Journal archives for November 2017

November 01, 2017

Halloween

Posted on November 01, 2017 02:35 by scottking scottking | 1 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

Discombobulated

Discombobulated, down-in-the-mouth, dour. Emotionally, today was one of those days when the heedless actions of neglectful people really knifed at my soul. Maybe it's just that it's the sixth day in a row with snow and clouds. Maybe it's just that I didn't get to say "Thank you" and knowingly take my leave of this year's dragonflies. Or maybe it's the steady rumors of war and other wrong-doing that insinuates dismay. No matter what, some kind of acrid smoke clouds and curtains my disposition.

I took a short walk in a thick snow, hoping for a cure. At the catchment pond at the corner of St Olaf, I stepped close to the thatch of cattails. As I did a Snipe suddenly flew up, circled twice, and left. I was sorry to have scared it off.

Dia de las Muertos seems an appropriate moment to reflect on endangered species and the current, human-caused mass extinction event. I know this is a human-centric holiday, but why not extend it to the animal and plant kingdoms, why not demote ourselves that small amount more?

If (despite all reason and good sense) there is an afterlife, I hope it's not a cattail-choked retention pond, or, worse, an endless corn field. A muerto entomologist stationed in a northern bog when Emerald dragonflies are flying or alongside a small stream with clubtails would be just fine. But a late summer meadow filled with Meadowhawks would be the best ofrenda; I could wait that out.

Posted on November 01, 2017 22:04 by scottking scottking | 4 comments | Leave a comment

November 03, 2017

Butcher-bird

Quiet, gray skies. The temperature a few degrees above freezing. I hiked the western edge of the natural lands, following game trails through the tall prairie grasses, enjoying the chance to wander a bit. As I passed a small oak tree, I noticed a vole dangling from the branches. Here was evidence that the Northern Shrikes have arrived. These birds nest in the far north at the border of taiga and tundra, then migrate south to over-winter. This bird is sometimes referred to as the Butcher-bird because of its habit of impaling its prey on tree spikes or wedging the prey between branches.

Approximately thirty years ago, snowshoeing at Maplewood State Park, I found a White-footed Deer Mouse wedged in the branches of a basswood tree. I remember how surprised I was to find it there. I examined the frozen body and placed it back in the tree. At the time I assumed it was an owl or some odds-defying drop from a hawk passing overhead. Now I recognize it as the work of the butcher-bird.

The Northern Shrike preys upon song birds in addition to mice and voles. The following observation made by a resident of Hutchinson, Minnesota, is found in The Birds of Minnesota (1932): "I saw a Northern Shrike eating a Horned Lark. When flushed it flew to a near-by tree-top. The Lark was stuck on a stick of willow bush and the Shrike watched me while I was examining the partly eaten bird. When I returned a half-hour later I found that the bird had returned and eaten all but the intestines."

Posted on November 03, 2017 03:01 by scottking scottking | 2 observations | 1 comments | Leave a comment

November 04, 2017

Agrostology

Saw the sun today, but only at sunrise. Snow accumulating over much of the state to our north. After mailing a few packages at the post office, I stopped at the Cowling Arboretum for a walk.

In between the busy insect days and the cloistered silences of winter is the limbo of late autumn, an interregnum between the last asters and the flattening snow. This is a good time to turn one's attention to the grasses, to become for a day or two an agrostologist. With the plants still standing, it's easy to examine inflorescence and spikelets, leaves and glumes, before November gales and December storms break the stems and scatter the seeds.

I walked to the edge of the retention pond and found the water covered by a slushy film of first ice. Around me on the very edge of the pond was a stand of Prairie Cordgrass, each plant four to five feet in height, the once-flat leaves rolled up to form elegant fronds. The grass sways gently from wind on a windless day.

Posted on November 04, 2017 03:04 by scottking scottking | 1 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 05, 2017

A Few Last Minute Insects and a Spider

Driving home from Rochester in the early evening dark, a moth flitted across the road in front of us. The first insect I've seen outside in about a week. The outside temperature as reported on the dash panel is 43 F, warmer than it's been in a while. As soon as we were home, I turned on the front house light, hoping to attract another moth or two. Eventually a single Fall Cankerworm Moth turned up.

Posted on November 05, 2017 02:36 by scottking scottking | 3 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 06, 2017

Waybread

The dreariness continues. While the forecast foretold of the sun making an appearance around noon, the clouds persisted. Anticipating a bright afternoon, I set about some early morning housework; now that the bathroom renovations were completed, I began the monstrous task of reorganizing my books. Not hundreds, but thousands. The Persian poet Fereydoun Faryad confessed in a Greek documentary film about his life and work to being "greedy for books." When he visited us in 2011, the year before he died of cancer, he brought a suitcase full of books, many of which he gave to me as a gift, beautiful Modern Greek editions of poetry. Well, as it turns out, I too must confess to this same weakness for books. It began long ago in college when I discovered used book stores, many were the days that I bought an old book instead of buying lunch.

