Thursday, December 31, 2009

Maps in Our Heads

I realized this morning that one of the things that so delights me about nature is that it is completely free from the boundaries that humans have set for ourselves with our artificial states, counties, countries, private land, and other types of so-called ownership that have little relevance to the ecosystems they chop up into pieces. (I’m not against private rights to land among humans, but I’m for an awareness of nature’s rights, and a sense of stewardship and commons.) It is also this characteristic that has most threatened and challenged us, that we have struggled to control.

Birds fly hither and yon at their whim and in response to weather, available food, water, breeding territory, shelter, seasons. For example, a female pileated woodpecker visited the suet feeders on a friend’s deck during the recent big snow, giving us a flash to a prehistoric past. These woodpeckers wear a bright red crest that looks somewhat like a red Santa hat. It contrasts strikingly with the black and white bars and zigzag patterns on its face and body. The birds are what I imagine to be pterodactyl like—our largest woodpecker, they have narrow hatchet shaped heads that they must slant to the side and twist and turn to adequately scan for threats. We felt honored to see her up close. Pileated woodpeckers frequent my friend's territory because of the many dead trees that provide food and shelter. But designating any backyard deck as an Official Pileated Woodpecker Feeding Station will not draw these birds matter how many signatures are obtained.

The snow falling right now outside my window does not discriminate: it blankets, chills, and nurtures vast areas oblivious to where commuters rush, crops grow or children with new Christmas sleds watch the skies. Or where my property ends and your’s begins. It frustrates or thrills according to one’s frame of reference. Put snow in a giant frame called global climate and see what it brings up for you.

On a snow-covered fire road in West Virginia last weekend I saw the footprints of humans and dogs, but also raccoon, deer, squirrels, and even a black bear. The road according to human law was in a wildlife “management” area, but only I and my companion walked there because this fact made it accessible to us. The animals roamed at will on the road and off, over the mountain, through backyards, farms, wherever they wanted, wherever was safe from human interference.

I love maps. I remember one of the major features of the classroom when I was growing up were the maps showing the world and all the different countries. Each country glowed in a different color—pink, green, lavender, orange, yellow, all surrounded by the deep blue of the ocean and accentuated by the whites of the arctic and antarctic. We learned the shapes of the continents too. Sort of. There are different types of projections of the round world onto a flat surface--but none can portray the contours and ratios as accurately as a globe. The choice of those projections determines how a young brain (or an older one for that matter) conceives of one’s own country and its place in the world. Remember the map used in the King and I that showed Siam as gigantic and all the “enemy” countries as tiny. The exaggeration was cartoonish but point made.

Those bright colors on my school map said that country boundaries, the human politics, were the most important thing that we needed to learn. I haven’t been in an elementary school room for many years. But when I visited my grandson’s preschool last year, I saw--placed down low on the wall where the tiny students could study it at their leisure--a large world map that showed not country boundaries, but ecosystems and the animals that reside there.

Nature has its own system of territoriality, its own “politics.”. As we grope toward learning to live in tune with nature, finally realizing that it is crucial to our own survival, I’m wondering how our maps will change-- on our walls, and in our heads and hearts. I know my political address, but do I know my ecological address? Audubon has a neat worksheet to start discovering this at

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

L is for Luna

"The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot. --Henry Beston

The moon is one of those elemental things. Often I'm surprised by the moon blinking bright when I open the blind in the early morning dark or when it appears like a ghost in the midday sky, or on an evening drive as it rises slowly from behind the mountains like a hot-air balloon.

How removed is my awareness from the moon, its phases and cycles. How would my life change if I made an effort to be aware.? How would I apply this knowledge? What different choices would I make, knowing, anticipating each full moon, each new moon, marking the times of moon rise and moon set?

And conversely, how would my life need to change in order for this awareness to come naturally, to be an imperative of my daily requirements for living, to be noticed, observed assimilated as easily as I now note whether or not the sun shines? I plan to find the answers to these questions.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Knee Deep in Moss

"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." --William Shakespeare

I have always loved to see moss cozying up to the feet of trees, draping over decomposing logs, and cushioning rock surfaces with luxuriant velvet.

