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. 

Out of my element, seeking beauty....

This post is dedicated to Rex Burriss of Oroville, fellow naturalist and friend.  My blog is almost entirely devoted to celebrating native plants, animals and fungi in the vicinity of my home town of Quincy punctuated by occasional political commentary.  A while back, Rex introduced me via e.mails to the Pistache tree which puts on a wonderful show of color around his home town as well as around the malls in nearby Chico.  On this past Monday, some friends and I drove to Davis to see the artwork of a sketchbook artist we admire, one Pete Scully.  A show of his work is at the public library during the month of November.  But the library was closed for the week!!!!  I see that now as a blessing in disguise - we found the color of the pistache trees around the library to be spectacular.  I must admit that if we had become absorbed in Pete Scully's wonderful art, the pistache trees around the parking lot might not have gotten our attention.  Today, just before posting these photos, I checked me e.mail, and lo and behold there was a message from Rex with a photo of a pistache tree near Oroville.  Thank you Rex, and Happy Thanksgiving. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Things to do in winter

The choices available to me at the moment: Walk in snow, curl up and keep warm, dream of summer. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Desert Visit

A story about my interesting rest stop in the desert will follow soon.  I can say that the desert is far more interesting when walking about in the sagebrush than while driving through at freeway speeds.

It's now late Thursday.  Ironically, I was pondering a narrative about my trip through the desert off and on all day Wednesday and was thinking about teeth.  Today, I visited my dentist, and that cinched it.  You see, the technical name for the sagebrush is Artemesia tridentata, so named because the distal margin of each leaf has three projections that resemble teeth (to imaginative botanists anyway).  The second photo shows the teeth (i. e., dentition) in a canid skull.  I was in too much of a hurry to determine if it was Coyote or Dog.  Besides telling my dentist about this blog post, I told him that Dandelion is a compression of the French "dent de leon," tooth of the lion, or lion's tooth, after the "dentate" margins of the leaves.  We were having fun sharing the large amount of dental terminology that overlaps that of plant taxonomy. 
What struck me about this particular brief visit to the desert was the difference between viewing it at highway speeds vs. getting out and walking around.    First, the fragrance of the Sagebrush is impressive - only apparent while driving during specific conditions of temperature and humidity, but always pleasant and powerful when walking among the bushes.  Second, one immediately stumbles across evidence of a great deal of animal activity, most of which takes place at night.  I think the droppings in the fifth photo are jackrabbit, but they could be deer.  I'm not an expert in scatology.  The ant hill was impressive.  It was a very cold morning, so when I poked the hill with a stick, it didn't arouse any ants.  On a hot afternoon, sometimes a single poke with a stick will cause an explosion of ants.  I've even seen an ant stampede erupt in response to a little foot stomping from several feet away from their hill.  This brief roadside stop brought back memories of exciting times spent in the Sonoran desert from the Mojave to western Texas.  Traveling at night with a flashlight is the most exciting, although one does need to watch out for rattlesnakes.  Many different kinds of animals spent their days underground and walk and crawl about on the surface at night.  The Spadefoot Toad spends most of each year underground, but emerges during the slightest of spring rains to breed.  Their rate of development from egg to adult is quite adjustable according to the rate of evaporation of the puddles in which the eggs are laid.  The process can take as little as a week.  Even though the desert north of Reno is only an hour from my home in Quincy, it is literally another world as it is on the eastern side of the Sierra crest, a rain shadow, and supports literally hundreds of species of plants and animals that are not found around Quincy.  One of the things I love about studying natural history in Plumas County is the proximity of so many different biological communities by traveling only an hour or so east or west, or getting off the main highways and experiencing a range of elevations from 2,000 in the lower Feather River Canyon, to many peaks that exceed 8,000' to Lassen Peak, at the northern tip of the county at 10,400'.  Also, it is in this county that the Sierra meets the Cascades.  Many different species have the northernmost or southernmost extent of their range in this county.
One last thought about teeth.  I've always found the dentists' system of numbering our teeth from 1 to 32 rather boring compared to the zoologists' terms: incisors, canines, premolars and molars.  In canines and felines these four categories of teeth have much more differentiation of shapes and functions than human teeth.  For my comparative anatomy class, many years ago, I did a term paper on mammalian teeth.  I collected many skulls in the forests and swamps around New Orleans, Louisiana, then visited slaughterhouses in Massachusetts when I went home for Christmas.  My paper included ink line drawings of every skull with emphasis on the similarities and differences of their teeth.  I still have the paper; in fact, this year the paper is fifty years old!  I think I'll dig it out of my file cabinet and reminisce.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

An Old Friend

We drove to Chico last Thursday for the first time in many months.  Took a little Stretch break as we neared the Oroville Reservoir and was struck by the beauty of Gray Pine, Pinus sabiniana, AKA Foothill Pine.  Ironically, my favorite field guide to this region uses these politically correct two names for the pine that was formerly known as Digger Pine, yet adds "large heavy cones with savage spines." [italics mine]  The cones are certainly impressive, but I don't think I'd call them savage.  That implies a motive!  Very heavy, and I'd hate to get hit on the noggin by one.  I brought two cones home and photographed them on my front lawn.  I've eaten the seeds of this pine, and they taste very good.  However, the shells seem as hard as ebony and are very difficult to crack.  This pine has three needles per bundle so it's in the yellow pine group like the Ponderosa and Jeffrey Pines at higher elevations.  I'll share more information about this pine another day.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Refugees from the Courthouse Lawn

I rescued these from the courthouse lawn.  The leaf blowers will be back Monday morning, using lots of fossil fuel to transport the rest of them somewhere.  It would be nice to see them raked into piles for kids to jump in, and then know that they'd return to the soil whence they came.  Meanwhile, I can return to this page or my nature journal to remember their beauty.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fall Images

When most of the flowers and colorful leaves are gone, I search for the more subtle objects of beauty in my environment.  One of the last stands of colorful broad-leaf trees is in my friend Mike's yard.  Besides the bright red leaves, there's just enough shrubbery to create mini-wild habitats where I find lots of interesting bugs, worms, frogs, and fungi.  A beautiful, late-season Crimson Columbine I photographed here a couple of weeks ago wilted and dried up rather quickly leaving behind this "shell" which was a fountain of seeds, another form of beauty.  A close-up of a 5'-diameter Ponderosa Pine, especially if you click on it, shows why some call it "Puzzle Tree."

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Illusion of Spring in the Fall

I'd never visited the Butterfly Valley botanical area in the fall until today.  I was quite surprised to see the fresh green look of the Pitcher Plants, AKA Cobra Lily (not really a lily), Darlingtonia californica.  I expected the leaves to be brown and mostly smashed into the muck of the meadow.  I have often visited this area in late spring when the flower stalks are also plentiful, and there are literally hundreds of other species of wildflowers in the area, including several species of Sundew.  Since I only live about 6 miles from this spot, I plan to pay much more attention to the Pitcher Plant next spring and summer.  I'd love to discover what pollinates the flowers.  Might need to bring my mosquito repellant and camp out.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Messing Around before the Next Snow

Most of our local wildflowers have acknowledged that summer is over and have gone to seed, as you can see from the dandelion and milkweed above.  Others are not so sure.  The top photo shows some newly-formed seed pods of filaree, AKA Storksbill, but the second photo, taken just a foot away from the first one, shows that some are still blooming.  The bud of a cultivated peony surrounded by fresh-looking green foliage gives an impression of spring.  There were several large, white blooms on this plant.  They'll undoubtedly perish quickly if we get a significant snowfall this weekend. 
Having grown up in New England, known for its unpredictable weather, I guess I have an enduring fascination with changes of season and the unpredictable nature of them in the mountains.  While we're expecting a storm here at the 3,500' elevation, tomorrow I'm driving down to the Chico area, below 1,000', where they never get a true winter.  In fact, the forecast calls for a 60-degree high and possibly a warm sprinkle.  Compared to Quincy, it will look quite green and, as far as I'm concerned, it's the beginning of spring.  I hope I get time to tip over a few logs and rocks and photograph some bugs.  In Quincy, most are already secure in their winter resting places.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

An End, or a Beginning?

Why this photo, when the blooming is done for the season?  I just sold an 8x10 of this image to a friend, and, in fixing up a mat and frame, fell in love with it all over again.  The Crimson Columbine was blooming in this same friend's yard at least a month later than this species was going to seed everywhere else in the vicinity.  There must have been something special about the microclimate in the shade on the north side of his house.  This little area recently has been the home of some beautiful fungi and a very large toad. 
On this very cold morning, my oldest daughter's birthday, I finally dressed for the occasion and thoroughly enjoyed a two-mile walk while waiting for an oil change.  I'm now in a warm cafe, looking back on the morning.  I just realized that I probably never looked up at the sky for the entire two miles.  I was focused on the weedy ground in front of me, hoping to see the last few blooming flowers.  I am still resisting the end of summer, even while looking forward to winter.  I managed to spot one small patch of filaree with two blossoms.  Then I came across lots of wild mustard.  Got to thinking about cruciferous vegetables in general, even though the family name has been changed from Cruciferae to Brassicaceae.  Somehow brassicaceous vegetables doesn't have that same 'ring.' 
Among the many other thoughts I entertained on this walk, is my admiration for a book by Hannah Hinchman, A Trail Through Leaves.  I am rereading the book.  I managed to read Chapter 1, for about the tenth time, over a cup of tea.  The result, I had to make the momentous decision whether to take out my highlighter or buy a package of Post-it(r)'s.  I decided in favor of the latter.  Then, I decided to start yet another journal.  In fact, I'm calling this one "Yet Another Nature Journal."  It will start off as a dialogue between myself and the passages I mark in Hannah's amazing book.  Hopefully, at this point, my readers will understand the title of today's post.  I'll keep you posted (pun intended).