Showing posts with label nature's abundance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nature's abundance. Show all posts

Thursday, May 20, 2021

17 Year Cicadas Rise to the Occasion

It's a good thing the lawnmower refused to start on Monday, because on Tuesday morning, carrying our aging dog down the patio steps to the backyard, I saw that the 17 year cicadas had emerged overnight, and had used the long grass stems as a perch upon which to molt. 
They clung to the stems motionless, their new exoskeletons hardening, their wings drying in the morning sun. Were those brand new red eyes looking at me, or at everything all at once? Beside them was the empty shell of their former selves--the nymphs that had lived the past 17 years underground in patient immaturity, chowing down on tree roots. 

The night before, my daughter had heard the rustlings of leaves as she sat on the front steps. As dusk turned to dark, the million Magicicada march to adulthood had begun.

The immature nymphs had been preparing for this moment for some time, plotting their upward mobility, each having dug a tunnel to the surface. We had encountered them for weeks prior, slicing through their tunnels while digging holes, exposing their excavations while moving wood. I imagined them all stationed some distance down their tunnels, facing up, sensing the temperature of the air above them and the ground around them, ready to respond with fascinating unanimity to a cue only they could feel. 

I decided to bone up on them. What was wikipedia like 17 years ago? That which once was ridiculed, like "made in Japan" or "made in China," has become the information equivalent of what Deep Blue became in chess. Miraculously, it has evolved into a remarkably accurate and thorough source of information, encyclopedic, as it 'twere. I was sure people would find a way to mess it up. But no. Great to be wrong sometimes. Could this capacity to filter out the worst inclinations of humanity be applied to other areas of the internet?

Scrolling down through the wikipedia page on "periodical" cicadas, my simplistic assumption that 17 year cicadas emerge everywhere in the same year was blown out of the water. There are many different "broods" in the U.S., each with a different timing. In any given year, there's a brood of 17 or 13 year cicadas emerging somewhere. Virginia has seven different broods. New Jersey has three. Princeton's cicadas are part of the "great eastern brood," which extends from New York down to Georgia and out to Illinois. Is it called great because the brood extends over such a large geographic area, or simply because Princeton is included? We don't know. 

One thing the wikipedia entry doesn't explain is why I would have documented a considerable emergence of periodical cicadas in Princeton in May of 2017. The closest emergence in the wikipedia chart for that year was in North Carolina.

Can we eat them? I love this short article in the Smithsonian, which gives tips for gathering and cooking. I didn't take it personally when the article states that "Females are preferable for their protein-filled abdomens, while males offer little substance." The author of the article, someone named Twilight, must have enjoyed crafting sentences like "Marinating live bugs in Worcestershire sauce also helps weed out guys." It got me to wondering if I, too, would collapse if slow-cooked in vinegar, while the ladies all around me grew more tender by the minute.

One thing's for sure, this will be the most photographed generation of 17 year cicadas ever. For the next month or two, while their bus-with-wings bodies fill the air outside, they'll also be zipping around in posts, texts and tweets.

There's lots to read about why their periodicity (13 or 17 years) is in prime numbers. And why kill so much time underground before emerging en masse? It certainly makes it hard for predators like cicada killer wasps to expand their numbers sufficiently to take advantage of the sudden abundance of prey. Kill time or be killed--that's the logic.

And very interesting to read that moles do well the year prior to the emergence, as the cicada nymphs grow in size in preparation for their coming out party. Might the many moles feasting on growing cicada nymphs underground have had something to do with all the digging up of lawns by foxes, skunks, and raccoons reported last fall?

Trees are going to take a hit, as the female cicadas start cutting into twigs to lay their eggs. I remember seeing twigs littering the ground seventeen years ago, leaves still green, particularly under oaks. And I remember wondering what kind of world those cicadas would find when they next emerged, given the radical changes in climate we've set in motion. Thus far, not so much change in New Jersey. We've been lucky so far. I worry, though, as the mass combustion continues, and our deceptively shallow atmosphere fills with the invisible, transformative gases--the exhalations of an economy at odds with the nature we depend upon. More personally, it didn't even occur to me, seventeen years ago, to wonder if I'd be around for the next emergence. Now, that distant rendezvous is harder to take for granted. Cicadas aren't the only species playing a numbers game. It would feel better, this personal passing of years, if we weren't taking many of the glories of nature down with us. Whatever Happened to Forever is a one minute play I wrote that deals with this, at 8:49 in this video

This awareness of future endings stirred me to live this moment in cicada history more intensely. Eating dinner on the patio, I became aware of a prickly sensation on my legs. Normally, I would have brushed them off. Instead, wishing to experience their emergence fully, I let them climb. People have given me various nicknames over the years--"plantas", "the plant man"--and it's starting to look like even the insect world thinks I'm a tree. 

At one point, around the time I was polishing off my last shish kabob, I had six of them climbing the mountain of me. They had trouble with my hair, with most falling off before reaching the deceptive summit of my knee. But one was successful in making a nearly full ascent, climbing up to my shoulder, then ascending my neck and cheek. Only my sideburn and hairline proved unsurmountable, at which point it fell off, only to begin the climb again. 

After dark, I went out back to have another look at the lawn. A few more had climbed the grassblades. As they emerged from their shells, they showed two black spots just above the eyes, like dark eyebrows. But the unmowed lawn proved not to be the really big show.

Things really got interesting when I happened to look among the perennials. This purple coneflower looked like a Christmas tree with cicada ornaments, in all phases of metamorphosis. 

There's a bit of acrobatics to their molting. They do a slowmo backflip out of the shell, then bend up and grab their old skin, clinging to the shell of their former selves as they pull the rest of their abdomen out to hang free. Then it's a matter of unfolding and slowly expanding the wings, which look like little nubbins at first. 

A lot can go wrong in this stage. Some had wings that didn't grow out right, with one or the other being shorter and misshapened. 

When you google the cicadas as food, a study comes up warning that cicadas can accumulate a lot of things during their 17 years of underground munching, one of them being mercury. I don't know if it's a big concern. Many of our foods have traces of mercury. But it's worth wondering whether deformations in cicadas during molting is increasing as we continue to dig chemicals out of the earth and spread them around.

Another cicada had the bad luck to attract one of the slugs that was also seen climbing up foliage last night.

Many were having trouble finding a good place to climb. One even hitchhiked into my room and tried to climb into this blog post.

By morning, the cicada ornaments on the purple coneflower "tree" had darkened. Their wings and exoskeletons will slowly harden over the next few days. Though the coming din may grow tiring, it's still pleasurable to read that the adult males gather in something akin to a men's choir to sing to the females. Examples of nature's abundance, more rare now, are stunning to behold. We're in the midst of one now. 

Friday, November 06, 2020

In a Hidden Valley, Sudden Abundance, and a White Squirrel

Some of my favorite memories in nature are of sudden abundance. Day to day, walking through a woods or stepping into the backyard, we tend to see one or two of this or that bird or flower. The dispersed, low-key nature we typically see contrasts with accounts from long ago, when endless flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the sky, and herds of bison stretched to the horizon. As a kid, I read of distant streams or lakes teaming with fish. "Where lunkers lurk just below your boat" was one memorable headline. On a few occasions I convinced my father to drive me to them, trips that repeatedly ended in disappointment. 

Serendipity, however, has served up sudden abundance a few times in my life. One fall day early on in my small Wisconsin hometown I was walking home from school when I happened to look up and saw the whole sky filled with monarch butterflies heading south for the winter. There was the small inlet we canoed into in the Quetico, where we happened to look down and saw the shallow water was thick with a school of walleye, from which we quickly caught a delicious dinner. During our time in North Carolina, there was the time when hundreds of cedar waxwings enlivened our neighborhood for a couple days with their antics. And each year in the fall, I'd hope to be around when a large flock of migratory robins, with a few scarlet tanagers mixed in, would descend upon our yard, strip the flowering dogwoods of their ripened berries in an orgy of consumption, then be gone. Even the small park behind our house here in Princeton served one evening a few years ago as a stage for sudden abundance, when winged ants began emerging from the ground, attracting hundreds of dragonflies which in turn attracted a flock of swallows, spectacular fliers all.

This summer, serendipity served up sudden abundance in the most unlikely of places: a hidden valley in Princeton Junction. One afternoon I was standing outside a strip mall with a few minutes to kill, and decided to check out the woods behind the row of businesses. In retrospect, I was just following the flow of the pavement like any self-respecting raindrop would have done, but this going with the flow was taking me away from the human mainstream into another world.

There, beyond the edge of the asphalt, the land dropped down into a woodland like no other I have ever encountered. Perhaps only a botanist would have recognized the extraordinary nature of the nature that stretched before me. Clethra as far as the eye could see. Okay, let me explain. Clethra alnifolia, summersweet, sweet pepperbush, call it what you will, is a native shrub with a fragrant flower sometimes used in landscaping. 

Now, if you're into native plants, you may start to wonder where they typically grow in the wild. Many of the more popular ones--like Clethra, or Virginia sweetspire, bottlebrush buckeye, oak-leaved hydrangia, purple coneflower--have proven rare or non-existent in the wilds I've explored over the years. This could be due to the myriad ways in which we have transformed the landscape, from development to draining to fire exclusion. Or it could be that their home habitat is remote from places I've lived. In the case of Clethra, I had never seen it in the wild save for one sorry specimen holding on next to the towpath along the banks of Lake Carnegie. 

It was a surprise, then, to step behind a pizza joint just up from the Princeton Junction train station, and find myself gazing out on a sea of Clethra, growing like a weed. 

Ostrich fern is another plant I've rarely seen in the wild, and here it too was growing in abundance, giving the woodland a tropical look. 

Returning later with a pair of rubber boots, I waded out into the mud to explore this hidden valley, several times almost losing my boots in the thick muck. 

Here are a few other sudden abundances and rarities--plant, animal, and human--that I encountered:

On the hammocks of high ground surrounded by the mucky soils, Hydrangeas were in full bloom, reaching up to 17 feet tall.

Under a canopy of black gum, red maples and oaks, there were lots of Magnolias

and highbush blueberries.

Netted chain ferns, which bear a resemblance to the much more common sensitive fern, were tucked in among the massings of ostrich ferns.

A small, bent over tree with a curious compound leaf caught my attention. It wasn't a walnut or ash or anything else I could think of. I was excited at the thought that I had discovered a very rare tree, and stumped several botanists before sending a photo to Bob Wells of Morris Arboretum. He promptly identified it as poison sumac--something I hadn't encountered since field botany days in Michigan. The ID explained the skin rash I had been dealing with since handling it.

As with the poison sumac, there was just one Styrax, which showed the remains of its pendulant flowers, and one native azalea. All of these are rarely seen in the wild.
Only towards the other side of the valley did it become clear why this habitat was so different from what can be encountered in Princeton. Most of the stormwater runoff from the strip mall is somehow channeled to the far side of the valley, where it has eroded the stream and exposed the underlying gravel and sand. Simply by crossing Route 1, I had left the piedmont clay of Princeton and entered NJ's sandy inner coastal plain. Though erosion has changed one side of the valley, the other side is fortunately bypassed by the runoff, allowing the mucky soils and hammocks to persist in something close to their pre-development state.  

I had just counted my 30th wild hydrangea blooming in the valley when I saw a man with a white beard walking down into the woods. Scampering about 30 feet ahead of him was a white squirrel. I had already encountered so many unusual plants in this valley, and now I was seeing a white squirrel for the first time in my life. 
It's distinct appearance lent magnificence to its every move, as if a spotlight were upon it. This photo is the best I could manage with my cell phone as the man continued down the slope. The white squirrel can be seen in the lower right corner. 
He didn't seem to notice me, so I called out to ask him something about the squirrel. He turned and began telling me about a white squirrel he had befriended some years back. It had been a true albino, with pink eyes, and he had trained it to come to him for food. It had gotten to the point where it would come inside. He said that he'd start opening the door for the squirrel to go in his house, and the squirrel would push it further open and come in. He said the true albinos supposedly can't see as well, and that's one reason why it might have allowed itself to be tamed. One day it disappeared, and a friend told him it had been hit by a car. 

The white squirrel I had just seen was one of the albino's offspring. Actually, he explained, they are called silver squirrels, because they have a little gray on their backs, but are otherwise white. Squirrels are really smart, I interjected, expecting him to marvel at how remarkable squirrels are, but my thoughts on their intelligence made him think instead of how you can't keep them out of a house, and how squirrels had gotten into an old neighbor's attic and nearly destroyed her house. He was clearly not one to romanticize animals.

I asked him if this hidden valley is protected, and he said they have had to fight to keep the developers out of it. They lost about 60 feet of it when the strip mall developers wanted to build off the back. Lots of trees lost. He later said there's no organization, just the neighbors who border the property. He had a t-shirt on that said "REAL MEN DON'T NEED INSTRUCTIONS". I asked to take a photo of the shirt, as an excuse to photograph him. He said yes, and pointed out the hammer on the shirt, accidentally cut in two by a table saw. His name was John.

We walked down to the stream, where he said there had been a bridge that got washed out. The bridge turned out to be a long timber, 8x8, which he lifted back into place with some effort, but still impressive for his age. He said the neighborhood is called Berrien City

I told him how amazing this valley was for a botanist like me. He said when he'd first heard about the house they bought, and heard it was in Princeton Junction, he pictured something urban. But finding this valley behind it changed his mind. He asked if I'd seen the pond, and when I said no he offered to show me. 

As we maneuvered through the woods thick with sweet pepperbush, he began telling me about his early days, living on the outskirts of Langhorne, PA. He had wanted to be off the grid back then, bought a house that hadn't been lived in for 30 years, had a hole in the roof, one bedroom, a living room and a kitchen. They had a 2 year old son. Their water came from a spring up the hill. A number of them living there dug underground pipes to direct the water to their homes. He said he was at the bottom of the line, and had 600 feet of regular garden hose that the water flowed through to get to his cisterns--one of concrete and two of stainless steel. The cisterns were always full and overflowing, and to keep the water flowing through the hose in winter he had to keep the faucet open in the kitchen. If the hoses froze, he had to gather up all 600 feet and bring them in next to his woodstove to thaw out. He heated completely with wood until their son was seven. The house had 30 amp service, and there was some sort of radiant heater he could turn on to warm the outhouse seat before he headed out there in the winter. They heated water on a stove, and bathed in a tin tub in the kitchen. They ate squirrel and raccoon. The raccoon, he said, actually tasted good. A possum they tried, though, tasted like a McDonald dumpster. He still chops wood. His son, a policeman, still heats his house with wood, even though they have a regular furnace. His son uses a woodsplitter, though. 

The subject of raccoons got him talking about how he used to pay his mortgage with roadkill. Raccoon pelts fetched $50 back in 1980, and fox $75. He'd keep them in his freezer, skinned or sometimes not, until he had enough to make a delivery. It didn't take many to come up with 300 bucks. 

John told me more stories as we stood next to the stormwater pond, in this otherworldly valley hidden behind the loading docks and clustered storefronts of a strip mall that looked like any other in America. I wished I had turned on my phone's recorder to capture his voice and more fully document his story. Much of it involved his life in the fur trade in the 1980s, driving fur traders along a circuit from NY City out to North Carolina, north to Ohio and Pennsylvania, then back to New York, sometimes with $100,000 worth of furs in the back of the truck. It sounded like an updated version of trade in the 18th century. As a line of work, it probably met its demise in the 1990s, when animal cruelty concerns came to the fore. And I doubt a mortgage could be paid off in the 21st century with roadkill. 

Heading back to my pickup afterwards, as if to bend my mind once more before emerging from the woodland, I saw another white squirrel, or perhaps the same one, racing up a tree.

Friday, March 03, 2017

A Thousand-Eyed Grackle

With the temperature reaching 74 on February 25, I looked out our back picture window to see that our usually peaceful backyard had come alive with motion. The lawn was astir with the hyper black-winged commotion of hundreds of grackles. Their iridescent necks flashed blues, greens and purples as each probed the ground for food, with not a second to lose. Five or six stalked about on the edge of the fillable-spillable minipond, angling for a sip of water. I grabbed a camera and crept towards the window, eager to document their spectacular numbers and energy. But even my barely perceptible movements were caught by one of a thousand eyes, and off they went in a flash, a winged unison where a moment before each had been absorbed in its own pursuit of food and water. They crowded the high branches of a nearby pin oak while somehow collectively plotting their next move. Had I seen 500 birds? Or had it been one bird with 500 mouths and 1000 wings?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

How to Thank a Leaf

On this day of gratitude, I would like to thank leaves of all kinds for all they do, for all the CO2 they eat, and all the treats they make possible, with their patient translation of sun into sugar. As if that weren't enough, they close the summer's show by becoming candy for the eye, then fly and fall in a dance with gravity, to blanket and feed the earth upon which all depends, though we pretend otherwise. How do I thank them all, where they lay in humble anonymity, while we brag and boast and think ourselves the center of the world? And how do I thank the windblown leaves that raced along with my bicycle a week or two ago? The wind at our backs, they cheered me down the sidewalk like a tickertape parade, as if all the world were going my way.