A neat thing about mosses is that to get to know them in their natural habitat you must usually get down on your knees. Doing so immediately takes you out of your usual way of looking and perceiving and engages you physically.

Your hands and knees ground you at four points. Perhaps your trousers get damp and a little dirty. You feel the different textures of the leaf litter and inhale the perfume of the humus. You stroke the furry surface of the moss and it tickles your hands.

You marvel at the vibrant shades of green that seem to glow amidst the surrounding shades of brown and grey. Or perhaps the moss serves as an emerald background for jewel toned fall leaves.
The undulating surface when seen from your full height now becomes a miniature jungle of lush intricate plants. Moving your face ever closer, tensing the muscles around your eyes to sharpen your powers of sight, you attempt, but just fail, to focus clearly on the details you know are there. You bump up against the limits of the human eye.

You are literally brought down and humbled by this so-called 'primitive' plant. But you are also lifted up in awe. I find that nature frequently brings me to a kneeling posture, physically or otherwise.

Mosses have been much on my mind lately as our nature writing group has been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Kimmerer is a bryologist, a botanist specializing in mosses and liverworts--or bryophytes. She is also a descendant of North America's indigenous people. Her writing is scientific but also rich with mood, metaphor, myth and sensuality. She is the type of nature writer with whom I feel a kindred spirit.
Mosses will divulge many of their secrets, through the use of tools like hand lens, microscope, and field guide. Different families among the bryophytes are easily distinguished but species identification can be very challenging. I like to think of bryophtyes as a phenomenon, a clan of diverse members, sharing kinship not only among themselves, but as ancestors of other land plants. In some ways they are strikingly similar even to us mammals.

From Kimmerer's book, I learned that mosses are the 'amphibians' of plants. They are the ancient form of plant life that first transitioned from the water to land. Mosses live in communities or colonies with individual plants huddled together shoulder to shoulder. Their life style and reproductive cycle is dependent on this close proximity.

Moss have no roots to take up water from from where they are anchored--their substrate. They dry up, fade and shrink or plump up and green out depending on environmental conditions. The plant takes in CO2, water and minerals through its entire surface. Living close together helps them retain moisture not only for themselves but as participants in an ecosystem. Other organisms benefit. For example, many insects utilize the moist protection of mosses for their own reproductive cycle.

Moss plants occur in two life stages. In the gametophyte stage the plants are green and grow without sexual reproduction. When conditions are right, the gametophytes form microscopic male or female organs. The male structure containing sperm is called the antheridium. The female structure containing the egg is called the archegonium. This a reproductive innovation which mosses first developed. All land plants living today use this strategy of enclosing the egg within a protective womb.

Mosses produce no flowers so they ask for no help by animal pollinators. (Insects inadvertently do help the process along sometimes.) For the male sperm to reach and fertilize the female egg there must be a fluid vehicle. Rain, dew, mist or splashes are required. With sufficient moisture, the antheridum swells until it bursts. It also releases a soaplike substance that helps the miniscule sperm penetrate the surface tension of water droplets to better hitch a ride.
With luck the sperm is able to reach and travel down the neck of an archegonium to an egg.

Once fertilized, the egg is nurtured within the archegonium and grows into the second life stage--the sporophyte. Kimmerer explains science has discovered special cells in the female moss organ that work to transfer nutrients from the parent plant to the developing egg. She compares this function to human placental cells.

Mature sporophytes are usually brown or colorless with a capsule full of powdery spores elevated on a stalk above the green gametophytes. Special teethlike structures on the capsules are responsive to the level of humidity. They open to release the spores when the air is dry (and thus better for dissemination).
Those spores that find a hospitable home will form a new colony of moss, carrying the genetic material of the parent colony forward. The scattered colonies of particular moss species in a patch of woods are all close kin to one another.
Mosses are extremely adaptable--they are found in every ecosystem on earth. Species number over 22,000. Their variety is seemingly endless. Next time you go walking in the woods spend some time on your knees.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Art of Waiting

Spiders that weave these funnel webs are in the family Agelenidae. This spot of woods in West Virginia was full of their mysterious looking "caves." The spider creates a net to catch the insects who careen into the supporting strands above. The cave is where the spider lurks, is alerted by the vibrations of the web, runs out to grab the hapless prey, then retreats to the safety of the cave to dine.

