One September Morning

I met a traveler on the path.

My appearance did not please him. He seemed suspicious.

He demonstrated his steely gaze. I told him he was cute.

I followed a fluttering and it hid behind a flower. Look. The petal has antennae.

With most of the color drained away, it looks like this. Which do you like better?

I found this one hiding in the flowers.

There’s a second insect hiding in this image. Can you find it?

To be continued…

Carrots or Caterpillars?

My favorite thing about gardening is sometimes you get visitors. It’s not my partner’s favorite thing. She’s still put out, I think, that I didn’t save her carrots. But I was too busy taking pictures.

The problem is a basic difference in gardening philosophy. B is trying to grow food which I think is fun and amazing, but even more fun to me is attracting wildlife. Sometimes those goals aren’t at cross purposes. If you’re talking pollinators, for instance, flowering veggies and herbs are quite handy. They benefit from the visitation of various bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and I get photo ops. But most critters see only two uses for greenery – to lay eggs on, like the mother of all my lovely caterpillars did, or to eat. And if you’re growing food, you don’t want something eating it before you do – I get that. But look:

Aren’t they lovely? Before I tell you what they turn into, let me start at the beginning. Caterpillars are eating machines. Their only purpose is to eat as much as possible in order to fuel the changes to come. All these lovelies, started as eggs which hatched into something like this:

As they grow, caterpillars shed their skin several times. Each of these stages is called an instar and they can look quite different at different instars. This one is the second instar, I think. The first would have been even smaller and looked a lot like bird poo.

This is the maybe the third instar. It’s getting bigger, the color is changing but the knobby things are still present.

Eventually, we get to the fat, happy stage – the last instar before it’s ready enter the chrysalis stage. Most of mine were getting very close to this point.

In the meantime, I got to watch them completely denude B’s carrots of all leafiness.

And I learned that if you poke one, this orange organ will appear. It’s called an osmeterium and it emits a foul smell to discourage predators. How’s that for a superpower?

So for the last two days I’ve been hovering about my caterpillars waiting for one of them to move on to the next stage. This morning I went out and counted. Nine of fattest caterpillars had disappeared! I searched and searched, and found this:

The chrysalis. The last stage. I only found one. Where the other fat little larva went is a mystery. I scoured the garden and surrounding area. I’m afraid that perhaps their foul smelling superpower wasn’t enough to save them from hungry birds, though I prefer to believe that they are just particularly adept at finding a hidden spot to anchor themselves with silk and split their skin that last time to become a chrysalis.

The fun part is what happens inside the chrysalis. The body of the caterpillar will basically liquify and rebuild itself. And in 8 to 12 days a butterfly will emerge. So are you ready to see what kind?

A black swallowtail. (This one is a male.) Maybe my lonely little chrysalis will release a female. And  after it mates, maybe it will find a garden like mine with some dill or parsley or fennel or carrots to lay its eggs on and the whole process will start again.

The Hesitant Herbivore, Part 2

Yup. Hate it all.

I hate fruit. I hate oranges because they’re pulpy, bananas because they’re mushy, and grapes because they pop like eyeballs might when you squeeze them between your teeth. I hate mangos because they’re slimy without their skin and smell like pepper. I hate watermelon because it smells like cat pee (to me). I like kiwi because they’re pretty, but I hate the way they taste.

I also hate most vegetables. Beets, broccoli and asparagus are all gross. Brussels sprouts are beyond disgusting and I’m not overly fond of peas or carrots.  And beans. I really hate beans. Pretty much, I hate almost everything people eat that grows in the dirt.

So naturally I decided to become a vegetarian. And then I thought, Oh shit. I’m going to starve.

I’ve been a carnivore all my life and always figured that’s the way nature intended it to be. And I’ve probably spent more time than your average bear contemplating nature’s intentions. I’m a natural history buff – fossils, bees, birds, trees – I think it’s all pretty fascinating stuff.  As a kid, I was one of those nerds who loved a good nature documentary but I had to cover my eyes when the lions caught the zebra or the polar bear dragged a seal out of a hole in the ice. Nature is grand and glorious and brutal. And that’s not good or bad, it just is. It’s the way life works.

