog Fennel. A few plants here and there, along the fence or driveway or roadside, should be enough. These are small moths. They don’t eat much. If you find hempvine on your property, let it grow. If you have none, plant some for their babies. Then be on the look out for this pretty moth. And when the Dog Fennel blooms this fall, make a note of the date and wait to see if it predicts the first frost.

This homeowner understands the beauty of Dog Fennel. Unfortunately, this is not my yard.

This homeowner understands the beauty of Dog Fennel. Unfortunately, this is not my yard.

Read Full Post »

I see a flock of robins beside the road, pecking in the soil, and that reminds me.

One summer, when I visited my sister in southeastern Washington, I heard a mockingbird sing. I didn’t know mockingbirds lived that far north. In fact, I was sure they didn’t. “You don’t have mockingbirds here, do you?” I asked. No, of course not. Finally, I spotted the songster—a robin!

Every winter the robins come to Florida, a happy place to escape from cold and snow. I seldom notice when they arrive. They must meander though North Florida in small numbers, seeking the balmier south. Then come February, large flocks gather on the way back to their summer nesting grounds. That’s when I see them congregate on roadsides and fields, hopping about in search of dainties. The struggle for domination between winter and spring provides a balanced diet. As the sun warms the soil, worms and insects emerge among small green plants seeking a head start on summer growth. The robins feast. Then frost nips these hopes and drives the little creatures back into the ground. Undeterred, the robins dine on seeds left by last year’s weeds and wildflowers.

The birds also assemble in berry-laden trees and shrubs. They swallow the fruit whole, then fly over wooded areas, pooping out seeds which fall to fertile ground to complete the cycle of growth. That is why I have so many beauty-berry bushes in my woods. Unfortunately, robins also gobble up the fruit of camphor trees and pyracantha, both invasive species, and spread them far and wide, so be careful what you plant. No bird will appreciate these fancy foreigners when they crowd out our native plants.

As the robins pass through my neighborhood, the mockingbirds pick up their song and sing it through summer, long after the robins have abandoned us. That’s why I associate the “cheerily carol” with the mockingbird.

Last summer I visited my daughter in Virginia. Sitting on her front porch, enjoying the mountain air, I heard a familiar, “Cheery-up, cheery-o, cheery-up, cheery-o!” A mockingbird? I knew I was within their range this time, but no, again it was a robin.

What a happy place, I thought, to have the music of both mockingbirds and robins.

Read Full Post »

Morning sunlight slants from the South. On my shady front porch, the thermometer reads 67, but it must be over 70 in the sun because the butterflies are out and about. A large brown moth checks out a Rosemary plant, probably attracted to its scent, but finding no blossoms, it moves on to the Swedish Ivy.

Neither Swedish nor Ivy, these plants have spikes of delicate white flowers that curve into the paths of butterflies. I hang them outdoors in summer where they can drink up tropical weather. Sometimes branches of their fragile foliage break off and root in my yard. Here, nurtured by warm rains, they grow into a lovely ground cover. Soon they will succumb to frost unless I pot them and move them indoors. I can’t keep that many, so I will give some away.

Their flowers must be rich in nectar. A yellow Cloudless Sulphur comes by to visit blossom after blossom. One afternoon while I crocheted on the front porch, a Zebra Longwing kept company with the Swedish Ivy. It would flitter to a blossom for a sip then fly off. A few seconds later, I would see a little shadow out of the corner of my eye, the Zebra Longwing back for another drink.

Most everyone loves these flying flowers. Most everyone. In college I had a zoology professor who maintained that the entire order Lepidoptera was harmful to mankind. No redeeming qualities. We asked, what about butterflies?  Destructive. Of no benefit. What about silk worms? Even them. That was a long time ago, when the understanding of ecology was still in its infancy. My professor focused on the destruction of agricultural crops by the larvae of butterflies and moths. To him, beauty had nothing to do with it.

Black Swallowtail and Gulf Fritillary on Bidens alba.

Black Swallowtail and Gulf Fritillary on Bidens alba.

Times have changed. We now are aware that even “bad” bugs have their place in nature and to annihilate them would upset the delicate balance of the world order. And Lepidoptera are no longer bad bugs. Now they are seen as pollinators. With the decline of the honey bee, other pollinators are becoming more valued, a benefit to agriculture and mankind, despite the destruction caterpillars wreak. Other pollinators, such as native bees, are less conspicuous than butterflies, but a healthy butterfly population indicates an environment friendly to bees. When we plant wildflowers to attract butterflies, we nurture other pollinators as well. I wonder what my old professor thinks about Lepidoptera now.

A few years ago, my late summer bean crop was infested with leaf rollers. Once they are done feasting on the foliage, these little caterpillars roll a leaf around them to pupate. But I didn’t let them. Every day I went through my bean patch with a vengeance and squashed every one I could find. Later, I learned I had been killing baby butterflies! Fortunately, I didn’t wipe them all out. The next year they returned to my bean patch and this time I left them alone. Guess what? My beans produced as well that season as they had the year before when I killed all those “pests”.