This particular spider was not happy with my attentions. She hunkered down to shrink her body size, ready to confront what was threatening her. In this case, it was only my camera flash, illuminating the shadows and her four-eyed face. Rudely, I didn't ask for her permission to post her image on my blog. She had no choice but to remain silent (unless she could spell words out in her web as Charlotte did.) But it would have a been a nice gesture on my part.

This spider had constructed one of the more impressive dens among the many scattered about the forest floor. These types of spiders live for one year. I like to think that through the cycle of seasons, in her struggle for survival, this spider added a wealth of experience to her instincts.

Imagine the knowledge the spider must have accumulated about insect habits and haunts. Imagine the spider selecting that "just right spot" for this web, maybe her final masterpiece. Imagine her manufacturing-within her own body-a never ending spool of silken thread. Imagine her slowly amassing and shaping the individual strands to create this fine mesh architecture.

Imagine the spider settling into her shady tent. Imagine her waiting hour upon hour for her meal. The sun rises, passes overhead and sets. Crickets chirp, the last butterflies and moths flutter their weary wings. Gnats buzz. In those long hours, does she sleep, does she meditate, does she simply wait--alert and poised to respond-- as only spiders can?

I learned very little about this individual spider and her clan by simply snapping her photo and walking on. If I had been patient, if I had practiced the spiderly art of waiting, perhaps I could have learned much more.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Just As They Came

A rainy evening walk. A path in the woods by a lake.
Just words on paper. Just as they came:

Grace. Graceful living and dying. Acceptance. Quiet. Each true to its own nature.

The sound of rain on leaves. A tired sound. Late summer, early fall. A different sound, a variant drum. Does each leaf sound a different note according to its shape and size?

A Harmony. Cohesiveness. All are in tune and aware of coming winter. Aware of each other.
The shifts. Day/night, the angle of light.

The laurel. More glossy, thick, shiny. Recent rain? Water clings in oblong drops. Bubbles, irregular, rounded shapes. Spatters reflect the light, gray sky.

Gentle breeze, yellow leaves sprinkle like cherry blossoms.

Two older people walk the perimeter.
Spicebush red berries, river birch catkins. Moss and lichen.

The fallen leaves make shallow cups along the path. Hold rainwater. Reflect light like mirrors.

Soft steps. The ground moist. Dry dust tamped down.

Sounds. A cricket, a woodpecker. Rush hour traffic.

My foot hurts. Body shape. Gray hair. Lines.

Water level low. Mud exposed. Water striders.

Twirling leaves caught in web. Spider’s body and legs moving --
agile and purposeful as a weaver’s hands, a knitter’s needles.
The only frantic movement visible.

All is muted, colors, sounds.
Grays, blues, slate green, taupe, dove, sand.
Rotting wood, logs. Startle. A frog jumps.
Frogs singing, insects singing.
Light rain pinging on the surface of the water.
Rhythmic scribbles of light gray on dark. Ripple pattern.

Breeze like green breath.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Itch

"In indigenous ways of knowing...a thing cannot be
understood until it is known by all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit."

–Robin Wall Kimmerer

I started this blog to as way to encourage myself to write more, and to document a journey I am choosing voluntarily, but also one which is calling me and can’t be denied: to draw ever closer to nature, to form a deeper intimacy with nature, to form an ‘understanding’ using all four aspects of myself: mind, body, emotion, and spirit.

Intimate as a verb means “to make known” and as an adjective “on very familiar terms.”
I knew instinctively, but am just now able to articulate, that in order to create intimacy-I must be in relationship not just to snippets of “nature” as I encounter them here and there, but in a committed relationship, over time, to a particular place, a particular habitat, with particular plants, animals, seasonal changes, climate, and so on. And not just particular species of plants or animals, but particular, individual beings. (I'm thinking of Ernest Thompson Seton and his Wild Animals I Have Known, especially the wolf Lobo, and Julia Butterfly Hill and her relationship with Luna.)

And the time spent must be particular moments of my own “being,” that is, moments of ‘being’ fully engaged and present with these particular individual other “beings.”. And these moments must be strung together in clumps of continuous time, as large as I can make them, and must occur as frequently as possible.