And so we human beings, as part of nature, are also brutal, because we have to be. Animals are food. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Or is it?

A hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors ate what they could gather in the forest or the fields and also what they could hunt, kill and cook in order to survive. Even when agriculture was invented, supplementing their diet with meat from newly domesticated animals was a logical choice for early people. But things have changed. Now there is Kroger. Now there is Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Costco, Safeway, Publix, WalMart Supercenters, and The Pig (or Piggly Wiggly for those of you not familiar with this fine southern grocery establishment).

Gathering ain’t what it used to be.

There’s a supermarket on virtually every corner in this country where a person can go and buy a wide variety of nutritional plant-based foods and a bottle of B-12 supplements and be just fine even if they never ate meat again. So after 46 years, I finally realized the problem with the logic I used to justify my carnivorous diet. There is nothing natural at all about our modern way of life, so why would I use nature as a model for my behavior?

I learned a new phrase recently:  “selective compassion.” It just what you might imagine – the act of compartmentalizing the compassion you allow yourself to feel for other living things. On the one hand you have people, dogs and other pets, animals in the wild, and wild animals in captivity and all of these, as amazing living things, are deserving of our compassion. And then there are animals that become, or provide, food – cows, chickens, pigs are the most common in our culture. And seafood. (Isn’t is interesting how we use our language to reduce a whole host of ocean creatures to food with one compound word?)

I realized I’ve been practicing selective compassion all my life (as most of us do). Though I’ve believed for a long time that there are more humane dietary choices for us modern humans, it took me 46 years to get up the gumption to even try a meatless diet, because I was afraid that if I allowed myself to feel compassion for our “food” animals, I would have to stop eating them. And then my retarded palate might just kill me.

So for me, the time had come to put up or shut up. It’s hard to be a bleeding-heart animal lover and a carnivore. I was either going to have to learn to eat more things that grow in the dirt, or admit that human beings are brutal by choice not by necessity…

Look for part 3 tomorrow in which I will expound upon the evidence that finally helped me overcome my fear of “death by vegetable” and led me to become a vegan convert.

Pelican

Once upon a time, in another life, I tried to write a poem about pelicans, and it began like this:

“Once I stood on packed sand still
dark with the receding tide on an afternoon
that couldn’t decide not to be winter,
on a barrier island named for wild horses,
at the dune-drifted, grass-whispered margin
of the Gulf of Mexico…”
 

After this point, the words changed and shifted like shoals every time I looked at it. It was never right. The poem hemmed and hawed and finally got around to trying to describe the birds that remind me so much of pterosaurs. Every time I see the creature, I travel back to the Cretaceous in my mind:

 “Pelicans slip the air streams
like ancient machines perfectly designed
for what they need to do, all hooked
bill and hollow bone, sailed wings sending
shadows ripping across the waves…”
 

Or something like that. I put the poem away, unfinished, with all my poems years ago. Now I take pictures. So here are a few photos of my favorite bird, the brown pelican. I think they have inspired me to try to finish the poem. (Maybe.)

It’s amazing how a creature that is so graceful and strong in the air, like a glimmer of prehistory reminding me of the largest flying creatures the world has ever seen, becomes kind of cute and dorky when he’s waddling around on the land.

Just for the curious: The first 3 photos were taken in Edisto Beach in SC last August and the last 2 were taken at the Outer Banks in April.

The Summer Country

It had been about 6 weeks since the last time I managed to get away and go for a hike, just me and my camera. I had come to this very place, an artificial wetland created by the state after they had dammed a local river and flooded the natural wetlands.  It’s a great place to go birding and butterfly hunting.

That day in the spring, the last time I was here, the air still had a nip, a cool breeze ruffled my hair, and fluffy white clouds drifted in a deep blue sky. What a difference a few weeks made. The sky was bleached and pale. The heat was stifling. Not the slightest breeze moved in the trees. The birds, though, were everywhere and they were singing.