In the spring, I grew parsley in a container garden on my kitchen deck. One day when I picked some, I noticed the undersides of the leaves were covered with tiny pearls. I had observed Black Swallowtails lighting on the parsley not long before and knew those must be butterfly eggs. Not wanting to eat baby butterflies, I foraged among the parsley to pick only the leaves with no eggs.

Then I was busy for a time, almost too busy to cook. When next I noticed my parsley plants, the leaves were gone and the container garden was crawling with cute little striped caterpillars. They did not look big enough to pupate but they had eaten all the parsley. Hoping to find something else to feed them, I researched their diet. They eat plants in the parsley and carrot families. Alas, I could find none of those currently growing in my yard. All I could do was let nature take her course and hope the little butterflies would find their way. They must have, as my yard is full of Swallowtails.

A neighbor with a butterfly farm tells this story. She helped a little old lady plant a butterfly garden. All went well until the lady called to complain that “worms” were eating her plants. Those worms turned out to be the larvae of the butterflies she wanted to attract to her garden! My friend tried to explain you can’t have butterflies unless you feed them when they are children. All to no avail. It didn’t sink in. The little old lady just wanted to know how to kill those “worms”.

What can I say? If we want to live, we must let live. In The Last Child in the Woods”, Richard Louv writes, “Nature is beautiful, but not always pretty.” How true!

Read Full Post »

The biosphere of Planet Earth is a miracle. We know of no other world where we could live outdoors. The moon is inhospitable, Venus a furnace, Mars’ air thin and oxygen-poor. Forget the other planets in our solar system. And we know little about those beyond. By comparison, Earth is a paradise. Every day we should rejoice in the sunshine, breathe deeply with gratitude, and take water as a sacrament. So why do we spend so much time inside?

 

Once I took a plane trip on a perfect day in May. Flowers bloomed and trees wore new leaves. We flew at low altitudes where I could see the towns and neighborhoods, parks and school yards, fields and forests below. But no children played on the playgrounds. No one walked or jogged. No farmers worked their fields. No workmen or fishermen were evident. How could they stay indoors on such a beautiful day?

 

People move to Florida “for the weather”, then find it too hot, too cold, too humid, or too many mosquitoes. Day and night they keep windows closed and the air conditioner running. Why not live where the climate requires such confinement?

 

“When was the last time you spent the entire day outdoors?” A character in a movie asked another. Nothing substitutes for the physical, mental, and spiritual refreshment you find in the open air. Last January on the Mirage, we lived outdoors the entire week. Only the cabins are enclosed. The dining area, where we spent mealtimes and evenings, is open to the elements. Surrounded by wilderness with no light pollution, we stood on deck at night and enjoyed the stars. We spent our days on the water, under the sun, in the wind, and it was good.

 

But not perfect. Nature is not always kind. In Pine Island Sound, destruction by Hurricane Charley nearly a decade ago is still evident: heaps of uprooted, storm-tossed trees.

 

Monday’s sun heated the cabins below deck. To hasten cooling, I left my hatch open until bedtime. By then, my cabin was full of mosquitoes. I don’t know how many I swatted before I started to count, then I killed sixteen, more during the night, and probably another dozen in the morning. Afterwards, I was more vigilant.

 

If you kayak in the sub-tropical sun, you need skin protection. I wore a hat, long sleeved shirt, and long pants all week. Splashing waves cooled me. I used sunscreen on my face and hands, but forgot UV protection for my lips, which burned, cracked, and peeled. A lesson learned.

 

At least I didn’t turn into a Gumbo Limbo. Natives call it the “tourist tree” because its bark is red and peeling. On Wednesday, we encountered the human variety. The kayak trail in Commodore Creek was choked with tourists. Poorly prepared, they probably lathered on sunscreen, but did little else to protect themselves. Most wore shorts and short sleeved shirts or tank tops and, while they remembered sunglasses, few wore hats. Even though Commodore Creek is shaded by mangroves, I’m sure by evening they resembled Gumbo Limbo trees.

 

The week was not all smooth paddling. Wednesday morning was calm but the wind picked up when we returned to Mirage. We skirted the shore in Pine Island Sound but had to cross open water to get to the boat. The wind kept blowing me off course. I’d paddle several times on one side to get straight, then over-correct and be blown the other way. Finally, Jun suggested I align myself perpendicularly with the waves and let the wind blow me along. I told him I was trying to align myself with Mirage. He said to align myself with the waves and Mirage would take care of herself. He was right. The wind blew me right to the ship. Nature is bigger than we . Why exhaust ourselves trying to work against her? Better to cooperate.

 

That evening, waves too choppy for kayaks, we took the dinghy out to North Captiva Island, beached on the inland side, and crossed a short neck to the Gulf of Mexico. We collected shells and watch the sunset. The water was cool but pleasant enough for a swim.

Kayak voyage 081

 

Thursday dawned with a nice south wind, but a cold front loomed in the northwest. When we reached the south point of North Captiva Island at 1 pm, the wind shifted and picked up speed, the weather turned cold and the water choppy. Paddling became difficult. We hugged the shore until we came to a shoal too shallow to paddle, so Elke and I got out and waded, towing our kayaks. Keith and Jun detoured the shoal and landed on a small beach. My muscles cramped from the chill. Jun came back for our kayaks, allowing us, thankfully, to walk on the sand.