Unfortunately, the phenomenon of blogging has started to detract from creating intimacy with nature. I find myself spending too much time looking at a computer screen and checking for comments.

Also, I have lost my way in learning the names of these beings. For example, I realized that it was important to learn native plant Latin names and/or common names. These names are a form of shorthand—a word or brief set of words that humans have agreed designate a group of beings who share certain fundamental characteristics that differentiate that group from other groups of beings. Species is a human concept, one that keeps shifting.

I hoped to use these words to document and convey to others my experiences of intimacy with individual plant beings in particular habitats at particular moments. Learning the names was fun at first, but rather quickly began to feel uncomfortable. I found it had become the primary goal, rather than simply a tool. The process of identification-looking things up in field guides- although fascinating, began to distance me from an experience of intimacy, rather than bring me further into it. Why was this happening?

Classifying species is the science of taxonomy. Taxonomy has a beauty all its own. It is essentially the arrangement of things or concepts in a hierarchical structure. It is something the human mind does automatically to order our experiences of reality. It is a way of seeing the world that is continually rewarded and reinforced by our culture. It has given us "dominion" over the earth. But it has its hazards.

Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, wrote: The itch for naming things is almost as bad as the itch for possessing things.” And ponder these quotes from Walt Whitman:

"When I heard the learn’d astronomer; When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them; When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars."


You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds
and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin, and even vagueness - ignorance, credulity - helps your enjoyment of these things.

Philosopher Martin Buber wrote about the I-Thou relationship versus the I-It relationship. According to wiki wisdom: I-Thou is one of mutuality and reciprocity, while I-It is a relationship of separateness and detachment. I-Thou stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. I-It treats others as objects to be used and experienced.

I have not studied Buber’s work-only read a summary of it. While he wrote mostly about relationships between humans, Buber recognized I-Thou encounters could occur between humans and animals or human and trees. He also suggested that in order to experience I-Thou, a person has to be open to the idea of such a relationship, but not actively pursue it.

Naming and classifying, which the human mind does brilliantly, is almost like a weapon --or more accurately-a sharp tool, that must be handled very carefully and according to certain protocols if one does not want to destroy intimacy with the being/object to which it is applied (or the real being itself!).

I want an I-Thou encounter with nature using not only the tools of my mind-my left brain, but with all of me, right brain, body, emotions and spirit.

Does this mean I will stop learning the names of plants and other living things in English and Latin or any other human language? No. But I won’t be so quick to scramble to identify things. I will tap into more than my itch to name. I will sit quietly, observe. I will allow nature itself to speak to me. And I will listen more carefully to the language without words.

Alphabet Bloggers

Friday, September 11, 2009

What We Leave Behind

I'm reading What We Leave Behind by Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay. Its about the unsustainability of civilization due to our waste problem. Their subject matter is sobering, but the writing is so warm, self-deprecating, even humorous that is goes down smoothly. I can't recommend the book enough. Fascinating and very eye-opening.

I live in a condo so I am super conscious of all the waste. This is a good thing. Everything that comes in and goes out has to be carried (usually by moi) up and down a flight of stairs. (Well most things--there is the plumbing system.) I recycle but do not have pickup at my door. I must separate out the cans, bottles, and papers, place them in plastic bags, and drive to the recycling bins.

Usually I can drop things off on my way to work. I put the bags in the back of my mini SUV and often forget about them, driving around for days, sometimes weeks before dropping them off. Then of course I'm left with the plastic bags, but I try to reuse them. I also use ziploc freezer bags for various purposes, but wash them out and reuse, sometimes for years. It might sound obsessive, but it is very easy to do. They seem to last forever.

In my former life living in a single family home in a rural area I used to compost all vegetable waste. We didn't eat much meat but sometimes I'd add some chicken bones or fish skin. I did not tend the pile since I didn't garden. Without any attention at all, over ten years all our vegetable waste compacted itself, decomposed and the 5 x 5 bin encircled with chicken wire never filled up.
But now this waste goes down the drain after being chewed up by a disposal. At least it used to. My disposal is broken now so it goes in the plastic trash bag, then to dumpster, then is collected by a big truck and carried to the landfill. Where, enclosed and submerged with literally tons of other households' garbage, I think it turns to methane, a global warming gas.