The path is actually a narrow road – just 2 graveled tire tracks lined with high grass and wildflowers. It makes a big loop around a marsh and is bordered by pine woods on the outer edge. I glanced down the path and froze. Something was moving in the grass about 20 yards ahead. I squinted. Not a squirrel or a bird. It was brown and seemed to hover about a foot off the ground. I turned on my camera, zoomed in and saw this: 

Can you tell what it is? I was still puzzled, so I waited a moment. And then this popped up:

He watched me for a moment and fled when I took a step. I felt kind of bad for interrupting his foraging.

Part of the fun when I go for a hike is that I never know what I’m going to see. Today there were black swallowtails everywhere.

And not one of them would stop and hold still even for a moment. They would appear out of nowhere, flutter aimlessly about, within tantalizing reach of my zoom lens, and then swoop away again without checking out a single flower.

So I took pictures of the flowers because they didn’t fly away before I could focus.

When I finally did get a bug to hold still for me, it wasn’t a butterfly.

Just after this, I was walking along, thinking about icy Gatorade and wishing for a breeze, when something splashed, squawked and 3 big shapes flew out of the reeds to my left. Since my lightning reflexes kind of misfired, I didn’t get a photo of the mystery squawker(s) until one landed in the top of a nearby tree.

I had no idea what bird this was and that illustrates part of the fun of my little hobby – looking stuff up when I get home. Uploading my photos after a hike is like a present I get to open after I have showered, rehydrated, and collapsed into a comfortable chair with my laptop. It’s even more fun if there is a) a particularly good photo or b) a photo of something I have never seen (or noticed) before.  This one was particularly fun to figure out because it’s a juvenile and because at first I couldn’t find a match that could do this:

This one landed in a neighboring tree and his body language says he is quite alarmed. So he stretches out his neck and raises his crest to make himself appear bigger. But most photos, including the ones in my field guide or on Cornell’s excellent site, don’t show the crest. So it took me a little while to figure out that they are juvenile green herons. I felt a happy, warm glow when I identified him.

Sometimes, I am convinced that I was born in the wrong time. I should have lived in the 19th century when natural history was still such a mystery and explorers all over the world were sketching rocks and fossils and bugs and birds in their notebooks so they could study them later and identify or compare and classify and name the new species. I would like to have lived when Alfred Wallace was still tramping about in the jungles of South America or the East Indies, when Charles Darwin was sailing around the world, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne wrote their fantastic tales, when museums still sent great expeditions all over the world to bring back artifacts and specimens and first-hand accounts.

But this is not the dark continent of Edgar Rice Burroughs or the Gobi desert or the Amazon rain forest. It’s a rather pleasant walk around a big, artificially-designed swampy area with songbirds and butterflies. No leopard waits to sink it’s fangs into my skull and drag me up into a tree, no malaria-carrying mosquito will take my blood and leave me feverish, and I’m not going to stumble across ancient ruins in a clearing or find a plateau full of leftover dinosaurs. But I will get to go home and look up my bird using a world wide web of interconnected machines that not even Jules Verne could imagine and then write a little diddle about it that people all over the world might read within minutes.

Pretty cool really, but still sometimes I have to get away from the machines and come walk where I can’t hear engines. I have to sit by the water to enjoy the weak, bloodwarm breeze that finally sprung up and study the world upside down in the water and flight of dragonflies.

When I got restless again, I walked until I found a bank of purple and white.

I took a dozen photos of these flowers trying to figure out the right light and angle to do them justice when this flew into the frame:

And then a male joined her:

And then they were gone:

As they left, they orbited each other like twin suns, each captured by the other’s gravity, revolving in a fluttering ball to within a few inches of my face, hanging there for a moment like some fantastic Christmas ornament and then they spun away.

