Light, sound, hummingbird wings

From the dawn-light series (see also silk and moth wings)…

There is a moment in the early morning when the sun catpaws through the forest’s tangled blankets, illuminating my hummingbird feeder. The touch is gentle. The claws of midday are withheld. For two or three minutes, sun fires the blur of wings. For the rest of the day, the lights are off and wings move in gray-green, almost invisible.

hummer0hummer1hummer4Unlike other birds that power their flight with only the downstroke of the wing, hummingbirds flip their wings after the downstroke and generate more lift as they pull back their arms. The feather tips therefore scribe a figure-of-eight as the bird crams more gravity-fight into each back-and-forth. They do this fifty or more times every second. Humans can perceive only ten “images” per second and most movies are shot at twenty-four frames per second. To get an acoustic sense of the birds’ frenzy, I slowed a sound recording of the hummingbird in the photograph by one hundred times. The heart-beat thuds are the slowed wings, the strange wind is the sound of insects singing in techno-molasses:

(email subscribers, click on the header link to get to the sound file)

 

Posted in Archosaurs, Bioacoustic revelry | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

On the beauty of rattlesnakes

This is the year of the timber rattlesnake on the Southern Cumberland Plateau. I’ve seen and heard of more in the last five months than I have in the last twenty years combined. They’re sleeping in gardens, gliding across porches, crossing wooded trails, and swimming on asphalt. Most seem to be one or two years old, suggesting that we’re seeing the result of a baby-boom in 2013 or 2014. What might have caused such a successful hatch year is a mystery: perhaps a good mast year of acorns and hickory nuts swelled the rodent population, echoing a year later in the abdomens of fecund snake mothers? Another possibility is that the last two winters have been colder here than any within the last decade, pinching the rodent supply this year, making snakes take to the road where we then encounter them. Certainly 2014 was chipmunk-poor after the “Arctic Vortex” made several visits. I estimate an 80% drop in chipmunks the following spring.

Whatever the cause, these snakes inevitably run foul of humans. Many are dead on the roads; others are killed around habitations. I’ve picked up a few of these corpses and, before giving them a respectful return to the woodland community, I’ve taken great pleasure in examining what must surely be called their gorgeousness. Each individual has a different mottled pattern, but all grade in tone and texture from head to tail.

2015-08-05 Rattlesnake head12015-08-05 Rattlesnake head2The nostril (higher) and pit organ (below) jut into the world. Inside the pit organ, a membrane hides a profusion of nerve endings and  blood vessels. Nerve receptors tingle when temperature changes; blood carries away last second’s heat, letting the snake know moment-by-moment how its thermal environment is changing. The pit organ’s information runs directly to the same part of the brain that receives signals from the eyes. So “heat” is seen by rattlesnakes. The pits are extra eyes, functioning like pin-hole cameras. Oh, to be able to experience such a synesthetic world, if only for a few seconds.

And down the body we go, a cascade of forested scales:

2015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0122015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0172015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0212015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0242015-08-05 Rattlesnake 026And the tale ends with the longest rattle so far among the deceased:

2015-08-25 Rattlesnake tailFor encounters with live snake cousins, I invite you to more sounds and sights.

Nemo me impune lacessit. Time to reclaim the Gadsden flag for all.

Posted in Serpentes | Tagged | 11 Comments

“Nature” writing class

A big day in Sewanee: fall classes started at the University of the South. Being back with the students feels great. Their energy and insight is inspiring. It’s a great honor to spend time with them as we travel the semester toward the solstice.

This fall I am teaching a class on “nature” writing. I’ve tried to gather readings that touch on multiple perspectives, including texts by writers for whom the idea of nature is alien or oppressive. I’m not convinced that “nature” exists, at least not as it is usually formulated within the West as a collection of objects outside the self (“environment” is even more insular, deriving from environs, surroundings). We’ll dig into these ideas, guided by our authors. The reading list, which will have additions later in the semester, is as follows:

The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape. Robert Macfarlane. The Guardian, 27th February 2015.
The trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, William Cronon, 1995, In: Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, William Cronon, editor. W. H. Norton.
(1) The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Gilbert White. 1789. “Advertisement” through “Letter X” (2) Wasteland. A journey through the American cloaca. Frederick Kaufman. Harper’s Magazine. February, 2008.
Book of Ice, Paul Miller, 2011, powerhouse Books, 978-1935613145
Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2015, Milkweed Editions, 978-1571313560
All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, Winona LaDuke, 1999, South End Press, 978-0896085992
(1) All Our Relations, and (2) Sumak kawsay: the written word, justice, and Ecudaor’s constitution.
Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, David Hinton, 2012, Shambhala Press, 978-1611800166
Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder, 1990, North Point Press, 978-0865474543 PS3569.N88 P82 1990
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, 2010, Algonquin Books, 978-1565126060
The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, Eds: Alison Hawthorne Deming, Lauret E. Savoy, 2011, Milkweed Editions, 978-1571313195
Findings: Essays on the Natural and Unnatural World, Kathleen Jamie, 2007, Graywolf Press, 978-1555974459
Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, Rebecca Solnit, 2013, University of California Press, 978-0520274044
The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod, Henry Beston, 1928 (Holt Paperbacks edition: 978-0805073683)
The Peregrine, J. A. Baker, 1967 (New York Review Books Classics edition: 978-1590171332)
“Nature” writing in Islam and Christianity
Janisse Ray and William Bartram
Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard

Students will write essays weaving disparate strands of our readings and discussions into word-fabrics of what I hope will be interesting and attractive textures. The prompts for their two longest essays are: What is the relationship between language and landscape? And, What is a tree? I look forward to their responses.

In addition, they take on several “creative writing” assignments in which they can experiment with words and form. My syllabus has some advice on creative writing which I am eager to have critiqued by fellow ramblers, follows:

Drop “Creative Writing Assessment” into Google’s ever-open maw and the machine will regurgitate thousands of “rubrics” by which creative writing can be placed onto a linear hierarchy of worth. But “creativity” is not born in a rubric, nor is it received in two-by-two tables of check-boxes. The quality of writing can be quantified on an Excel spreadsheet, but this process fails to honor the participatory, context-dependent, and transgressive natures of art. The same is true, not coincidentally, for science.

In this class we will use part of our time together to converse about what makes good writing, creative writing, beautiful writing, and unsettling writing. There will be no single answer to these questions. Indeed, what and how we value writing depends on the narrative of our own lives, the particularities of our needs and affinities, and the tangle of political, bodily, historical, cultural, and philosophical influences from which our minds and emotions are made. When we read, we enter one portion of another person’s consciousness, leaping for a few moments outside the self. This suggests one way of thinking about writing: Do written words make possible this leap and, if they do, how startling, beautiful, entertaining, interesting, or troubling is the time we spend in your world?

Some tidbits of advice about the “craft” of writing, advice that we’ll discuss further in class. If you need a rubric to guide your work, start here:

“Show, don’t tell.” Shun clichés. For example, “Show, don’t tell.”

Attend to the senses.

Juicy verbs are your friends.

Flocks of adverbs and adjectives will choke the engines of your flying machine.

Form matters, sometimes. In the beginning…then an arc or a circle or some other geometric design.

Write, let it sit for a few days, return and revise. Repeat, repeat.

If the metaphor feels right, use it, push it almost to the edge of absurdity. Or beyond. Listen for the crash as it lands.

Confusion is OK, in small doses. “Difficulty” for its own sake is generally unhelpful, unless you’re writing within a deliberately obscurantist genre.

Mind-body-emotion: we’re unified, kinda. So connect ideas to the body, emotions to the mind, the body to the world beyond our skin. Find fractures in this unity and worry at them.

Connection and meaning: cast lines and hook your work into unexpected places.

Multiple realities exist in every place or idea. Honor this. Burrow or lift us to the more quirky layers, the ones that you know about, but the reader does not.

Put in the hours. Stand and stretch. Celebrate every gleam in your work.

Posted in Literature | Tagged , , , , , | 43 Comments

Tolling bell at Children’s Peace Memorial, Hiroshima

(email subscribers, click on post title to link to sound)

2014-11-21 Hiroshima 1432014-11-21 Hiroshima 1442014-11-21 Hiroshima 1482014-11-21 Hiroshima 1392014-11-21 Hiroshima 155

Posted in Butterflies | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Moon moth

2015-07-29 luna moth 002Morning light flows through another arthropod: the luna moth, showing the spring-leaf green of her wings. The brown leading edge is a great match for the viburnum twig on which she rests.