In Jensen's book he explains the history of garbage, from ancient times to now. It began to be a problem as soon as soon as large groups of people began living in one place. In more recent times, refuse used to be collected as valuable by "swill children." Cities kept large corps of hogs specifically to process the refuse. Hogs roamed New York City and cleaned the streets.

Here in the 21st century, the bulk of my personal waste is junk mail fliers (which fortunately can be recycled) and packaging. I have listed my name on the DO NOT SEND lists on the internet and called companies directly to get the catalogs stopped. I can order online, but then that puts you on their catalog list again, so I usually have to call the company again. I do get the Sierra Club magazine as part of my membership and a few newsletters from professional organizations I belong to. I would prefer online versions. I subscribe to an online version of Orion.

Funny how a lot of good things we can do for the environment also saves us money. I've stopped ordering online except for books (I should use an independent bookstore instead)! But I mostly use the library. I do not subscribe to any actual magazine (although I'd love to get The New Yorker) because of the waste problem and also because I think about the boreal forest diminishing and song birds disappearing. (I'm not imagining this, it is actually happening.) Most of the trees are going to catalogs, I've read.

I am continually amazed at the amount of packaging that food and personal care purchases come encased in. The blister packs are the worst. I am starting to make purchasing decisions based on the amount of packaging. A simple cardboard box is appealing. Or no packaging at all at a farmer's market. I do almost always use cloth bags now for my grocery purchases. It took a few months to get that habit established. If I forget and do get a plastic bag, I save and reuse repeatedly, then recycle. Once I gave a thumbs up and called out to a lady with several kids in a parking lot using about a dozen cloth bags for her weekly shopping. She ignored me and probably thought I was harassing her.

It is easy to become discouraged when trying to make decisions that minimize environmental damage, slow down global warming and so on. Since our economy is based on consumerism, then as consumers we have tremendous leverage. What can we do with it? If we are changing our consuming behaviors due to our environmental awareness, we should probably let the companies know.

I guess I have some letter writing to do. But do corporations read letters?

Think Green Thursday
Derrick Jensen and Eric McBay, What We Leave Behind, Seven Stories Press,
Copyright 2009 by Derrick Jensen and Eric McBay. Book Design by Jon Gilbert.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold;
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
--Robert Frost

This past month as the green has faded from the landscape,

a feeling of melancholy and loss has grown.

Was I only responding to the end of summer?

This morning I realized that August of this year
marks a decade since my father died.

Nothing gold can stay.

I love and miss you Dad.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Aspen Eyes

The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me. – Meister Eckhart

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Swan

If I were to make a collage of my childhood memories, there would be many images of swans. I read and reread my volumes of Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, eyes tracing every line of the old-fashioned pen and ink illustrations. I especially remember the story of The Seven Swans, bewitched brothers who could be restored to human form only through the long suffering loyalty of their sister. Her task was to remain mute while knitting seven shirts out of nettles. Who of us hasn’t felt kinship with the ugly ‘duckling’, hoping, as he did, to someday find that niche where we feel right and true and beautiful--swanlike. I owe my love of nature in great part to my paternal grandmother. The backyard of her modest home was separated from a large city park by just a narrow alley and hedge. It was magical to slip through a gap in the hedge, holding my grandmother's hand, and enter a vast world of huge trees, squirrels, fat goldfish, fountains and flowers. We spent hours walking the paths where swans glided to and fro across a lake. Nana died more than 40 years ago. She is forever connected in my heart with swans.

Grass Seeds

More on the theme of seeds. The magenta colored seeds of this wild grass growing in a hot, dry, 9000 foot elevation in Colorado hang from a stem that abruptly makes a right turn.Growing next to them is this tiny grass whose seeded tip curves to form a shepherd's crook. What is the evolutionary advantage of these shapes, I wonder?

Friday, August 7, 2009


Diaspora is a Greek word meaning the scattering of seeds. We are now heading into late summer and plants are setting seed. One of the things I most enjoy at this time of year is marveling at the variety of forms produced by seed bearing plants.

Seeds hold an embryo and carry the genetic material of a new plant. There are three methods evolved by plants to disperse their seeds-by wind, by water, and by animals.

The structures used by plants to get their seeds aloft and carried by the air currents of the earth are masterpieces of engineering. The designs include gliders, parachutes, whirlybirds, and spinners. Gliding seeds are said to have inspired the designs of some early aircraft. I like to think that spinner or whirlybird seeds may have contributed to one of Leonardo Da Vinci's concepts for a flying machine.

An outstanding example of the parachute design is the ubiquitous Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) a member of the Composite family. The seed (achene) is attached by a thin stalk to a radiating plume of bristly hairs (pappus). So equipped, the seeds become airborne in response to the slightest breeze. As is often the case with parachuting seeds, they are arranged in a globular puff. Another name for the dandelion is blowball. The word pappus is Latin for old man.

The Composite family includes sunflowers, daisies, coneflowers, chicory, and thistles. In members of this family, the pappus is modified in a multitude of ways, often to promote the effective dissemination of seeds. For example, in sticktights, the pappus is barbed so that it adheres to passing animals. The characteristic of the pappus is important in identifying the particular species of a Composite blossom.

In his last years, Thoreau was working on an exhaustive research project to determine all of the dominant patterns of seed dispersal within an hour's walk of his home in Concord, Massachusetts. He called it "learning the language of the fields." Thoreau was one of the first American field ecologists to apply Darwin's ideas of natural selection to the subject.

Thoreau died from a respiratory infection before he could finish his manuscript entitled The Dispersion of Seeds. The work is an argument against the then-prevalent theory that some plants grew spontaneously without any root, seed, or cutting from a parent plant. Typically, Thoreau combines keen observation with a view to a larger perspective. His description of the milkweed ends with these thoughts :

I am interested in the fate or success of every such venture which the autumn sends forth. And for this end these silken streamers have been perfecting themselves all summer, snugly packed in this light chest, as perfect adaptations to this end--a prophecy not only of the fall, but of future springs...Who could believe in prophecies...that the world would end this summer, while one milkweed with faith matured its seeds?

Alphabet Bloggers

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Creature Feature at Cranberry Glades

I'm just not ready to leave the bog. One might say I'm "bogged down."

The pitcher plant (species Sarracenia pupurea venosa)and the sundew are two of many plants I saw on my visit to Cranberry Glades (see previous post The Boreal Bog). These plants lure insects, trap them, then slowly digest them. I had to learn more-here is what most impressed me. If you are so inclined, while you read, ponder the Adaptation process that resulted in such elegant solutions.

Carnivorous plant species number more than 500 and grow all over the world. They often live in waterlogged areas such as swamps and bogs. These places are deficient in nitrogen and other trace minerals important to plant physiology. So it is thought that carnivorous plants have developed strategies to get some of those needed substances from the bodies of animals-such as insects, spiders, and even bigger prey. Their strategies often require glands that either fill with water or must remain moist. The details of their dining habits bring to mind the narrow escapes of heroes like Luke Skywalker and James Bond. If they could talk we might hear something like: "Welcome, Mr. Bug, hahahahahahaha!"

The Pitcher Plant

The leaves of the pitcher plant form cups, indeed another name for them is "hunter's cup. " Supposedly the rainwater contained in the cup is safer for a human to drink than the acidic bog water in which it grows. On the rounded lip of the cup are red veins that attract the attention of insects--possibly due to the resemblance to carrion.

Alighting on the slippery edges of the cup, an unfortunate critter then finds it easy to lose its footing and slide into the gaping maw. Perhaps it even experiences Vertigo. A spiky fur points downward to deter any attempts to escape. Imagine trying to climb the slippery walls while treading water in a deep cistern and you've got an idea of the insect's experience. But that's only the start of the macabre process.

In a sarracenia purpurea, the insect drowns and over time the water dissolves the insect's soft tissues. Special cells at the base of the cup absorb the nutrients. Some other species of pitcher plant actually contain a fluid similar to that found in mammals' gastric systems. That would certainly help digest something like a large rat. The biggest known pitcher plant does just that. The cup of the Nepenthes Rajah of Asia can grow up to 20 inches long, 6 inches wide, with an opening of 3 inches.