About then, I realized my tongue felt like parchment. I had left the water in the car because I didn’t want to carry it and my camera too and I was only halfway around the loop. I resolved to pick up the pace, took two steps and found this:

Can you imagine having to shed your skin every time you grew? The next time I am aggravated with the trials of parenting teenagers, I think I will try to remember to be grateful that I don’t have to pick up their old skins along with their dirty socks.

By this time, I could feel my skin burning through my sunscreen, so I really did pick up the pace. I spent the last half mile daydreaming about swimming in a river in Texas where I used to go hiking and fossil hunting. Even in the dead of summer when it hadn’t rained in weeks and I could walk parts of the river bed without getting my ankles wet, I knew where a deep shady pool was that never went dry and the water was always cool and green. But that’s another story.

Chasing Summer

Ever since I first picked up a camera when I was 12 or so, I’ve displayed a tendency to chase pretty bugs with wings trying to still an instant so I could get a closer look. I wasn’t very good at it when I was 12, and I’m not really great at it now, but I have 2 things going for me that I didn’t have then – a compulsive persistence honed by decades of practice (or neuroses management, your call) and a digital camera with a zoom lens.

Now I can take dozens of images of a given butterfly without necessarily having to put myself within arm’s reach – a distinct advantage when you’re dealing with an insect whose spastic, high-speed flight path contains nothing akin to a straight line and can often swoop on a whim over the trees and out of your reach forever.  It also helps that I am finally learning something about butterfly behavior, so I can catch them in relative stillness while they’re feeding, sunning or puddling. But still, the skittish little suckers are fast and erratic and will often fling themselves out of my frame at the last second. So sometimes my butterfly hunts are reduced to photos of things that move much more slowly – like wildflowers.

Next to tropical fish and seashells and the feathers of peacocks, I always thought a butterfly’s wings are one of the most brilliant canvases nature has come up with – all of summer painted on a scaled wing, more exotic than the flowers they feed on. Once I started hunting, it was all about collecting (because that’s the nature of my particular compulsion), so I’m always chasing something I’ve never seen or caught (or a better shot of one I have).

Here are a few of my favorites.

Tiger Swallowtail

Black Swallowtails

Common Buckeye

Monarch

Monarch

Tiger

Gulf Fritillary

Long-tailed Skipper

When I’m not quick enough

Black female tiger swallowtail.

Red-spotted Purple and a Viceroy.

 

Abandoned Too

My last photo post on modern ruins was fairly popular so I thought I’d share a few more:

Faces in Nature

Things have been a little serious on Fork the last couple of posts so I thought I’d lighten it up a bit with my dorky faces in nature photos.

Not just another snow drift.
When dead trees wake.

Don’t eat me.

What do you see?

Mad dawn?

Walking in April

I finally had a chance to get away for a hike with my camera this morning. This is what I saw:

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

(North) Carolina on My Mind

I’ve spent most of my life in the southeast U.S. and I love it. I grew up in southern Mississippi about a mile from the Gulf of Mexico, spent 2 years on the Florida west coast, and 10 years in the central Texas hill country. Those are all unique and beautiful places. But this mini photo essay is about the little piece of the South I call home now, North Carolina.

We lived in the western part of the state in the Blue Ridge Mountains for 10 years. Up there, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a national forest full of water falls, rhododendrons, black bears, abandoned mines, and hardwoods that turn fifty shades of brilliant in the fall. Now we’re living in the piedmont, about halfway between the mountains and the sea. The weather’s warmer, the land flatter, the wild flowers bloom longer, and the woods have a few more pines. And it’s just a few hours from the Outer Banks, 200 miles of largely undeveloped barrier islands that protect most of the Carolina coast from seas so treacherous that the area became known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Taken from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

One of the falls visible from the Graveyard Fields trail off the parkway.

Pearson's Falls located on a botanical preserve in western NC.

The closest I ever came to meeting a bear in the woods. Some deer also passed this way.

Autumn on Falls Lake.

Surfers at Wrightsville Beach/

Hatteras Lighthouse

Nag's Head

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