Favorite Natives

A few weeks ago I wrote about autumn olive and some other invasive species on my property.  A week later I discovered several small burning bush plants along the driveway.  Hidden all summer amongst all the greenery, they practically jump into view now in their red-leaved splendor.  I think they are very pretty and delicate looking, adding a welcome intensity to the dull border of the driveway.  Unfortunately, the species I have, the winged euonymus, is also considered invasive.  While I marveled at the corky wings projecting from the stems, I felt frustrated by yet another problem plant.  So I decided to focus my attention on two of my favorite plants at Halcyon: sassafras and spicebush.  They are both native.

Corky projections on stem of burning bush

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is an easy tree to recognize, and I have always delighted in teaching its classic mitten-shaped leaf to students.  Actually its leaves come in three forms that are usually found on the same tree: oval, two-lobed (the mitten), and three-lobed.  Its flowers are very pale yellow, and its fall fruit is a dark blue drupe on a red stalk that is eaten by at least 18 species of birds.  I am embarrassed to admit that I’ve never noticed these fruits.  That we’ve only a few sassafras trees is a poor excuse.

All parts of the plant contain a substance called safrole.  This substance used to be used to make tea and root beer, and as an ingredient in toothpastes, soaps, mouthwashes, and chewing gum.  However, it was discovered to be a liver carcinogen, and the FDA declared it illegal to market in 1976.  I’ve had students tell me of their grandparents drinking sassafras tea all their lives.  This helps me go back in time mentally to imagine Halcyon and its species being used in such different ways than today.  In colonial days sassafras was highly used in medicinal treatments.  Sir Walter Raleigh first exported sassafras to England, and for a brief time in the 17th century sassafras was second only to tobacco in exports.  Before this Native Americans were also using sassafras for medicinal purposes.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a common understory shrub of bottomland forests.  I never noticed it until one spring when I was “off our beaten track” and saw its delicate yellow flowers hanging like a mist in the air.  With its thin trunk and twigs blending into the late winter dull background, it really did seem like the blossoms were floating.  It was magical.  I fell in love with spicebush.  It became the poster child last spring for my impetus to understand better my non-human neighbors at Halcyon.  I have since found it in a few other areas of the property, and I am starting to recognize it without its flowers.  The delicate lemon smell of a crushed leaf will confirm my guess.

Spicebush berries

Spicebush berries are a gorgeous, bright red color.  They are also a drupe and appear in late summer.  In colonial times the fruits were dried and powdered, after removing the seeds, and used in place of allspice.  I collected a few berries to dry this fall, but have since misplaced them.  I am sure to find some small dark wrinkled ‘things’ someday and wonder what they are.  I will try again next year with hopefully some methodology to my ‘madness’ so that I don’t lose track of them.

Tea was also made from the leaves, twigs, and bark of spicebush to induce sweating and break fevers.  The leaves turn yellow in the fall.  Overall spicebush is a gorgeous, understated shrub that I am delighted to have growing at Halcyon.  Growing, I might add, without any help from me.

Closeup of spicebush berry

What I didn’t know before researching this post is that the sassafras and spicebush are relatives, both being in the laurel family.  I like that they are both favorites of mine and related to each other.  While I am making my Thanksgiving dishes, I will wonder if past inhabitants of Halcyon made sassafras tea or needed to drink tea from some spicebush leaves to break a fever.  Did anyone use the dried berries of the spicebush to flavor their pies?  These special natives continue to nourish many species of birds, small mammals, and insects.  The feasting by such animals cannot create the same sense of tradition for them that humans can attain with our long-lived lives and overlapping of generations.  Animals just know what to eat by instinct.  But I like to imagine that somehow these creatures know of favored spots to eat, grow, mate, and die, and I hope to keep natives like sassafras and spicebush around to create such favored spots that will be used for generations.

Persistence

Humans tend to enjoy activities and tasks that they do well.  Engaged in a task on the roof of our side porch this week, I found myself, definitely not enjoying myself.  I was attempting to re-glaze a window and found the work very frustrating.  I’d only ever done this once before and had to watch a video for a quick refresher.  Now the memory of that first also frustrating time came back to me.  Glazing windows is more of an art than a chore, and I did not have the right finesse.  As I stood there applying and reapplying glazing compound to the wood, I tried to focus on the delightful warmth of the sun on my back.  The same sun I avoided in July and August because it drained my energy was now waking muscles already resigned to cold winter mornings.  I soon found myself hearing a squirrel in the tree above breaking open a walnut, and the sound became like a song stuck in my head.  Walnuts are plentiful on our property and no other nut would cause him to gnaw and scrape so incessantly, with so much determination.  Is that all I needed to get my task done?  Determination.  I thought to myself how I could just get someone else to do this task for me, but what about that squirrel?  What if he couldn’t crack that nut?

Of course in a broad sense, he’d starve.  Evolution selects for squirrels that can feed themselves.  But I got to thinking about other tasks in a squirrel’s life: nest building, food storage, predator avoidance, and I wondered if squirrels cooperate with each other.

We have three species of squirrels at Halcyon:  the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), and a flying squirrel (family Sciuridae – I have no idea if it is the northern or southern flying squirrel).  All three species of squirrels are native to Virginia.

The flying squirrel does not really fly; it glides with flaps of skin called patagium that stretch between its wrists and ankles.  The only time I’ve seen a flying squirrel was when I rescued one that had gotten in the house and barricaded itself in the baseboard electric heater to hide from our cats.  Luckily the heater was not on.  With a little perseverance and quick reflexes at the right moment, I managed to trap it in a large Tupperware bowl.  As I released it, I had a chance to brush against the softest animal fur I’ve ever touched.  I hope as I merge better with the rhythms of Halcyon, I see more of the flying squirrels that live here.

The gray and fox squirrel are much more ubiquitous, though I must admit I tend to think they are all gray squirrels.  I guess I haven’t taken the time to notice them, to notice details.  The details are important because they are hard to tell apart.  Both squirrels are grayish in color with black and red in their fur. The gray squirrel is smaller and spends more time in trees.  It has a white belly.  It is crepuscular in habit, being most active at dawn and dusk.

In contrast, the fox squirrel is larger, and has a reddish belly.  It spends more time on the ground and it is strictly diurnal.  Walnut trees are particularly favored.  That means Halcyon is practically paradise for the fox squirrel (If we wanted to change Halcyon’s name, a good replacement would be Walnut Acres).

I still admit to not being good at telling gray and fox squirrels apart.  Often the ones scampering about on the ground during the middle of the day (hence diurnal) have white bellies and are therefore, gray squirrels.  Apparently you can tell from their incisors, and while I’d like to become more observant, I have no real desire to get that close to a squirrel’s face.

So do squirrels cooperate with each other?  Squirrels will warn the whole neighborhood if there is a predator about and they share their nests, but the only other information I could find about cooperation came from a pest control website stating that gray squirrels will cooperate by sharing as many as 50 nest sites and by pelting dogs and cats with nuts.

The sentence about a single squirrel having access to as many as 50 nests intrigues me, but since I can’t find any other similar claims, I am also skeptical.  I am not an expert on squirrels or squirrels as pests.  Perhaps I should be since there is a squirrel that seeks shelter in the wall space behind my closet every winter.   However, I think that pest control companies tend to exaggerate, sometimes, the problems associated with wildlife as pests in order to make their living.  As for pelting a dog or cat with nuts, I must really be doing a poor job of observation on my property if I’ve never seen this at Halcyon.  We’ve two dogs who love to chase squirrels, three cats, and a lot of squirrels.  Besides, evolutionarily it does not make sense that squirrels would waste their food pelting an animal stuck on the ground barking or waiting for them.

Perhaps the squirrels’ method of caching food for future use allows for cooperation, at least as a side effect.  Studies have shown that an individual squirrel is capable of remembering its own cache sites and will preferentially find and eat its own food stores.  But that same individual will periodically take food from another squirrel’s cache also, and these caches are found by sense of smell.  I imagine a squirrel that is not too good at caching or remembering, could still survive using its sense of smell.  Of course, it still has to crack that nut.

So my question about cooperation remains unanswered.  In general species do cooperate, at least when resources are plenty, or the species might die out.  I was wondering about more specific cooperation, sharing of tasks one individual might just be miserable doing, like glazing windows.  We can’t be good at everything.  I think I’d rather put more practice time into observing nature than glazing windows.  Thankfully, I’ve only eight panes to go on the glazing, and hopefully, over 120 seasons of observing at Halcyon.

 

Preparing for Sandy

Winter has come early to Virginia thanks to Hurricane Sandy joining up with some low-pressure systems from the west and the north.  I love the hunkering down feeling of a storm coming.  I get excited planning for cozy fires, soul food, and even power outages.  Two days before Sandy made landfall, I noticed this same frenzy of preparations in other animals during my walk, and throughout the day.

A pair of Pileated woodpeckers was doing their concentric tree trunk hopping with more pep in their step, quickly searching for a few more insects to tide them over if the wind became too strong to hunt.  Overhead, flocks of red-winged black birds and grackles were heading somewhere more hospitable to their habitat needs, much as we head to the store to buy emergency supplies to add comfort to our habitats.  A box turtle appeared near the wall outside my kitchen window.  He was moving cautiously, already cold perhaps. It is about a quarter mile to the closest patch of woods, and I wondered if I should help him get there.  He needs to dig a burrow about 10 cm below the soil surface for the winter.  Perhaps he will just ride this storm out under some leaves and then get to his business of hibernating.

Box turtle

I also saw two black snakes this week.  When reading about snake hibernation, I came across a site that said snakes never go in a crawlspace.  Ha!  They’ve never checked my crawlspace.  We have found shed snakeskin over the years in our crawlspace or any space a snake could crawl in our house (see my previous post on Elaphe obsoleta).  Both snakes were traveling in the opposite direction of the house though, presumably in search of a hibernaculum such as a rock crevice or rotting log.  Black rat snakes are known to hibernate in groups and even in mixed-species groups such as with timber rattlers, copperheads, and bull snakes (we do not have bull snakes in Virginia).   I’ve wondered about this arrangement given that black rat snakes will also eat copperheads. Definitely a case of strange bedfellows!

On the domestic front, my chickens spent a lot of time eating.  Somehow they too knew they might not want to venture downstairs once the storm started.  My dog Toc was very playful, leaping and twisting in the air, and then stopping in front of me, a clear indication that she wanted to play.  Does she feel the same quickening in her heart that I feel when the leaves go skipping wildly down the street, the same excitement that turned my walk into a run?

I got to thinking about how animals will complete their frenzied activities and actually settle down, either for this current storm or for the whole winter. Some will undergo a true hibernation with suspended metabolism like frogs, turtles, groundhogs, and snakes.   The wood frogs’ blood and body fluids actually freeze, but instead of its cells bursting from the ice crystals that form, the wood frog has a mechanism to increase glucose and urea, which act as antifreeze for its blood.

Some animals such as bears will just slow their metabolism and venture out if conditions periodically warm over the winter.  Black bears are capable of not urinating for months at a time – I’d settle for just a six-hour car ride – but such a feat would be toxic to us.  Bears can recycle the toxic urea into useful amino acids.  They also are capable of maintaining muscle and bone strength while inactive.  If we tried to sleep curled up for months without moving, we would have muscle atrophy and brittle bones.

Some animals, of course, will not hibernate at all.  Deer, turkey, squirrels, and rabbits will ride out the storm and then venture out to eat as soon as they can.  We are like these animals.  Except we tend to eat a lot.  Holiday parties and feasts seem more decadent in the winter than in the summer for us.  Deer, turkey, squirrels, and many songbirds will have to do with twigs and leftover greens or seeds they can find under the snow.

I find animal adaptations amazing, especially those adaptations that allow for survival in extreme weather and cold temperatures.  I am awed by how they know to get ready, how they know what to do, and how resilient they are.  I am not, however, envious.  I’d much rather haul in some wood, huddle by the fire, and even deal with power outages, than wait it out under the mud with antifreeze in my blood.  It would be so much harder to drink wine that way.

The dogs have adapted to the good life

Autumn olive

I have numerous invasive plant species on my property.  Of the woody species, there are two trees I literally hate, Ailanthus and Mulberry, and there is a particular shrub that I want to hate, but with which I have a love-hate relationship.  Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate) is a shrub that gets rather large and can spread in clumps, crowding out other plants, thereby reducing diversity.  Even bird diversity becomes reduced in areas where autumn olive takes over despite the fact that birds eat and spread the seeds initially.  It has several common names: Autumn olive, Elaeagnus, Oleaster, and Japanese Silverberry, but I’ve only ever heard people use Autumn olive in Virginia.

Have you ever seen those environmental brochures titled Do I have to mow all that?  They promote the benefits of habitat edges and riparian borders for both wildlife and stream health.  They discuss how not mowing all your lawn will save time and money, and reduce fossil fuel emissions.  I believe this, and erred in favor of the brochure’s wisdom when we moved to Halcyon.  The previous owners mowed clear to the stream bank.  They mowed all 6 surrounding fields or sections that are not what we call the yard proper – the areas immediately surrounding the house.  They mowed so much that some areas were just clay, a remnant from the hundred years that Halcyon had been a dairy farm.  I didn’t want to mow all that.

I didn’t have time to mow all that anyway.  Work, long summer vacations once I started teaching, and sabbaticals all insured that plants and trees could continue their slow and steady marches to claim land unhindered by any sort of regular clearing.   Areas that originally were bare clay are now brush habitat or beginning succession woods.  We have an abundance of rabbits, birds, squirrel, and deer.  We’ve seen turkey, fox, and bear sign, opossum, raccoon, beaver, and a mink at Halcyon over that last 10 years.  This is because the habitat for wildlife has improved.

Well, habitat quantity has improved.  I’m not so sure about quality.  It turns out that I do have to mow more than I’d like or we would be invaded by ailanthus, mulberry, honeysuckle, multiflora rose, garlic mustard, and yes, autumn olive.  The autumn olive seems to have exploded in numbers.  This is why I hate it.  So why do I love it?

It is an attractive shrub.  The undersides of the leaves are silvery, and look lovely when the wind is blowing.  The flowers are creamy white and lend a subtle fragrance to the air when in bloom.  All those blossoms become a small red fruit with one central pit – hence the name olive.  It is the fruit that causes my ambivalence with this invasive species.  When I first didn’t want to mow everything, or poison the invasives, I thought of other ways to keep them from spreading.  I found a website on invasive species called If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Eat ‘em.  I could make jam!  And so was born a new tradition for me that nurtures more than my material body.

Underside of autumn olive leaves

Autumn olives are high in lycopene, a phytochemical found in tomatoes and some other red vegetables.  Lycopene is an antioxidant and is being studied as a potential agent for cancer prevention.  That is a good reason to eat the berries, but it would certainly be a lot easier to just eat more tomatoes.  I don’t make the jam merely because it is healthy.  I make it because it slows me down, puts me in the moment.  When I started doing this, I was still teaching and I desperately needed to slow my mind and be in the moment.  I needed to capture a fall day and fully live it because they were just flying by.

Nothing about making the jam is easy.  They are a pain to pick.  I usually collect in half hour increments between September and October, freeze them until I have enough, and then begin the cooking and canning process.  It is also an onerous process to get the juice from the berry.  I use a conical aluminum berry press and a lot of elbow grease.  Then there is the time spent cooking down to jell stage and canning.  Perhaps because it takes a lot of time is why I feel so singularly engaged while completing this task.  Added to this feeling is the (false) notion that I am reducing or using up an invasive species, and a sense of self-reliance that comes from doing something myself with a wild species that I’ve found.

Autumn olive in fruit

This year the autumn olives were ready early.  I was mowing in early August and was astonished to find bushes full of berries ready to pick – usually they are not ready until September, and I’ve picked as late as mid-October.  Have I just never noticed early berries before or did all our summer rain help with fruit production?  I looked forward to picking those berries.

For some reason, though I did not get to that task for several weeks and when I walked that field, basket in hand, I could not find a single autumn olive with any berries.  It seems the birds beat me to all of them.  Would I not be able to can and eat autumn olive jam this year?  I thought of naked pork roast or cheese and crackers without that dollop of deep burgundy jam and I was sad.

Luckily, there are more fields and more autumn olive.  It has not been great picking and I’ve collected less berries than other years, but there will be a canning day this year.  I’ll pick a chilly or rainy day, make a fire, roll up my sleeves and marvel how time slows down.

Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta

The black rat snake laid claim to Halcyon before we did.  We were unaware of this, of course, and bought the property “snake unseen.”  However, it is not possible to hide for long when your species is numerous and when individuals can reach 4-6 feet in length.  It is also not possible to hide for long when you like to enter homes in search (I hope) of mice.

Our first encounter occurred a few weeks after we arrived.  My daughter Mauri was outside on the rope swing, which was tied to an old, large black walnut tree.  I was inside painting the first of what would come to seem like an endless supply of painting jobs in our new home.  I heard her come in the front door and up the stairs.

“Mom?”

“Hmmm,” I replied.

“Can snakes climb trees?”

“I’m pretty sure that they can,” I replied, remembering the small snakes that climbed the shrubs outside our Houston home, and even one that tried to climb the dining room wall because I was trying to remove it with a broom and a Rubbermaid bin.

“Well, then there is a large black snake climbing the swing tree, way up high.”

She said this in a matter of fact manner with no apprehension in her voice.  I went out with her to see, but it must have been very high up by then because we could not find it.  I can’t remember if Mauri continued to swing that day, but she certainly was not afraid of swinging in the days and years after that snake-climbing incident.  I’m glad for that.

The next sighting of the snake I came to call Mama – because she is so large and because we see numerous smaller snakes every year – occurred a few months into our new home.  My in-laws were visiting and my father-in-law opened the kitchen door, but did not go out.  He closed it, and then announced that a 5 foot black snake just went around the corner and under the house.  Again, there was no apprehension in his voice or any real reaction from all of us inside the house.  We knew it was a black rat snake and that they are good to have around.

Black rat snake

Over the years we have collected their shed skins because they are beautiful.  Chris would often bring me one with the same munificence in which he might bring me daisies.  The skins adorn a windowsill or a shelf for a while.  Later, I compost them in a cleaning fit stemming from the notion that my house should stop looking like a nature center display and more like a home.  We have found skins in the yard, in the crawlspace, in the barn rafters, and even in the ceiling of the downstairs bathroom when we remodeled.

I used to take the skins to school to show my students and to display in my science center.  Every year when the subject of snakes was raised, either because of a science lesson or because I brought in my son’s pet corn snake, the students would become instantly engaged, much like they might if they’d just surprised a snake in the grass.  Through the chorus of voices expressing their love or hate of snakes, there would always be one story of how a student’s father had killed a snake.  Usually these were without knowing what kind of snake it was or whether it was any real threat.  I hated these moments.

It is natural to be afraid of snakes.  Perhaps there is even an evolutionary reason for our fear.  What I hated about those stories from school was that fact that I could not probably change someone’s fears by just direct teaching in the classroom.  Oh, don’t worry; the changes of a black rat snake biting you are very slim.  It is not venomous.  Actually, it is very helpful and farmers are usually quite happy to have them around to control rodents.  Somehow this message is lost on a squirmy group of fourth graders, stuck in their chairs, and getting a lot of their fears from TV, other media, and from some grownups.

He’s wary of me too.

I’m not fear-free when it comes to snakes.  It is not a bite I am worried about.  I learned from a talk at a Texas State Park that we’d need to be three days from a hospital to be in danger of dying from a venomous bite.  It is the part about being surprised.  When I come across one, I am startled, and then wary.  I leave them alone or shoe them away from the foundation.  And I’m not happy about the location of the most recent skin I found.

Our house is in varying states of repair and one such space not yet finished is a small passageway between our bedroom and the front of the house.  There is a tiny “cousin-it” closet and a hacked together roofline from when the front of the house was added on to the original slaves’ quarters.  At least Halcyon has history and charm, if not class!  In this space you can see the metal roof – the acoustics are awesome during a rainstorm – and NOW you can also see a snakeskin.  It’s just hanging there.  Did its owner contemplate slithering down the wall into the bedroom to check things out?  I am now thankful that the bedroom is cold, probably as cold as that ceiling area that needs repaired, and the snake shed its skin and left.

Black rat snakeskin

Or did he?  There is also a snakeskin hanging from the ceiling of the side porch (also in dire need of repair).  This ceiling is connected to the roofline of the passageway.   I’m guessing that he is living above that porch ceiling.  My point is that while I am not comfortable with the idea that a snake might slither across my bedroom floor, I would not have it killed or removed.

I appreciate our black rat snakes.  They help keep the mice down.  They have a role here at Halcyon.  By finding snakes over the years, and then stopping to watch them when I do encounter one, my fears have abated.  It helps that my son has a pet snake, a caramel corn snake named Blizzard.  I made myself hold Blizzard when he was little so that I would not be afraid of him later.  He is now almost 4 feet long, skinny still, but strong.  He is nice to hold.  I don’t recommend people go out and try to hold wild snakes, but I think more encounters might go a long way in helping mitigate our fears, rather than just having someone tell us that most snakes are harmless and we should not worry.

We are getting a woodstove insert at the end of the month, which means our bedroom will finally be warmer.  I think it is time to seal up that passageway ceiling before the snake decides he’d like some toastier quarters for the winter.

 AFTERWARD

I drafted this post on Wednesday, and that evening I was enjoying a chat with friends in my knitting group when the conversation turned, quite serendipitously, to snakes.  One woman told how there was a small black snake living in her crawlspace.  She said she used to let her cats go down there to get mice, but now she won’t let them because she is afraid her cats might hurt the snake.  I had to clarify that she didn’t mean she was worried the snake would hurt her cats.  Nope, I heard her correctly.

Another woman told of holding her brother’s python when she was a teenager, and then more recently of regularly rescuing garter snakes from her cats.  One time she even picked up a whole squirmy pile of garter snakes she found in her garage, some in each hand, and marched them down to the woods to release them.

These stories warm my heart.

Did I Just Call Her Sweetie?

My garden has a golden orb-weaver. Her work is more amazing than anything I’ve ever woven.  She makes all her own tread; I have to buy mine.  She is very quiet and unobtrusive despite her large size and her vibrant yellow color.  She is a fantastic weaver.  Her radial web is eight inches in diameter and contains a stunning zipper of multiple treads down the middle.  She weaves to survive, while I just weave for fun.  She actually eats and rebuilds her web every night.  I wouldn’t dream of such a thing.

This amazing weaver chose to spin her web in a corner where a compost bin butts up against the fence.  There are a lot of grasshoppers in this side of the garden.  She must have known this.  The other day I witnessed a marvel of spider silk and spider skill, a feat I could never hope to copy with my knitting or weaving.  It happened in less than a minute, a minute that would have passed by unknown to my conscience if I had not turned around.

I was feeding a grasshopper to the chickens.  The chickens were out of their coop and congregating under a large asparagus plant.  They do not seem comfortable out of the coop yet and do not yet wander happily, snatching up bugs for me.  Either that or they’ve got me trained because I am still bringing them grasshoppers.   When I can catch one that is.  I opened my hand and the closest chicken grabbed for the grasshopper, but it jumped before she could get it.  This irked me – some days my reflexes are not that fast and I don’t appreciate waste.  So I turned to see where it jumped so that I could grab it again.

Argiope aurantia!  No, I’m not swearing.  This is the scientific name for the golden orb-weaver; also known as the golden garden spider, yellow garden orb-weaver, and writing spider.  As soon as that grasshopper hit the web, she put out a vertical zip line and descended from her perch at the top of her web.  With dizzying speed she proceeded to wrap over and over this meal that was struggling with all the hope left in its short life.  Argiope was done before the grasshopper’s hope ran out, and despite being bound tighter than a mummy and receiving a bite to the head, the grasshopper continued to struggle.  After maybe 20 seconds, he stopped and his abdomen throbbed back and forth.  I thought this was strange, not understanding it until he burst into action again, struggling in vain inside the spider’s handiwork.  I likened it to being wrapped tightly in saran wrap because I could see at least 6 threads coming from her abdomen at once. Each strand was separate, but so close together as to look like a narrow strip of tape.  The grasshopper struggled against this extraordinary substance for about 20 seconds.  Then he stopped.  Again, his abdomen throbbed.  Now I understood.  He was breathing hard!

Tightly bound grasshopper

I found another argiope with a small, inconspicuous web in my tomato patch.  I am assuming it was a male because of his smaller size and the web’s much simpler construction.   Would he be her mate?  His web was almost 12 feet away from her web, and I’m not sure if that is too great a distance to attract a mate in the spider world.  A male will construct a small web next to the female before mating.  While many male spiders die after mating because they are eaten by the female, the male argiope dies during mating – a strategy thought to prevent other males from also mating with the same female.  The male has two sperm containing organs called pedipalps.  When the second pedipalp is inserted into the female, it swells, and cannot be removed.  This also causes the male to die during the mating act.  After mating the female will remove the male, wrap him in silk, and save him for a snack.  How romantic.

Biting the grasshopper

Since I have not seen an egg sac yet, and the male has been MIA for two weeks, I guess he was not her mate.  I am waiting to see an egg sac.  The female will die with the first frost.  The spiderlings hatch in late fall and will overwinter in the egg sac.  They survive the tough conditions of winter by pausing their growth and development.  This is called diapause.

Something strange happened from watching this spider daily for weeks.  I can’t say it is a connection so much as a respect for her place in the world and even a bit of compassion.  Why I say this is because the last time I walked by her I had the crazy notion that I could catch a grasshopper for her.  This was not because she couldn’t, but just because I felt like doing something nice.  It’s a spider.  I know it is strange.  Even stranger though was when I couldn’t find one, and I walked past the spider to leave, saying, “Sorry sweetie, I didn’t find any.”  It came out naturally and I didn’t realize I’d even said it until I was out the gate.  I definitely surprised myself.  I just called her sweetie.

Argiope aurantia

 

On Becoming a Writer

One of my goals in this new adventure of quasi-homesteading at Halcyon is to write.  I enjoy writing as much as good reading.  Towards this endeavor, I received some great advice from an accomplished writer this summer at a party.  She told me that the best way to practice writing is to write 1000 words each day.  The amount of time that this takes does not matter and it is important to stick to around 1000 words because too much can burn you out for the next day.  Obviously, the practice part of practicing was crucial.  Maybe this is why I have trouble sticking to that exercise plan of mine.  Her advice sounded doable to me.  On our last sabbatical in Spain, I was able to create a writing rhythm for about three months where I wrote 500-1000 words each day to ‘complete’ a 38,000-word draft – my first attempt at fiction.

Her advice also excited me.  That night I found myself wide-awake at 3 am drafting in my head.  I do this all the time when mowing or walking or on a long drive by myself, but never in the middle of the night.  I am pretty practiced at sleeping.  So I woke up the next day ready to start.

There is only one problem to this wise advice.  I forgot to ask if this practice should occur before or after I’ve worked outside in the yard with 90-degree weather.  You see I’m also very practiced at yard work.  I am not sure what equivalent measure of yard work per day compares to 1000 words of writing per day, but I’m pretty sure I do reach whatever measure it is.  This summer I worked on the property from 8 am-12 noon and then often from 1-3 pm.  My plan was to write from 3pm-5 or 6 pm each day, and then switch roles to gourmet chef . . . or at least heat up some leftovers.  You can guess my problem.  I was pretty tired by 3pm.

I’ve kept a log since receiving this advice.  I love logging personal challenges because it helps me to keep at whatever goal I am attempting.  I also must have whatever gene Thomas Jefferson had that compelled him to record so much of his life.  I did really well the first two weeks, but Halcyon’s summer chores kept me busy.

Now it is fall.  My blog is a month old.  I’ve been able to write every week, but I’ve not been writing daily.  It seems the quasi-homesteading part of my endeavors take up a lot of time.  Since late August, my kitchen looks more like a workshop than a place to cook family meals.  I’ve cabbage and cucumbers fermenting in crocks and jars with notes about when I started and when I taste them.  I’ve got three different compost bins set up.  One is our regular compost, one is for coffee grounds and tea bags that get dumped on my blueberries, and one is for scraps the chickens might like.  I’ve canned tomato sauce, salsa, split pea soup, chicken soup, and cherries.  I built shelves in the room off the kitchen to store the canned goods and harvested garlic and winter squash, along with all the canning supplies.  I’ve started keeping notebooks for reference.   I’ve one for yard maintenance (a fancy term for weeding), for the vegetable garden, for the chickens, for native plants I find at Halcyon, and for monthly chores.  Jefferson would be proud.

Cabbage, cucumbers, and zucchini fermenting

But I’m worried about the writing. What if I can’t make it?  When I said that one of my goals in my new life adventure is to write, I neglected to say that this has been a dream since 1992   – the year I read Winter by Rick Bass.  While reading that book, I smiled, laughed out loud, cried, and wished for more when it was over.  It was the first time I ever thought, I want to make someone else feel that way.  But I was busy and I didn’t think of myself as a writer.  Eight years later I published my Masters in Environmental Studies thesis on muskrat disturbance in a fresh water tidal wetland.  It was a peer-review ecology journal and it was a big deal for me at the time.  I’m pretty sure it didn’t make anyone laugh or cry, except maybe me, and the laughs were maniacal as I struggled through the publishing processes.

Herbs frozen in butter to use in soups and stews

In 2003, I published a paper in Molecular Ecology Notes based on work I was doing at the time isolating microsatellites from red-backed salamanders.  The only way this work could make someone cry was if they were attempting unsuccessfully to duplicate the results for their own research.  Forget laughing; science writing of this kind is necessarily dry.

In 2004-2005, I was back in school to get a Masters in Teaching degree.  For our Foundations in Education class we were told the final would be a take home paper.  I thought this was great, until I got the assignment on the last day of class.  We were to read five papers and choose three to critique.  Each paper had to be 5-8 pages long.  Three 5-8-page papers due in a week!  I drove home angry and panicked; this was a seemingly impossible assignment.  In this panicked state I found myself at midnight reading the articles.  They were good, they got me fired-up, and I really enjoyed writing the essays.  The best part was when I got the papers back.  My professor wrote, “Wow, Lisa these are the best papers of the whole class.”  This is the first moment where I thought that maybe I could become a writer.

Of course, soon I was teaching elementary school and I was doing a lot of writing.  Lesson plans!  They consumed me for the first few years.  But I also wrote several grants and grant reports because of environmental education projects I was doing on our school’s outdoor trail and classroom.  My most favorite project involved students making podcasts for other students to learn about aspects of the trail.  The first year we studied trees and the second year, birds.  In 2011, I published a paper in National Science Teachers Association’s Science and Children journal on this project.

So I’ve three peer-reviewed science papers published.  This does feel good, but I’ve been itching to try fiction and essays.  Something different.  And that 38,000-word draft I wrote in the beginning of 2011?  I haven’t looked at it since we left Spain.  It seems teaching full-time and having 14 acres that needs at least minimal tending did not blend well with writing.  This is one reason I decided to leave teaching.  Now I am worried that writing and Halcyon maintenance might not blend well either.  I can only hope that the plants’ dormancy and mine are out-of-sync.  And oh, good news for today!  I’m at  . . . 1,165 words.  I sure hope that’s not a problem for tomorrow.

Homemade little pantry