Biologists who do things like dissect pitcher plants are amazed at the quantity of indigestible exoskeletons that collect in a "boneyard" at the bottom of the cup. I wonder if the live insect can see the gruesome remains of previous victims at the moment of his or her descent into insect "hell." To an entomologist however, I'm sure those are Lovely Bones.

The Sundew

Sundews belong to the largest genus of carnivorous plants Drosera, with more than 200 species. The way the sundew hides menace behind whimsy, you might suspect it came from outer space. At Cranberry Glades, sundews dot the surface of the moss like countless simpering, "happy faces."

But each tiny leaf is far from being a Little Miss Sunshine and more like the product of a Bad Seed-- at least from an insect's point of view. There is a glistening drop of "superglue" at the tip of each of the fine hairs on this little damsel. Insects alight expecting a sweet reward of nectar. But touching even one hair can ensnare. The greater the bug's Frenzy to escape, the more it entangles itself in other hairs.

The rest of the hairs on the leaf then bend lovingly over the prize until it is clenched firmly as if in a many fingered hand. The process is not as fast as the abrupt snap of a Venus Fly Trap, but still amazingly swift--for a plant. It takes about one hour for the insect to be fully embraced in a deadly kiss. Pressed firmly against the enzymes on the surface of the leaf, the insect innards are liquified. Digestion may take several days. Afterward the hairs return to their original positions. For a time the hairs stay dry and the remains of the day are soon gone with the wind.

The biggest species of Sundew is South Africa's Drosera Regina with leaves up to more than 22 inches long. In Australia a sundew of similar size makes a banquet of frogs and lizards. Crocodile Dundee types boast of finding sundews growing in clumps that feast on the occasional rabbit or squirrel.

Darwin was the master and commander of evolutionary thought, but nevertheless was humbled by the sundew. He wrote to a scientist friend that "I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world." Its not surprising that the ingenuity of carnivorous plants continues to seduce and ensnare our fascination. We are willing victims.

ABC Wednesday For some fantastic images of these Cranberry Glade plants go to Squirrel's View.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Boreal Bog

There are some who believe that the quality of our relationship with nature is profoundly important to our well-being. This hit home as I sat on the boardwalk that winds through the Cranberry Glades, a bog environment in the Monongahela National Forest.

The ecosystem of the Glades formed more than 10,000 years ago. On our continent, it is the southernmost occurrence of a habitat associated with the arctic tundra. Retreating from the glaciers of the Pleistocene Era, northern plant species moved southward.

While the glaciers did not quite reach the latitude of Cranberry Glades, those species migrated just further enough to settle in a welcoming spot--a bowl encircled by ridges at a 3400 foot elevation in what is now known as the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. The topography funnels water from rain and snow to form the bog. Cold air flowing down the slopes helps maintain the microclimate that keeps these species happy.
One need not travel to the rainforest to get a biodiversity thrill. An intact bog is full of marvelous and beautiful plants adapted to the acidic conditions.
John Eastman, writes in The Book of Swamp and Bog that experiencing a bog "may bring us as close to encountering true American wilderness as most of us will ever come." Eastman is an impeccable observer and researcher but also reverent. He comments that "experiencing the richness and complexity of wetlands cannot fail to revive and nourish one's own sense of wholeness to a degree beyond common expectation."

I had not yet read Eastman as I sat on the boardwalk. For the last hour time had been suspended as my friend and I wandered in awe through a botanical cornucopia. I photographed plants that I had never seen like pink orchids, cranberries, cotton grass, and carnivorous sundews and pitcher plants. Once or twice I stepped gingerly on the spongy ten-foot-deep layer of sphagnum moss that forms the water-logged surface of the bog.

I saw healthy eastern hemlock trees, their needles fat and glossy, their branches encrusted with white lichen. I glimpsed a shy doe through a screen of red spruce. Circular clumps of cinnamon fern dotted the landscape. Blue sky arched over all. I sensed the secret life of plants as an inaudible hum.

It seemed with each breath, my feeling of calm and "wholeness" grew. I commented to my companion that any person who would visit the Glades could not help but experience a healing of body and spirit.
The rare plant species I encountered at the Glades deserve the honor of individual posts. More to come. ABC Wednesday