So I set about culling titles to be given away, clearing entire shelves, discovering many neglected and misplaced favorites. One of Lida's favorite games when she was a toddler was to play library. This game, however, had nothing in common with the librarian's task of organization or the use of the alphabet. She reveled in the physicality of the books, sometimes using them as bricks to build elaborate forts, sometimes sorting them by color. By three in the afternoon, I had only made a larger mess. Books were scattered in heaps about the basement, looking not entirely different than the leaf piles Lisa had raked up in the back yard.

The Book of Field and Roadside: Open-Country Weeds, Trees, and Wildflowers of Eastern North America by John Eastman surfaced, came to hand, during the morning labors. A book long on lore and ecological interactions, a book of patterns and botanical traditions, a book that aims to "enlarge one's perspectives." This is an open-minded and sage account of our most common plants, many of which are (ironically) designated alien species. "In North America, changes in the plant components proceeded rapidly, mostly as accidental side effects of trade, settlement, wars, territorial acquisition, and discovery. Explorers not only mapped new territory but, in a sense, created it."

Walking the trails at the St Olaf Natural Lands, thinking of Eastman's book, I stopped to photograph some plantain. Is there a more common, more familiar weed? Perhaps Dandelion, but I can think of few others. According to Richard Mabey (in his recent book Weeds), plantain was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons. They called it Waybread because it was a broad-leaved plant of the waysides. "Its tough, elastic leaves, growing flush with the ground, are resilient to treading." The section of the 'Lay of the Nine Herbs' pertaining to Waybread contains the following lines: "So withstand now the venom that flies through the air, / And the loathed thing which through the land roves." This is a reference to Waybread's use as a remedy for bee stings and snake bites. Stings can be treated by applying a spit poultice, chewing up some plantain leaf and covering the effected area. Betsy Mead, a friend and herbalist, first alerted me to this remedy when she learned I was studying wasps.

Eastman informs us that "plantain leaves make a tasty cooked or salad green when collected very young." He also relates that "plantains have prominent associations with human feet. The word plantago derives from a Latin word meaning 'sole' or 'footlike"'... Supposedly common plantain followed the Roman legions wherever they set foot. Native Americans, observing the plant's spread, carried the analogy further by naming it Englishman's Foot and White-man's Footprint."

Posted on November 06, 2017 05:03 by scottking scottking | 7 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 07, 2017

Kitchen Spider

Posted on November 07, 2017 03:50 by scottking scottking | 1 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 08, 2017

Freeze-dried Flower

Posted on November 08, 2017 03:50 by scottking scottking | 2 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

Κολεόπτερα

A little Greek goes a long way in entomology. For instance, the origin of the word "insect" can be traced back to a descriptive name coined by Aristotle. Because the abdomens of insects are segmented they appear to have a number of lines cut into them, like the notches cut into the top of a loaf of bread. Aristotle combined the prefix έν with the verb τέμνειν to get έντομο. Later the Romans constructed a similar word from their word "insecare" which means "to cut into."

At some point during my college days as an engineering student I encountered the book On Growth and Form by the Scottish biologist and polymath, D'Arcy Thompson. The illustrations of water droplets and jellyfish, the comparisons of the cells in honeycombs to the cells in the wing of a dragonfly, the application of mathematics to the morphology of the natural world profoundly changed the way I looked at the world. (The only other book that unleashed a similar reformatting of my perceptions was Chaos by James Gleick.)

Thus I was intrigued to learn that D'Arcy Thompson had translated Aristotle's History of Animals, the work that contains mention of insects and beetles. Here are a few of the relevant passages from Book IV: vII:

Posted on November 08, 2017 23:45 by scottking scottking | 1 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 10, 2017

Калинка, калинка, калинка моя!

The first truly cold day. Clear skies, slant sunlight, and a biting north wind greeted me as I walked a loop of trails through the St Olaf Natural Lands. By the time I was done, my nose and cheeks were numbed and raw, my ears ached from the cold wind. An early serving of winter.

I'm still adjusting to the sudden emptiness of the woods and fields, now that the insects are gone. My eye, still drawn to movement in the air, follows the descent of falling leaves and the drift of seeds. A Red Squirrel shimmies down the trunk of an old oak where not so long ago Spine-waisted Ants traveled and worked. Further on, I noticed the frozen berries of the Geulder Rose, bright red against the drab backdrop of winter woods.

The Geulder Rose or European Cranberry is an important symbol in the Ukraine. And in Russia there's a popular folk song named for this tree, the snowball tree (Viburnum opulus) and its red berries, Калинка. The song has a quick tempo which speeds up each time it is sung.

Posted on November 10, 2017 03:49 by scottking scottking | 1 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment