Saturday, July 31, 2010

One Leaf, Seven Leaflets....

Between the title of this post and the titles of the individual photos (viewed by clicking on each photo), my head is full of thoughts stimulated therefrom most of which address the theme introduced yesterday. I'll try to put these into a coherent essay by this evening. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy the photos.
I'm a little late getting back to this. In fact, it's now August 4, and I already posted a photo today and my mind is racing ahead to new topics. However, first, this - typed from a rough draft I penned last night.
Can science study aesthetics? I assume we humans evolved from earlier types who had no sense of past-present-future, could not "plan ahead," and had no sense of beautiful-ugly. However, they must have had some sense of safe-dangerous or we wouldn't be here today. Most discussions of aesthetics I've come across assume the brain we have now. I am interested in how we got this brain in the first place. I wonder if the emergence of an aesthetic sense in our evolution increased our survival potential, that is, was a product of natural selection, or was it an accidental by-product of the development of some other trait(s). I heard religion discussed in similar terms. Does/did it have survival value? One could amass evidence today of the opposite. It could be, like the appendix, on the way out.
One of my biology heroes, E. O. Wilson, writes of biophilia, what he believes is an evolved inclination of humans to feel a strong connection with all other life. He believes this is a natural tendency which we must cultivate in order to save ourselves. If this sense exists, cultural habits can certainly over-ride it.
As a child, I was influenced by my culture's (and especially my parents') perceptions of wild nature. Examples; deer and buuny rabbit = good; snakes = bad; robins = good; blue jays = bad. As a biologist specializing in natural history I've overcome these biases and see all species as integral parts of the same "web of life" I belong to. But, as a developing artist/photographer who now spends more time with among artists than biologists, I am revisiting ideas about beauty-utility in the context of human evolution. Some people (arachnophiliacs?) love my close-up photos of spiders while serious arachnophobes can't stand to look at them. I can't help but ask "Why?" In my natural history training, I gradually came to see some kind of beauty in every living and natural non-living thing. To see the beauty of butterflies and peacocks was easy. Spiders and rattlesnakes took some effort. Now I see a huge difference in the art of people with or without some biology background. This intrigues me. I think you know where my bias lies.
[To be continued on next post about Ringneck Snakes.]

Friday, July 30, 2010

Further Ruminations on Positives and Negatives

Here are today's pics. The ruminations will be forthcoming later today. They have to do with positive and negative takes on "Rolling Stones Gather No Moss" and whether Gum Plant is good or bad.
As of Saturday morning, the "battle" is still in my head. Maybe tonight it'll come out.
Now August 5, I am finally letting a few of these thoughts loose. As far as I can tell, the phrase about a rolling stone originated to suggest moss growing on a stone is a sign of stability - things like staying in one place, building a marriage, a family, a home-place, a career, etc., and that moving around a lot prevents this opportunities. In more recent times, some people have an opposite take, that is, the moss growing on a stone implies stodgy, unimaginative, unadventurous. I lean toward the latter view, but I also wonder, as a person very interested in evolutionary theory, which orientation is the more "natural." Our ancestors, long before farming was invented, were nomads and hunter/gatherers. We spent a few hundred thousand to a few million years becoming human. Farming and settling in one place are relatively recent developments in terms of human evolution, and I wonder if we are not biologically adapted to flourish with these practices. Maybe some day it will become obvious that cities and nation-states were big mistakes. Maybe if more people took "road trips" instead of climbing "career ladders" we'd be better off as a species. Food for thought. By the way, those roads trips should probably be taken on foot. We're already suffering the consequences of having discovered fossil fuels.
On a more mundane note, the gumplant (photo above) along with kit-kit-dizze, bindweed, and various plants called tarweed, is one I find very beautiful, but I'm acutely aware that it's on many people's "bad plants list." Early in our evolution, it was obviously important to recognize edible and otherwise useful plants as well as recognizing ones that could harm us. However, in modern times, it seems to me our inclination to admire certain plants and hate others is due more to cultural biases that are passed on blindly from generation to generation and are often quite irrational. No one likes to have a case of poison oak rash, but the plant is quite beautiful when it flowers and when the leaves change color in the fall. Actually, it can seem beautiful at any stage of its life if the viewer is open-minded. Just don't touch it! Is there something unfair about having to pay attention when we're in the woods? It seems to me that paying attention is one of the rewarding activities of being human.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Is Interesting Equal to Beautiful? An Argument....

Today I'm going to post a few of the photos that prompted this topic and just hint at the "argument." I'll be making the argument over the next few days or weeks. Basically, it's this: I've paid a lot of attention to the names that have been given to plants and animals, and a surprising number have been given both positive and negative names, depending upon the relationship certain humans have with the species in question. Example: Bindweed is also known as Orchard Morning Glory. Potato Bug is also Jerusalem Cricket and Nina de la Terra. Madia is also Tarweed. As a naturalist, I find just about anything alive and many things that are not alive to be incredibly beautiful, but I'm not sure why. It may be an innate trait that E. O. Wilson calls Biophilia. Or, maybe I'm just nuts. I think quite often beauty is associated with affection and ugly with fear, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Over the next few days I'll explore issues relating to the aesthetic response, and I certainly invite feedback. This will also be somewhat of a preview of a class I'll be offering this fall through the Main Street Artists Gallery. It's called "Nature Journaling: A Means to Improve Your Art, Writing, and Life."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ctenucha rubroscapus it is!

The fascinating moth, subject of my post a few days ago, has attracted some attention. A follower in Davis and a few others have determined it's the Red-Shouldered Ctenucha, Ctenucha rubroscapus. Several web sites report that very little is known about it. They say Ctenuchas lay eggs and pupate on grass, sedges, and irises, but no one reports its adult habits. I've reported to a couple of websites that invite such that all the ones I've seen are frolicking on Pennyroyal. At least it looks like frolicking. I should add that when they swarmed on a recent day, they seemed to have lost some of that skittishness that wouldn't allow me to approach closely. A six-year-old hiker with me caught one by hand. Then I caught one. We watched them for a while in our bug jars then released them. I discourage kids from "collecting" bugs [i. e., killing and pinning] as they can learn so much more by patiently observing them alive. Thanks to all the followers who wrote me about this moth.

Monday, July 26, 2010


I'll be too busy to hike with my camera today, but I can never get far from memories/images of the beautiful place where I live. This morning, while sorting my photo files, I pulled out four that were powerful images (for me) of the Quincy area. The poppies, of course, are almost a cliche of California's roadside scenery. Millions of poppy pictures are out there. But I still try to get better ones. Not in the photo competition sense, but in the sense of really trying to get the essential beauty of the poppy into my brain. The daisies are among the three or four flowers that I jokingly call "bug magnets" because on the nature walks I lead, they can be counted upon to harbor all sorts of interesting bugs - some just feeding, some pollinating, and, who knows, maybe they too are enjoying the scenery. Crimson Columbine, representing the diverse buttercup family, is a favorite on just about every trail I frequent including the ones in my neighborhood in Boyle Ravine. Finally, the relatively uncommon Spotted Coral Root, a saprophytic orchid that hides in the shade and usually gets a couple of feet tall, right under my nose, before I realize it has arrived!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Finally, Tamer Ctenuchas

After several days of finding one or two of these moths at a time, always too wary to let me approach closer than about 6', I decided to put on my telephoto and try again. To my amazement, they were swarming the Pennyroyal - 15 or more in a small area - and they were not so shy. I got to within a foot without scaring them off and was able to use my standard, 55mm lens. More photos and observations will be posted this evening. Beautiful creature, and I haven't been able to find out much about it on-line - yet.
Sunday a.m: I've added more photos of this great-looking moth. Too many? Two summers ago I was enthralled with my newly-discovered Red Milkweed Beetle, then later, the Goldenrod Crab Spider. These two had such a visual impact on me that I couldn't get enough photos. Every time I walked near their chosen plant hideouts I'd poke around in the leaves and flowers hoping to capture the ultimate pose for a photo. In the case of the spider, I eventually got a series of one eating a robber fly or bee. Now this summer's find, the Ctenucha moth, has grabbed my attention. When they land on the Pennyroyal, they crawl around nervously, constantly flickering their wings. At first, I described them as having shiny black bodies and wings and a red head. On closer inspection of the photos, I guess you could say "red shoulders," and the body is blue. In only one of the photos is the body exposed. I never noticed that when watching them alive. The limited info I've found on the web so far doesn't associate them at all with Pennyroyal, yet that's the only plant I've found them on. More searching ahead. Dear Readers, if you find info on this moth, I'd appreciate your sending it along. In the coming days I'll be looking for egg-laying and maybe a caterpillar or two.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Mad About Madia

Great patches of the colorful Madia elegans greet me each morning as I drive through American Valley along Quincy Junction Road. I'm having fun photographing them from different angles, including from behind. The early morning low sunlight makes them glow. Then, on my way home in the afternoon, they're all closed for the day and no yellow is seen. But other yellow spashes are still there - Klamath Weed or St. Johns Wort, Yellow Sweet Clover, and Mullein. Seems like the dominant flower color in later summer is yellow. I wonder why that is.

Keddie Cascades Adventure

Had a wonderful day hike with folks from Feather River Camp. Exotic insects, interesting flowrs, dippers frolicking, a surplus of box lunches, healthy poison oak, interesting insects, bridge repair, scenic vistas...more photos and text later today.
I'm back. On the way to camp mornings I've been following the life history of the Hooker's Evening Primrose which is growing in the damp ditch just east of the one-way bridge on Chandler Road. Beautiful, large blossoms on 3-4' tall stems. They open and close every day. Closer to camp I check the large Elderberry Bush daily, hoping to see the huge, red Elderberry Beetle. The first and only time I saw one, I didn't have my camera. But I did see a nice big, black beetle which I think was a Cerambycid. I left camp around 10:00 a.m. with 6 campers and we hiked the Keddie Cascades Trail from the west side near highway 70 off Old Highway. Great views down on Spanish Creek from heights of 50 to 100 feet. Then, on a sun-drenched stretch of trail I stopped to photograph my guests on the trail and a patch of narrow-Leaf Milkweed. Then I was the lucky witness of three! Checkered Clerid Beetles engaged in intimate behavior. At least that's what I thought was going on. I also stopped to photograph an attractive cluster of Interior Live Oak and catch a little shade. My friends had a nice swim near where the single-lane bridge is being replaced, and I roamed around photographing more bugs. We also saw a lot of Dipper activity. This drab little bird makes up in interesting behavior what it lacks in color.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Weed-eaters Missed the Teasel

I found the moth I mentioned this morning in a field guide. It's a Ctechua moth, Ctechua virginica. Saw lots more of them this morning when I didn't have my camera. They're very wary, so tomorrow I'll try with my telephoto. Beautiful, shiny black body and wings with a bright red head. They were landing on Pennyroyal. I plan to learn more about them - some from internet sources and lots just by watching. Another special plesure today was photographing the teasel on the way home. Very impressive, 7-8' tall, prickly plant that you just know the weed-eater types would love to eliminate. But these were just across the ditch, out of range of all but the most aggressive of weed-killing operations. Teasel power!

What's that big bird in the meadow?

Had a nice hike yesterday with some campers and saw some things that werre too fast to photograph. Will try again today. We hiked up the watershed of Tollgate Creek on what some call the Ridge Trail. Saw an amazing-looking moth, shiny black wings and body with a bright red head. It wouldn't sit still long enough for a photo, but it's easy to remember and I'll try to find it in a field guide today. Also saw a striped racer, too fast to photograph. One lady with me saw things I missed - like the cicada (above) on a manzanita trunk. I saw the Scarlet Gilia on the road into camp. They're mostly wilted at this elevation, but still look fresh at around 5,000'. The butterfly (above) was resting on the mud near the Tollgate Dam. When I got back to camp, a lady who had been out bike riding asked me "What's that big bird in the meadow on the way into Quincy?" As if there were a bird statue there, and I would know what it was from that description :) Well, she then said it looked sort of like a Great Blue Heron, but it wasn't. That's all I needed to know. It was a Sandhill Crane, and I got lucky and photographed two of them on my way home.
The forest is drying out pretty fast in this heat, so there are fewer blooming wildflowers every day. Leading young people on a hike today and will have to be inventive to show them exciting stuff. We'll tip over some logs and rocks to see what is hiding out - being mindful that rattlesnakes could be among the discoveries. Also, large flower heads like Yarrow and Angelica, whose tops are visited in the cool mornings, are great hiding places for lots of different bugs; beetles, spiders, flies, etc. The key on hot days is to look underneath the flowers and almost everytime we find a cool bug hiding in the shade.

Monday, July 19, 2010

More from Bucks Lake area

Here are some more images from yesterday's hike along the Mill Creek Trail near Bucks Lake. For a larger view as well as an ID caption, click on any image. Beautiful trail this time of year for wildflower viewing. Led a short nature hike out of Oakland Camp this morning and will post photos tomorrow morning. Saw some nice flowers, bugs, and a snake!