Sunday, December 25, 2011

I Wish I Knew How to Hibernate

When I start feeling sorry for myself as I walk the frigid 25 yards to my firewood pile, I'm humbled by the Wooly Bear caterpillar that seems to be perfectly content without a jacket - well, I guess he has a built-in jacket.  The cats are having fun fighting to keep warm in the front hallway.  When they go outside to eat, it's interesting to see how they get twice as big by puffing up their hair.  Meanwhile, I go back to writing.  The electronic sentinel my son Ryan built me for Christmas stands guard over my subscription renewal form for Poets and Writers.  I must say, one advantage of holing up in the cold weather is that I'm more motivated to write and draw.  In the summer, it's hard for me to slow down long enough for deliberative activities.  That's one thing I've always liked about a climate with four distinct seasons.  Impossible to become too set in my ways. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It's Not My Fault!

Interesting day.  I read an article about the woes of the US Postal Service.  They're blaming their financial difficulties on the increased use of e.mail and decreased use of conventional (i. e., snail) mail.  Then I went to the Post Office and found in my box a purple card reading "Excess mail; please come to the counter."  When I approached the counter, there was a long line and only one clerk on duty.  They've evidently reduced staff just in time for the Christmas rush.  "Tis the season for irony."
So, what's this commentary doing in a Natural History blog?  Here's the tie-in:
I had just been talking with my daughter about an important biological and sociological concept: adaptation.  She's taking high school biology, but hasn't got to that part of the book yet.  I told her that a particular set of social skills that might be a successful adaptation to one high school environment might be especially maladaptive in another.  My examples from biology were a.) kangaroo rats specifically adapted to a desert environment would not likely do well in a rain forest, and b.) polar bears don't do well in temperate environments, like zoos in Florida, unless great care is taken to keep them cool.  I suggested that the path to social success at our local high school might not be the same in, say, an urban magnet school focused on math and science skills.
So, will the Postal Service adapt to the increased use of e.mail?  Does it care?  Will a critical mass of people maintain a preference for letters and cards they can hold in their hands, or will they adapt to cyberspace?  The larger question is - will adapting to life in cyberspace prove to be maladaptive for our species in the long run?  Sure wish I had a crystal ball - metaphorically speaking, of course.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Yet Another Cat Position

In between opportunities to make bona fide nature observations during the winter months, I enjoy watching our cats.  The two whose "fighting" photo I posted here recently spent last night sleeping in the same wicker basket outside our bedroom door.  They quickly scattered when I opened the door (can two things scatter?) so I couldn't get to my camera quickly enough.  However, Radar struck this relaxed pose on a tote bag on our dining room table.  Domesticated cats are such an interesting blend of domesticity and wildness.  It's no wonder they have often been revered by royalty.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

It was a very cold day, but there must be pockets of warmth here and there.  While i was splitting firewood, I heard frogs croaking.  I wonder if it was these guys?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Nature Greeting Cards

These 5 photos are now available on 5" by 7", blank (on the inside) greeting cards with brief natural history notes on the backs.  $3.50 each with envelope plus shipping.  For orders of 10 or more, $3.00 each with free shipping.  Inquire by e.mail at  Despite all the red and green, these are not strictly seasonal cards.  Many photos that have appeared in this blog will be available as greeting cards soon. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dust of Snow

Robert Frost put it this way:

The day a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I rued.

I saw no crows today, nor hemlocks, but viewing the fresh snow early in the morning, before it got sanded and plowed, was exhilarating.  There's a secret thrill in planting the first footprints. We are accustomed to hoping for a white Christmas, but just once I'd like to experience Christmas in the southern hemisphere.  So many of our symbols of the season are northern European in origin, it might be interesting to experience the alternatives.  I wonder if Santa crosses the equator.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Anti-freeze for blood?

We've had early morning temperatures in the teens (Fahrenheit) and barely rising above freezing in the afternoons.  Somehow this butterfly was clinging to life in our woodpile.  It was actually quite active and would not sit still on my hand, as if it knew it wasn't camouflaged. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Monday Nite Fights

Radar, the gray one on the bottom, rules the cat kingdom at our house, but the newcomer, Dulce, isn't afraid to challenge.  I guess it's a learning experience.  Somehow this photo of the Red Milkweed Beetle from my August archives looked like a similar event.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

I Love Irony

Just read the S. F. Chronicle "Grabbers; A Selection of First Sentences From New Books."  One that caught my eye was "There is hardly anything more natural than hating Nature."  In my line of work, that sort of sentiment gets my attention!  It's the opening line in a novel by Milen Ruskov titled Thrown Into Nature.  I read several reviews and I think I need to get this novel.  It appeals to my sense of humor.  Reminds me of a favorite quote from Lily Tomlin: "No matter how cynical I get, I can't keep up."  Maybe I'm in this mood because of watching excerpts from last night's Republican debate.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Buzzards' Roost Christmas Tree

The first time out, I forgot to bring my saw.  Perhaps a good thing because someone tipped us off to a better place and we got a nice Red Fir near Buck's Summit.  Fringe benefit, as always, is seeing many beautiful objets de natur.  I'm sure the tree in the top photo is considered one of the prettiest around by the vultures and ravens.  For that reason, it seemed beautiful to us, too.  As we approached the summit, there were several patches of bright red Mountain Ash berries.  Slipped on ice while photographing this cluster.  Managed to do a kind of judo fall and save my camera from destruction.  Here's our tree on the roof.  I hope the permit is visible.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


This is the third in a series I call "Cat Positions."  I do this for amusement when it's too cold outside or I'm too busy to pursue close-up nature photos.  I think our youngest cat, Dolce, knows about the project because now he's taken to posing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Make Lemonade

"When life serves you lemons, make lemonade."  That quote, attributed to Dale Carnegie, among others, was running through my head on my way back from finding a Christmas tree on Claremont Mountain.  This morning my son and I headed up Claremont on the Peppard Flat Road to a place where we found a nice tree last year.  This year I remembered to bring the permit along.  However, right after finding a really nice-looking white fir, I discovered that I had forgotten to bring the saw!
A senior moment, I suppose.  However, during the outing we saw lots of wonderful subjects for photography.  I won't say I remembered to bring my camera; I simply forgot to take it out of the car after my previous outing.  The manzanita at the side of the road exhibited some great frost patterns.  We wondered why the frost persisted on the manzanita while it had melted off all the other nearby plants.  There were also some attractive chinquapin bushes.  Then, the ultimate view was of Lassen Peak in the distance.  And, it looks like we'll have to drive up there again tomorrow, with the saw.  We always see something new.  Stay tuned.

The Back of My Hand

The other day in Reno with family, I was asked to drive us from point A to point B.  I took a route that my passengers didn't think was correct.  In defending my choice of route, I said, "I know this town like the back of my hand."  I did get us to the requested destination, but I suddenly realized the back of my hand was not a very good measure.  In fact, I knew I was not that familiar with the back of my hand and probably knew the streets of Reno better.  I've never had a compelling reason to study the back of my hand. 
Now the two birch leaves pictured above are another story.  Early one morning as I was leaving the house, I was startled by the beauty of the heavily frosted leaves on the front lawn.  Then I noticed these two and pondered why on one leaf the frost was concentrated on the veins while on the other the frost accumulated between the veins.  I stared at these two leaves for quite a while, in fact longer than I ever stared at the back of my hand.  So, the next time you let slip "I know this _______ like the back of my hand, realize that you might not know it all that well!  Do I recommend getting to know your hand better?  No.  But I highly recommend spending more time looking closely at nature's details. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Most Interesting Plant

A reason for the season?  Mistletoe.  Folklore and science, coming soon.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Little Sea Life in Quincy


Accidentally posted today's nature photos and a bit of text on the other blog I participate in.  Check it out!  Quincy Writers Group. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Slug Makes a Statement

Says the slug, "According to the latest data-mining sources, retail sales over the recent Thanksgiving weekend rose 16% above last year's; the 'average shopper' spent $398.62; and, retail sales totaled $52.4 billion. Here's what I think about all of that!" "Click on the photo if you can't hear me."

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cyber Monday Antidote

Tainted Thursday, Black Friday, Satiated Saturday, Succumbing Sunday, and Cyber Monday.  Not all are official - yet.  As the comedian said, "Enough is Too Much."  Not as eloquently expressed as Wordsworth, but the same general idea.  If you've had too much, please enjoy this set of photos I took this morning.  Click on each one for a closer view.  When I look at the these ice crystals close up, I imagine them forming.  Maybe I should participate in Cyber Monday after all and see if I can find a great deal on a video camera.  Nah, I think I'll stay home and use my imagination.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Another Cat Position

I do a lot of my best creative thinking on the other side of the wall behind this coolest of cats.  Watching this cat assume his/her position in front the Alley Cat cafe, I was reminded of two things.  First, an old poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that begins "Sometime during eternity...."  The poet uses jazz musician terminology to describe a Christmas theme.  Jesus is a cool cat, and "the cat who really laid it on us is his Dad...."  At least one theme in the poem is the futility of petitionary prayer.  Knowing Ferlinghetti, there are probably several more themes that I missed.  Second, I'm reminded of a wonderful passage in Hannah Hinchman's book, A Trail Through Leaves, in which she compares getting used to various artists' tools to learning the idiosyncrasies of individual cats in terms of what they and their owners expect out of their relationships.  The way one cat likes to be stroked might make another cat angry.  Likewise, we need to learn the nuances of different pens, brushes, papers, etc., and make sure our expectations of their performance fits with what they are capable of delivering.  To me, Hinchman's description of this process reads like poetry.  I am finding that humans' relationships with pets, just as their relationships with the wilderness, reveals more about us that warrants introspection.
With that said, our youngest cat is due to be neutered.  After the process is completed, I suspect I'll  have more to report on cat positions.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Cat Positions

I couldn't resist getting this photo of our newest kitten, Dulce.  As he gets used to our home, he sometimes seems very tame and intelligent.  At other times, he's very wild and intelligent.  It's fun to watch him practice hunting skills with ping pong balls, pencils, and random scraps of paper, then graduate to practicing on our older cats.  So far, our dogs ignore him, probably because they know they could squash him like a bug or swallow him whole. 
I recently viewed a video called "My Life as a Turkey" and was amazed.  Those birds are smart!!  Also saw a video of octopi.  They, too, seemed much smarter than I would ever have imagined.  Between these videos and my cat, it seems obvious that intelligence comes in many forms and that humans differ in degree and style from other animals but are not necessarily of superior intelligence.  In fact, if you pay much attention to the current campaigns for president, you might  conclude that we rank below cockroaches. 
Our cat often assumes positions that make me think.  That's more than most of my elementary school teachers did.  I guess that's another sign of their intelligence.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Saints and Strangers

Some things never change.  Story to be inserted tomorrow, but I wanted it dated Thanksgiving Day.

The following story appeared in the now-defunct Green Mountain Gazette 31 years ago today.
Saints and Strangers,
Let Us Give Thanks
by Joe Willis
   This is dedicated to my late high school history teacher, Homer Paulus, who taught me that wanderers should remember their roots.
   When that largely ignored holiday, Columbus Day, rolls around, I develop an atavistic desire for fresh cranberries.  It's not that I'm particularly fond of cranberries per se, but each fall it's the arrival of fresh cranberries that first triggers my  Thanksgiving memories which go back to playing on the lawn beneath a magnificent statue of Massasoit in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
   While growing up in what used to be rural, southeastern Massachusetts, children are surrounded by reminders of their heritage.  For me, it was an environment remarkably different from what my own children are experiencing while growing up here in Quincy West.
   During my cowboy and Indian days, I always insisted on being an Indian.  My brother and I, for reasons I've never discovered, sided with the underdogs at an early age.  We hid our bicycles - that's right, Indians on bicycles - in King Philip's Cave a few miles from our home.  King Philip's given name was Metacomet.  He was a son of Massasoit, the chief (or sachem) who allegedly befriended the Pilgrims.
   I always wondered why, if Massasoit was such a friend to the Pilgrims, his son Metacomet would wage one of the bloodiest wars in history against the colonists.  My teachers didn't want to talk about it, if in fact they knew anything about it.  Another mystery: while we were always taught that if the Pilgrims' advance began with their landing on Cape Cod in 1620,  it was never explained how the Indian, Squanto, met them on the shore already able to speak English.  I wondered about that as a Boy Scout during summer outings at Camp Squanto, but I never got an answer. 
   Just north of Plymouth is the Myles Standish Monument, a beautiful stone cylinder with a circular stairway inside and a statue of Captain Standish on top, rifle in hand.  While enjoying racing up that stairway and admiring the giant stone rifle in Standish's hands, we kids were vaguely aware that this early hero had some sort of peacekeeping role around the time of the first Thanksgiving.
   The nearby town of Carver is a memorial to John Carver whose compassion and sense of community enabled him to persuade a skeptical group of Mayflower passengers to sign a Compact for self-government.  This, of course, was a precedent to much of the best American political thinking of the next 300 years.  What mattered more to us kids, though, was that the town of Carver was the center of the cranberry industry, which, like me, has since moved westward. 
    My fondest memories of cranberries are not so much of the taste of Mom's cranberry sauce, but of the cranberry bogs themselves.  Much of Pilgrim territory is now taken up by numerous rectangular, diked cranberry bogs which are flooded in winter to protect the cranberries from freezing.  To energetic young teenagers like my brother and me, cranberry bogs frozen over in winter represent the ideal hockey rink more so than a source of Thanksgiving delicacies.  But, at our present ages, the Thanksgiving memories are becoming more important than the hockey.
    Another childhood activity somehow connected to our Thanksgiving memories and ties with our Pilgrim heritage was shooting herring with bows and arrows. The herring run of all herring runs was in a creek near Brewster on Cape Cod.  There were so many herring that we could aim anywhere into the water and hit a herring nearly every time.  During our teepee days, we even buried herring, like Samoset had shown the Pilgrims, in order to help the corn grow.  We forgot to put in the corn seeds, though, and local dogs and cats got the herring.  Brewster, by the way, was named after William Brewster, one of the most humane spiritual leaders among the Mayflower group.
    Among our strongest Thanksgiving memories, of course, are the traditional foods.  I never really cared for turkey, maybe because we'd always cook a 25-pounder then have to eat turkey sandwiches for about a month.  We'd run out just in time for our Christmas turkey!  Now, being mostly vegetarian, my memories are focused more on the pumpkin pie, Indian pudding, baked potatoes and onions, fresh corn on the cob, and endless desserts.  We began the feast each year vowing not to eat too much 'this time,' but we'd all end up immobilized anyway.
    In recent years, this mosaic of memories traceable, via my New England upbringing, to the first Thanksgiving, has become expanded and altered.  A changing philosophy has led to a few meatless Thanksgivings.  From the research of a number of Native American and black historians, I've learned that the relationship between the Puritans and the Indians was not so benign as I had been taught.  After all, the palefaces did invent the term 'redskin' and they also stole a lot of corn.  And Myles Standish turns out to have been a smallish, hot-tempered soldier looking for a war or some similar puberty rite.  The turkeys, who never appreciated Thanksgiving, are now being raised with such electronic, seasonal regulation, that it's an embarrassment to any humane-minded person who takes a close look.  Interestingly, that motley group who started all this were rather sharply divided, according to their own perceptions, into "Saints" and "Strangers."  The former term referred to those who had gathered together for a common religious purpose, and Strangers were all the others.
    So, what do I have to be thankful for?  After all, that is what this day is all about.  An obvious fringe benefit for the kids is the vacation from school.  Despite my discovery of some blemishes in the First Thanksgiving story, I love the story, and I'm glad merely to be aware of the personalities and events that took place in my first back yards long before I played in them.  As for my children, I am anxious to show them Pilgrimland at our first opportunity.  As for giving thanks, we are most thankful to the Pilgrims, despite their shortcomings, for imbuing us with the spirit of pulling together and sharing during the hard times and knowing how to share in celebration during the good times.  We can't ask for much more from a heritage.

Now, over 30 years later, I still have most of the same feelings and beliefs - except for that last paragraph.  I was too kind.  It turns out those first white settlers in New England were not very nice, and they now seem to me to resemble the current US Congress, mostly Strangers, not too many Saints.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What's Christmas All About?

My previous post was a short photo-essay on a non-native tree, the pistache.  The current one is more typical of my work in that it focuses on a native species, the Mountain Ash, and pays some attention to the season, in this case the "holiday" season.  To partially answer my title question: Christmas is partly about red and green, thus the Mountain Ash.  It is also about buying lots of stuff, thus the despicable message on the window of a local shop.  Maybe this was meant to be satirical, but maybe it wasn't.  It might be interesting to do a natural history of Black Friday.  Some merchants are acting a bit sheepish and apologetic about continuing the pressure to launch the Christmas shopping season earlier and earlier, yet doing it anyway.  One such example is a merchant calling the big day "plaid Friday."  I hope that posting the bottom photo will suffice to get my cynical streak out of the way.  Then, over the coming days I will post items about ties between nature and traditional celebrations of the season.  From the perspective of a naturalist, the many different pagan celebrations are the richer field to mine.  Stay tuned, and Happy Thanksgiving.