This species belongs to a larger grouping, the Asian-American moon moths. Like the trees on which they feed, these American and Asian insects look very similar (here are a couple of examples of look-alikes, and then some more crazy-winged cousins). They have a distribution that encompasses the east of North America and parts of Asia, reflecting the old biogeographic continuity of these places.

Unfortunately, parasitic flies introduced to North America to control gypsy moths are turning their attentions to the luna moth. So far, lunas appear to be more robust than most other large moth species, many of which are in decline or have gone regionally extinct, at least in New England. We lack long-term data (to my knowledge) on populations of moths in the south.

Why such long tails? Bat befuddlement. Ed Yong tells this luna-tale, with a review of some cool experiments, along with videos, on his fabulous blog at National Geographic.

Closing moth thoughts as they antennate the air’s breath, seeking pheromonal scent (attributed to Rumi from, as far as I can tell, Coleman Barks’ interpretations of English translations):

“At night, I open the window and ask the moon to come and press its face against mine. Breathe into me. Close the language-door and open the love-window. The moon won’t use the door, only the window.”

Posted in Moths | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments

Silhouette: a short hawk quiz

A fuss of blue jays and robins. Look up:

hawkhawk2

Some clues:
unhappy songbirds
a tail that extends beyond the wing tips, but not too far
stout chest

Red-shouldered hawk. Not a Cooper’s Hawk? The tail is too short and the body too chunky. (Birders: let loose with corrections as needed!)

I used the computer to zip down the brightness of the photograph:

hawk3Coarse streaking: an immature bird. It took off after a young robin… and so the next generation relearn the old ways.

Posted in Archosaurs | 8 Comments

Arachnid prism: Morning light refracted through a spider’s silk

web_spider

From Keats’ Lamia:

…and, for the sage,
Let spear-grass and the spiteful thistle wage
War on his temples. Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Rest easy, John, the spinnerets of awareness are still weaving rainbows. Consciousness dwells in its gnomed skull-mine. Ontological mystery remains, despite the sages’ best efforts to clip and conquer.

Yet, it is not the sage, but the rainbow-spider herself who is most enamored with rule and line: the geometry that will snare her sustenance from the insect-haunted air. Her silk is woof and texture of protein, stranded and coiled, a fiber of living glass.

Post-script:

Now I am sensible all this is a mere sophistication (however it may neighbor to any truths), to excuse my own indolence – so I will not deceive myself that man should be equal with Jove – but think himself very well off as a sort of scullion-Mercury, or even a humble Bee. It is no matter whether I am right or wrong, either one way or another, if there is sufficient to lift a little time from your shoulders. — Keats letter to Reynolds, 1818

 

Posted in Arachnida | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

“The fox also shall dwell with the armadillo…”

A few weeks ago, I saw a fox saunter through the woods, then slip into a hole that, judging from the earth piled at its entrance is at least several feet deep. I set up a camera to see what was shaking. Surprise: most of the comings and goings were of armadillos snuffling their way in and out of the pit.

The Xenarthans were not alone, though. A fox was also a regular visitor, always alone. My hopes for gamboling pups have not yet been realized. This may be a temporary canine interloper in a armadillo-dug chamber.

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What I think is a coyote also came by, no doubt looking for ‘dillo snacks or hot-dogs. The larger size, longer legs, proportionately shorter tail, and stout-shaped face all suggest coyote to me. I’d welcome other ideas.

coy_queryNo cockatrices, yet, in this den. Isaiah says they’re down there, though.

Posted in Mammals | 15 Comments

Ghosts rise from forest duff

2015-07-13 indian pipe monotropa 018Ghost plant, Monotropa uniflora, is now flowering in shaded woodlands. The species is also known as Indian pipe or corpse plant. Each stem is about finger-high and has a nodding flower at its tip. The plant’s pallor tells the story of its peculiar feeding methods. Rather than using pigments to gather sunlight, the roots are sheathed with fungi from whom the plant gets its food. Monotropa is quite specialized, connecting to a small number of Russula fungi species. The fungi in turn feed themselves by tapping the roots of trees, so Monotropa is indirectly feeding from other plants, using a fungus as the money-laundering intermediary. Whether the fungus gets anything in return from Monotropa is not known. The plant is usually regarded as wholly parasitic.

2015-07-13 indian pipe monotropa 009Monotropa belongs to the Ericaceae plant family, a group that includes heathers, blueberries, rhododendron, and sourwood. These species often live on nutrient-poor acid soil where symbiotic relationships with fungi help the plants to thrive in conditions that are otherwise hostile to roots. Monotropa also favors acidic areas and is often found in deep shade under conifers. It seems that Monotropa took its family heritage and changed it from mutualism to piracy. If so, this is the genus that no-one likes to discuss at the Ericaceae family reunion. Quite why the fungus would put up with its parasite is a mystery. It could be that the evolution of defensive mechanisms has not happened because the tiny Monotropa plant draws so little food compared to the supply that the fungus receives from trees. It is perhaps no coincidence that nearly all non-parasitic Ericaceae plants are shrubs and trees, and only Monotropa is a tiny sprout. The plant’s narrow range of fungal associates may also indicate that only a few fungus species can be fooled. All this has conservation implications: Chris Martine and Alison Hale have recently published a fascinating article suggesting that chemicals from invasive plants such as garlic mustard may disrupt the relationships between Monotropa and its fungi, causing population declines.

The species lives in North America, Asia, and Central America, with large geographic gaps between each population. Recent studies of DNA show that these populations have diverged from one another and have distinctive genetic signatures, suggesting that they might best be regarded as different species. How the species came to have such a distribution is unknown: the dust-like, winged seeds may have traveled by wind or the distribution may be an echo of the ancient geographic connections among these continents.

Five days after the bloom pictured above, pollinating bumblebees have done their work and the red fruit capsules are swelling. The flower’s rain-shedding, bee-welcoming droop has straightened and the fruit points directly to the sky, presumably the better to catch some favorable winds to a neighboring uncolonized fungus, or to Japan.

2015-07-18 monotropa fruit 002

Posted in Fruits, Fungi, Plants | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

“Let us now praise famous…” cats

Some feline stories caught my eye this week. They illustrate the important role that domesticated humans have played in the civilizations that cats have built over the past few thousand years.

The first tale (a tale not bottle-brushed) comes from Illinois, from the burial mounds north of St. Louis. The mounds date to about two thousand years ago, from a period and people now called the Hopewell tradition. Among many other artifacts, these peoples left many large mounds, some of them tombs, others of unclear significance.

A re-analysis of one of the funerary mounds has revealed that it contained a young bobcat. The cat was carefully lain in its grave, with its paws pressed together. It was wearing a necklace of marine shells and bear teeth. The cat’s bones bore no evidence of sacrifice or other damage. In a moment of feline ignominy, it was first incorrectly identified as a puppy and placed in a “puppy burial” box. But the bobkitten’s identity has now been corrected.

The mounds in which the cat was buried were otherwise reserved for humans. Dogs were buried back in the village, not at these mounds. So this cat was someone special. A photograph of the necklace and interviews with the scientists involved are on Science Magazine’s news pages.

The second feline story concerns Tama, the stationmistress cat of Kishi train station in western Japan. As business declined at the station, the human employees were dismissed, but Tama stayed on and was officially appointed to her duties at the station. She rose to vice-president of the rail company. She boosted rail traffic and her tenure resulted in an estimated 1.1 billion Yen boost to the local economy. Train carriages were painted in her honor.

She has now died, at age 16. The regional governor released a statement expressing his “deep sorrow and appreciation.” Her funeral rivaled that of bobkitten, with thousands in attendance. Now she is transformed to Shinto kami, a deified cat. Or, I should say, a cat recognized by humans as deified. Cats know themselves to be deified already, with or without human intervention. Nitama, a younger cat, is apprenticing to take her role.

Here in the Christianized West, no mention of cats in the Bible. The old Judeo-Christian prophets knew when they’d met their match, perhaps. But Mohammed understood the feline-divine order: he is said to have cut the sleeve of his prayer tunic rather than disturb the sleep of his favorite cat, Muezza. I can imagine a reincarnational thread from bobkitten to Muezza to Tama. Although, knowing cats and threads, it is likely to be tangled beyond hope of salvage or comprehension. Linearity is an abomination unto the cat.

Posted in Cat | 3 Comments