 

From there, as the gull flies, Mirage was not far, but I struggled against the wind. When I’d stop for a brief rest, it blew me back. At one point a strong current caught us. Keith offered to tow me. Fatigue and pain eventually conquered my stubborn pride, and I let him. Sometimes you just have to accept help.

 

Tarps were lowered around the dining area to shelter us and we wore coats to supper. All night, the rigging snapped in the wind and Mirage swung back and forth on her moorings. There’s a saying in Florida: if you don’t like the weather, wait a few hours. The morning dawned cool but soon warmed and we enjoyed beautiful weather the rest of the week.

 

Did discomfort diminish my pleasure? Only temporarily. Afterward, I could laugh and reflect. I don’t go looking for trouble and “No pain, no gain” is rubbish, but roadblocks lead to self discovery, adversity to growth. Adventures yield good memories once we are safe at home. Being outdoors all week was well worth it.

 

As I write on this beautiful day in May, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the yellow flies are biting. I almost need armor to go outside. Oh, well. At least my windows are open so I can breathe fresh air. I don’t have to leave the house to pump water, so I can take it as a sacrament.

 

Read Full Post »

             When I feel stressed out and in need of a tranquilizer, I go out to my greenhouse and re-pot some plants. Dirt therapy. Afterwards, I feel better. We have known for a long time that contact with nature makes us feel better, whether it’s yard or garden work, walking or working in the woods, or even hunting and fishing. We used to think the effects were purely psychological, “all in your head”, but now scientists have learned that it’s also in your blood stream, nervous system, and who knows where else. Don’t you love it when scientists find evidence for things that we have known all along?

            Warning: this will be more serious than some of my postings and you will encounter some big words. Don’t let that phase you. The words are not as important as the ideas behind them. Let’s get one big word out of the way: Mycobacterium vaccae. If you want to pronounce it, try Mike-o-bac-ter-ium va-kay. Scientists abbreviate it as M. vaccae. Let’s just call it Mv.

            I first heard about this last spring at the Garden Club convention in Jacksonville. One of the speakers, a scientist, said that certain soil bacteria interact with chemicals in your skin, and this boosts your immune system and improves your mood. What a fascinating idea! Did I hear him right? I decided to find out more. It seems that there is a harmless soil bacterium, Mv, which does indeed have this effect on us. Scientists first found Mv in cow dung (vacca is Latin for cow) and started exploring its possible uses in medicine. About a decade or so ago, a London oncologist, Mary O’Brien, injected her cancer patients with Mv. (What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.) Her patients’ symptoms improved. Not only did their pain and nausea decrease, but they felt better emotionally, had more energy, and could think more clearly.

            Since then, researchers have injected mice with Mv and found that it stimulates the growth of certain brain cells and lowers anxiety. They fed it to mice and the mice could find their way through a maze twice as fast, swim twice as long, and had less anxiety. After they stopped feeding it to the mice, the effects lasted about three weeks. No wonder I feel better with dirt under my fingernails, but it seems that we need to be exposed to Mv on a continuous basis to benefit from it.

            Doctors are still doing research with Mv on people with a variety of illnesses including asthma, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, and several skin conditions. In humans, the bacteria activate immune cells which release chemicals which affect the nerves. They have found, as in mice, Mv stimulates the growth of nerve cells that increase serotonin and nor epinephrine, and these chemicals improve mood and cognitive functioning. This is the same way that Prozac works.

            So, with dirt under my nails, not only do I feel better, I can think more clearly, too. But how does Mv get into my body? I do not eat dirt by choice and I certainly don’t inject it. Scientists aren’t really certain. They think the bacteria get into the air and we inhale it, or some gets into our food and we eat it, or it may enter through cuts in our skin. I haven’t found anything that verifies that it can interact with unbroken skin, but I may not have looked hard enough.

            All this applies to children also, so if you want them to learn better and do better on those standardized tests, instead of making them spend all day with their noses in books, let them play outside and get dirty. Scientists believe that the rise in asthma and allergies is due to our living “too clean”. Children growing up on traditional farms have fewer of these problems than do other children. They are exposed to harmless micro-organisms that train their immune systems to ignore pollen and other common allergens. Remember, Mv was first found in cow manure.

            So, what does all this really mean? It means that our relationship to our world is much more complex than we realize. We really are one with Nature. We need more than air, water, and food. On the physical level, our bodies interact with lowly things in the natural world just as our minds and hearts interact with its beauty. We have known that our intestines are home to bacteria and such that aid digestion. Now we find out that another bacterium makes us healthier, happier, and smarter. What other beneficial things are out there to be discovered?

            When we humans venture out into space, we need to be cognizant of these unseen things our bodies need. And when we travel to other worlds, we will need to bring some of our home with us to keep us healthy and happy. By the same token, we must be cautious of microorganisms we find there. The implications of all this are astronomical in extent.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: