8. A Sugar Creek Memoir

The lovely little stream christened Sugar Creek arises near the border of Clinton and Tipton Counties up in central Indiana. It then flows to the southwest for ninety miles, mostly at a leisurely clip with two or three miles an hour being the norm. Along the way there are short, faster stretches of white water that pass for rapids here in Indiana. I suppose someone who cut their kayaking-teeth on western streams would be less impressed and more likely to call them riffles. But they are sufficient to make the stream a popular one for canoeists and kayakers. As the stream follows its meandering path, a watershed of just over 800 square miles is drained.  All this runoff from farmland and forest eventually joins the Wabash River just north of the little burg of Montezuma.

Sugar Creek has done some beautiful work in the ten thousand years since Indiana’s encounter with the Wisconsin ice sheet. The sandstone bluffs along its course testify to the steady, patient, erosive power of water. In places, the stream has cut through fossil-bearing strata of high quality. Much of this bedrock represents sediments from the bottom of an ancient inland sea.  I once saw a wonderfully detailed (and expensive) slab of Indiana sandstone loaded with marine crinoid fossils (folks around here often call them Indian beads) in a shop in Jackson, Wyoming. Noting its source, I was pleasantly surprised to see Crawfordsville, Indiana listed.

I’ve made a few trips down Sugar Creek by canoe, but it’s been awhile; a good long while now that I think about it. Perhaps being 72 years old has something to do with this recent dearth of Sugar Creek canoeing. I’ll admit that sitting in the same position on an aluminum seat for several hours has lost much of its charm. Being a little less flexible in the joints doesn’t improve one’s canoeing skills either. Additionally, there is that pesky issue of possessing a sense of balance that now seems to unpredictably hit “pause” of its own volition

But, I certainly wouldn’t think of telling you not to do a float on Sugar Creek some summer. The stream still has much to offer. Usually low and in no particular hurry in midsummer (in fact you might do some portaging), Sugar Creek winds its way through both Shades and Turkey Run state parks, two of the state’s last natural gemstones. Indiana’s first nature preserve, Pine Hills, also lies along Sugar Creek. The huge sycamores, one of Indiana’s largest trees, lining the stream are a sight to behold. Beyond the sycamores, and cloaking the slopes above the creek, stand rich forests of oak, maple, and hickory. The numerous sand and gravel bars are inhabited by soft-shelled turtles. Espying your approach, they race down the sand bar and into the water at a speed that makes a lie of the old saw about turtles moving in slow motion. Great blue herons prowl the shoreline. Their stately, patient stalking of prey is a reminder for us to be persistent, stick with a task and we will be rewarded. Turkey vultures in decorous, soaring flight can be seen passing overhead in the narrow aperture betwixt the forested canopies of the left and right banks. Keep a wary eye lest your presence surprises them and a cascade of defensive vomit comes plummeting from on high. Pileated woodpeckers traverse the stream in their determined search for a delicious meal of carpenter ants or wood-boring beetle larvae. Belted kingfishers stand guard upon dead snags, ready to plunge dive for shiners or young suckers. Today there is a good chance of seeing a bald eagle. Back in my canoeing days, seeing a bald eagle was a very rare event. They were still recovering from the ravages of DDT. Yes, there is much to see and appreciate along Sugar Creek.

Speaking for myself, it isn’t so much the physical challenge that has kept me away all these years. The problem is that I am old enough to recall another era on the stream; one that is gone now and unlikely to return. Five decades ago – yes, I guess it really has been that long – one could float Sugar Creek from Crawfordsville down to Jackson Bridge in Parke County and still get a sense of 19th century Indiana. One could capture the sensation of adventure engendered by being a pioneer, a discoverer, an explorer. Of course the reason for the distinct difference between then and now was the lack of other people on the water. Just west of Crawfordsville itself one was prone to see cabins and fish-camps, but their numbers soon diminished and the stream was mostly deserted. On one of my trips back in the sixties, we encountered only two other canoes during two days of travel. Most of the time It took little effort to be transported back in history and to imagine that you were the only one on the stream altogether. Perhaps it is inevitable that all this has changed now. Canoes, with their novice pilots and noisy passengers are deposited by the busload at the drop-off points. The sense of solitude and independence that was so much a part of the Sugar Creek experience is gone for good. No amount of effort will allow one to imagine being alone with the stream or engaged in your own musings while drifting along within a veritable flotilla.

Upon reflection, perhaps I am being selfish. After all, one could argue that Sugar Creek is a natural resource that should be available to all who seek to enjoy its scenery and biodiversity.  And admittedly the state has been unusually progressive in trying to protect this lovely piece of Indiana natural history. In 2010, a partnership of conservations groups, state government, and landowners launched the Healthy Rivers initiative which is meant to protect over 40 000 acres of land along Sugar Creek and the Wabash River. From Shades State Park down to Fairbanks Landing Fish and Wildlife Area, over ninety miles of aquatic habitat and adjacent land is to be protected and conserved. It is a lofty and admirable goal in this age of economic growth, consumption at any cost, and political indifference (or is it hostility) toward our environments.

I admire the intent and labor put into the enactment of the Healthy Rivers Initiative. I must remind myself that, when I last floated Sugar Creek, there were five million people in Indiana. Now there are close to seven million. During this same period, the human population of the U.S increased by over one hundred and twenty million souls. Reason tells me that all these new citizens need a place to recreate. I cannot begrudge them this desire, this right, and perhaps someday I will again find myself upon the clear, turbulent waters of Sugar Creek. But I am daunted. Always lurking in my mind is the lament so common among those who have gained the boon of growing older, “If only it was like it was when I was young.”

And so today, when I think of Sugar Creek or encounter the stream from somewhere along its embankments, I automatically recall a certain, long-ago trip down the brook. This trip lies resting in my memory like a precious gem. Brought to the surface, this remembrance continues to constitute my vision of what Sugar Creek was and is.

It was my friend Jim with whom I shared the adventure in question.  Jim is gone now. I think about him often and his absence makes my world a lonelier and less interesting place. Jim was an artist whose bright mind roamed the gamut of human endeavors. Music, art itself, science, politics, literature and film; all these fell within his expansive sphere of interests. He could engage in an informed discourse on any of them. He was a man of mercurial temperament who suffered fools poorly. Jim had little tolerance for those who failed to meet the high standards of his broad-minded world view. He could be as explosive as a fumbled vial of nitroglycerine and was especially prone to direct his wrath toward inflexible, narrow minded religious dogma and its attendant intolerance. Politicians were another favored target of his wrath. Woe unto any public servants who traded in the goods which were anathema to Jim – hypocrisy, prejudices, disdain for the environment. His energetic, agile mind – which was prone to roam in unorthodox and inventive directions – was a constant stimulant prompting me in turn to seek, question, and consider. It was wonderfully entertaining to be around him.  Jim, in his later years, described himself as an Alchemical Artist. I had always perceived this ancient science as merely a search for the skill of transforming lead into gold, a narcissistic pathway to wealth. But Jim’s exploration and comprehension of alchemy ran much deeper. He described alchemy to me as “. . .  a complex and mysterious philosophy which involved a transformation process that sought spiritual renewal and an understanding of both the composition of the universe and how it worked.” A search for theology from a friend who decried organized religion? A quest in the realm of cosmology from one trained in art? Alchemy as the pursuit of spiritual and intellectual gold? These apparent contradictions made me even more aware of the depth of Jim’s interests, astuteness, and beliefs. In light of this, I was intrigued when I ran across author Edward Abbey’s reference to alchemy in describing a close friend of his own, the artist John De Puy . In reference to Du Puy’s brilliance, accompanied by a steady, purposeful intake of strong drink, Abbey said, “I suspected more than alcohol at work here. But the drug, as I would eventually understand, was not chemical but alchemical: the alkaloids of genius.” The alkaloids of genius were surely present in James Loney as well. What more can I say? Jim was the most interesting, thought-provoking person I have ever known. His was the irreplaceable friendship of a lifetime.

And so, one summer, we had decided that just the two of us would float Sugar Creek. Previous trips had, for the most part, found us drifting among other companions. But this time Jim and I wanted to sense the quiet solitude and the open book of natural history that Sugar Creek represented without the discordance of other voices, other interests, other motives.

So we put in alone and carefully took our time. For the most part, we simply let the creek do the work and relaxed as it carried us along. We were fortunate on this trip and did find our solitude. We shared the natural beauty offered along the stream as we passed beneath the towering sycamores and cottonwoods, caught fleeting glimpses of downy and red-bellied woodpeckers in the fringing forest, and anticipated what new sight would greet us around the next bend.

As we moved along we fished. Happily, Sugar Creek has maintained an impressive diversity of fishes within its waters. An impressive variety of smaller species reside there: spotfin shiner, stoneroller, redhorse, silverjaw minnow, emerald shiner, and the beautiful rainbow darter. Game fishes are present too. Catfish, bass, bluegill, and crappie swim the waters of Sugar Creek. The stream is considered by many to be the best fishing area for smallmouth bass in the state. Admittedly the fishing Jim and I did was accomplished in a casual sort of way. There were many other subjects of which to speak, other curiosities to consider. We made periodic casts but often simply let the night-crawlers on their harnesses troll along beside the canoe. It seems strange to me, after the passage of so many years, that the strike of the first fish remains so vivid in my memory. The deep pool cutting against the bank as the stream made its bend, the angle and intensity of the sunlight, the excited yells, and the agitated efforts we made to get the canoe turned and stopped, all are as fresh in my mind now as when I saw the tip of my rod whip toward the water’s surface. We did manage to get pulled onto the sandbar on the inside of the bend. We sat there and cast into the small, swift running pool (it couldn’t have been more than ten yards long) and time after time were rewarded. It seemed that every smallmouth bass and channel cat in this stretch of Sugar Creek had taken refuge in this one little spot. What a wonderful time we had.

It has puzzled me greatly through the years as to why this particular episode has stayed with me in such a lucid way. The number of fish caught wasn’t great, maybe a half dozen of each. The size of none challenged the state record book. As I have mulled this over, it has become obvious to me that it wasn’t really the number or the size of the fish that mattered at all. It was the opportunity to fish. The chance to be with a good friend, to share a rare jewel of a day, to match skill against companion and fish alike; these are the things that have implanted the trip so deeply in my mind.

I like to come back to this memory now and again. It serves to remind me that some of the most important events in one’s life may be composed of the simplest ingredients – the companionship of a friend or loved one; a warm midday sun upon the shoulders; the fecund smell of earth and water and a simple excuse to delight in a Creation that endlessly fills us with awe and enchantment.

I hope you too have that friend of long-standing with whom you can share the natural world. Should you indeed be fortunate enough to have that special fishing pal, mushroom hunting buddy, birding comrade, or hiking companion consider it a blessing.  Practice mindfulness. Be aware that you possess a prize of great value. Life is ephemeral. Deep, enduring friendships are rare treasures of immeasurable worth.

**********************************************************The Bald Eagle image is shown courtesy of James Romine.

Rainbow Darter image courtesy Iowa DNR: BioNet

Smallmouth Bass by Timothy Knepp, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

7. The Bronzed Tube-nosed Bat

One aspect of tropical rainforest biodiversity that makes it so exciting, at least for a biologist, is the possibility of happening upon rare species. Of course the ultimate prize is the discovery of a species of organism which is completely new to science. The very idea of laying eyes upon an organism that no other person has ever seen is enough to send any self-respecting biologist into paroxysms of delight. Of course there is a caveat, one must always acknowledge that the organism in question is likely well-known to the indigenous people who inhabit a given study area. Their eyes are phenomenally attuned to the natural world which surrounds them; quite expected since their survival often depends upon having an intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna of their territory. Be that as it may, as scientists, the role of making a new species known to the world of academia is a significant one. In many cases, particularly if the new find happens to be a vertebrate, this will lead to awareness of the new species by the general public as well.

Even now, well into the 21st Century, the tropical rainforests of the world are incompletely known from a biological standpoint. Granted it is now rare that we find a new mammal or bird. But, on the other hand, many less glamorous organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and even insects still await discovery (my apologies to bacteriologists, mycologists, and entomologists).  As an example, a few years ago I met a group of middle school pupils who were taking part in a Jason Project excursion to northeastern Peru. Incredibly, during their field work, these students discovered a species of beetle that was previously unknown to science. Knowing whether or not one has a new species in hand requires expertise of course. Thus it is that one will find specialists in the taxonomy (identification and classification) of any particular group of organisms one wishes to choose. Some taxonomists go for the gold and tackle a group with charismatic star-power such as the dinosaurs. Others may, with forethought, choose a group of organisms in which taxonomic competition among biologists is less intense. Harvard entomology professor emeritus E.O. Wilson chose to become a myrmecologist (ant biologist) and in the process carved himself a niche within which he holds sway as the world’s acknowledged expert on this group. Some biologists will opt for an even more arcane group. This almost certainly guarantees them supremacy of expertise in their chosen area. For example, when I was in graduate school, one of the professors in our department was an expert on the taxonomy of psocids. You may rightly ask, what in the world is a psocid? Many psocids look like tiny flies. Others, being wingless, resemble lice. Technically speaking, they belong to a group of insects known as booklice. They are quite small, one or two millimeters in length, and feed on lichens and fungi. Psocids often perch on shrubby vegetation. This particular professor could regularly be seen wandering about the campus with the tools of his trade – a black umbrella, a stout club, and an aspirator. Upon approaching a shrub, he would open the umbrella, hold it upside down under the vegetation, and suddenly begin flailing the branches with his club as though possessed by the sudden onset of some sort of mania. This frantic and, to outward appearance, bizarre routine would be met with open-mouthed astonishment by passersby. It really was quite entertaining to watch him at work. Of course, he was collecting psocids. Pummeling the shrubbery would cause any psocids present to fall onto the black umbrella. Here, despite their tiny size, the whitish body color would make them readily apparent. The aspirator was essentially a test tube with a stopper in it. From the stopper protruded two tubes. One was a short glass piece which the prof placed in his mouth. The other was a longer plastic tube which was positioned next to a psocid perched on the umbrella. A gentle suction applied to the glass tube resulted in the psocid being vacuumed into the test tube. A very interesting operation it was and one which made me admire the entertaining eccentricity of many scientists even more.

Obviously then, collecting and naming new species of living things is not a common occupation. Try to think of the last time you asked someone what they did for a living and they replied, “Actually, I’m a taxonomist.” This, in reality, is a problem. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists some 20 000 species as currently in danger of extinction. Given the speed at which natural areas of the world are being lost to development, there simply aren’t enough trained taxonomists to catalog all the organisms which are likely disappearing.

Incidentally, today’s rate of biodiversity loss of is so great that many scientists believe that we are now in the midst of our planet’s sixth mass extinction episode. Because this rate of loss is so high, and we have too few taxonomists, we may not know the potential value of species that are disappearing. In some cases this importance may be entirely a question of ethics. Many, me included, believe that the wild organisms of our world have a basic entitlement to pursue their continued existence absent the threat of annihilation by humans. In other cases, the survival of organisms may have direct benefits to humans as sources of medicine, foods, or fibers. As an example, we should remember that nearly one-third of our pharmaceuticals are plant derived. Might it not be possible, in our wholesale clearing of tropical rainforests for example, that we extirpate a plant species with extreme efficacy in treating cancer or an animal whose venom might serve as a highly effective, non-addictive analgesic? Such a loss could occur without awareness on our part that such a valuable organism even existed in the first place? (*Do a Google search for the rosy periwinkle to appreciate the life-changing power of a plant-based pharmaceutical.)

But, despite these reasons for unease, let us return to more positive musings. The modest company of biological taxonomists active today ply their skill as best they can. For biologists working in the tropics, even those who aren’t technically specialists in taxonomy, the possibility of discovering rarities is always lurking. Like hitting a biological lottery, the rare species may unexpectedly turn up and grant the investigator a prize of great worth. Such was my experience while working as a vertebrate zoology lecturer at the University of Agriculture (now Universiti Putra) in Malaysia.

My colleague Phoon and I were teaching a course for our secondary education students at the University of Malaya’s field station at Ulu Gombak. The research station sat along the main trunk road which led from Kuala Lumpur, near the west coast, to the city of Kuantan lying hard by the South China Sea to the east. The facility was comprised of two buildings. One served as a laboratory where specimens collected during our forays into the rainforest could be identified, observed, and catalogued. The other building contained dormitories for the students, two small private rooms for staff, and a kitchen where the three meals students and staff took each day were prepared. In front of the dormitory, a small but well-manicured lawn sloped downward toward the nearby forest edge and the Sungei Gombak which flowed just inside the wall of trees. Although called a river, this stream was only a few yards across. I suppose a world-class long-jumper could have cleared it in a single leap. Nevertheless, the stream’s constant, muffled roar was a pleasant addition to the symphony of rainforest sounds falling steadily upon one’s ear. The stream was also a fruitful site should one want to search for caecilian larvae or foam-nesting tree frogs.

Across the front of the dormitory building ran a long, covered veranda. Tables and chairs for dining were arranged the length of this large balcony which stood a dozen feet above the aforementioned lawn. The porch was a wonderful place to sit and enjoy delicious curries of rice, fish, or chicken in company with the cheery Malay students. All the while we could gaze out onto the nearby mountains, their slopes cloaked with a thick covering of dipterocarp forest.   The superstars of this forest were the massive Shorea trees whose grayish- leaves caused them to stand out among the numberless greens of their brethren. Some of these Shorea were giants who towered over two-hundred feet above the forest floor. Occasionally a guttural call or a thrashing, leafy branch would alert us to the presence of a band of dusky or silvered leaf monkeys moving through the canopy. A flying lizard (Draco) might be seen soaring across the lawn its rapid, direct “flight” causing one to momentarily mistake it for a bird.  On more than one occasion, the morning was embellished by a flyover of one of the rainforests largest birds, the rhinoceros hornbill. Occasionally the flight would be announced by the magnificent bird’s ringing, honking call. At other times the hornbill might pass above us without voice, its presence announced only by the deep, far-carrying sound from the beats of its five feet long wingspan. They reminded me of the chugging of a slow moving steam locomotive. Breakfasts were often graced by the exotic, high-pitched whooping of white-handed gibbons or the deep, booming voice of siamangs issuing from the far hills as they performed their morning routine of establishing territorial boundaries and maintaining the unity of their groups. Looking back I recall a magical place, a kind of Eden where I found myself joyous simply to be alive, euphoric over my good fortune in being present in one of planet earth’s last, great wild places.

One afternoon, I was in the lab engaged in the identification of some of the insects the students had collected. My lab assistant, a chap by the name of Rajoo, came into the lab with a bat. He had found the bat, already dead, lying along the side of the road which ran nearby. The specimen was in prime condition. In the tropics this is a rare situation. A dead mammal quickly begins to decompose due to the high ambient temperature. They are also invariably set upon by ants which can destroy a carcass within minutes. Rajoo’s bat specimen must have met its demise very recently.

I didn’t recognize the bat’s species immediately although I did notice the odd structure of the nostrils. Instead of simple external openings to the nasal passages, these were like small cylinders with the nares at their ends. From this character, it was fairly obvious that the specimen belonged to a group known, logically enough, as the tube-nosed bats. I decided to go ahead and make a museum specimen of the bat. This simply involved removing the skin and placing it over an appropriately sized body made of cotton. The wings and legs were braced with small wires and then the specimen was left to dry. Such mounts, if protected from insect pests, can last for well over one-hundred years. The head was kept as well. The skull, cleaned of flesh by a colony of scavenging dermestid beetles, is often critical in identifying small mammas such as bats.

Back at the university in Serdang, I came into the office with my first priority being to try to determine what species of bat we actually had. Before preparing the skin I had taken the standard measurements used in bat identification. Total length was 40mm. The length of the forearm was 35mm. Ear length was 15mm and the bat’s weight was eight grams. The upper parts were dark brown and the uropatagium (the skin between the legs and tail) was clothed in bronze-ochraceous hair. There were two incisors in each upper jaw and five cheek teeth. Eight teeth were present in each lower jaw.

Now I began to compare my measurements and observations with the descriptive information provided in Lord Medway’s Wild Mammals of Malaya (Yes, an actual British Lord). At that time his book was the authoritative source of information on the mammals of Malaysia. Scanning through the tube-nosed bat descriptions, I found the closest match to be one with the common moniker of bronzed tube-nosed bat. It seemed pretty straight forward but, as I read the species description in Medway, I was startled. The text stated that not only was this bat known only from Malaysia, it was known from a single specimen taken in the neighboring state of Pahang. With rising pulse rate, I again ran through the measurements, observed the coloration, and referred to Medway’s description. I again came up with bronzed tube-nosed bat. Still not convinced that I hadn’t made an error in utilizing the taxonomic key, I ran through the characters a third time. Again the final couplet of the key led to Murina aenea, the bronzed tube-nosed bat.

What a discovery! I sat staring in disbelief at the little mammal lying in my hand, an emissary from an alien world. Such a find would certainly be worthy of a note in the Malayan Nature Journal. Publishing such findings, even if they require no more than a one page communication, is the stuff of scientific fulfillment not to mention responsibility. But, I had to be sure of

the identification so I went to the ultimate source, the British biologist J.E. Hill. He was the mammalogist who had established the bat in question as a new species based upon the original specimen which had been collected by Medway himself. After receiving my introductory letter, describing what it was I thought I had found, Hill responded with a request to have the bat sent to him in England. After carefully protecting the specimens (skin and skull) in layers of cotton, I boxed the little bat and sent it on its way to the British Museum of Natural History in London. Correspondence by mail from one side of the earth to the other was not rapid in 1975. Finally, after a wait of nearly three weeks, a letter from Hill appeared in my mailbox. With excited anticipation, I opened the envelope. Yes! My identification was confirmed; I had indeed encountered only the second specimen of bronzed tube-nosed bat in the world. Hill also requested that the British Museum serve as the repository for the specimen. Building a museum collection at the University of Agriculture was important to me but it seemed only proper to have the second record housed in a more certifiably permanent site. I also felt that Hill held priority on the bat as both its discoverer and as a recognized expert of Southeast Asian bats. So, I responded with permission to retain the bat specimen.

Although it now lies, likely forgotten, in a drawer among the vast array of specimen cabinets within the British Museum, I recall this little mammal with something akin to affection. Through our chance meeting I was bestowed a wonderful reward. To be one of only a few people to have ever seen this mammal was an exceptional experience. I was granted the opportunity to sense, first hand, the thrill of scientific discovery. I was given the rare gift of the immortality bestowed by the written word. I felt the exhilaration of knowing that, for the fortunate explorer, extraordinary treasures still lie in wait within the rainforest.  Yes, as I recall the little bronzed tube-nosed bat, I think affection is the correct word.

 

*psocid image courtesy of Tom Murray at https://bugguide.net/node/view/145918

Mammal images from Medway. 1969. The Wild Mammals of Malaya and offshore islands including Singapore. Oxford Univ. Press. London.

6. Panic Among the Earthworms

I have often been struck by the abundance of what, at first encounter, seem to be rather mundane stories of the success, tragedy and survival observable within the natural world. These are incidents which, upon further examination, are revealed to be anything but ordinary. Often these dramas are there for the partaking and require nothing more than attentiveness on our part, though sometimes it helps to add a dollop of luck. At other times, the interactions of things wild are more subtle and seeing them requires the practice of patience, stealth, and a bit of hard work. Whichever the case, what is often revealed are behaviors or ecological interactions that are far from commonplace and are astounding in their complexity. Take the lowly earthworms for example. I speak of Lumbricus, Aporrectodea, Diplocardia and their ilk. Local fisher-folk may refer to them as night crawler, red worm, wriggler, or dew worm. Earthworms belong to a widely distributed and biologically successful group known as the annelid worms. They are so-called because of the division of the body into small, ring-like segments (annuli). Leeches and certain marine worms are also annelids. But it is earthworms that are involved in this story.

The students in my introductory biology classes were often astounded at the complexity of these little animals. I suppose they had presumed that worms were simply long, tubular creatures which were full of some sort of unidentifiable black mush. They also had likely assumed that the worm’s main purpose was to repose at the end of a fish hook. However, upon opening the body cavity of an earthworm they were amazed to find a brain, a ventral nerve cord, several hearts, a muscular pharynx, a crop, gizzard, lengthy intestine, and a collection of rather complex reproductive organs – both male and female actually. Incidentally, the student’s newly found awareness is one of the reasons I supported the idea of doing dissections in a biology or zoology class. Many argue that it is inhumane and teaches children to devalue life. I see it as the exact opposite. How could one peer into an animal, which minutes ago was perceived as nothing more than an inert rubbery tube, only to find an extreme intricacy of organ systems and thus not be more appreciative of the anatomical sophistication and physiological elegance of any living organism?

Earthworms breathe through their skin by diffusion and thus must remain moist. This is one reason their skin is so liberally impregnated with mucus glands. As a result, handling them is a bit of a sticky endeavor. They have no eyes but are quite sensitive to light via their skin cells. Staying out of the light helps prevent drying of the skin, which could lead to suffocation, and lessons the chance of being seen by a predator. Since they operate mostly in a world devoid of light, earthworms are highly sensitive to vibrations within the soil. All in all, I find them mighty impressive.

No less a scientific giant than Charles Darwin spent years studying the behavior and ecology of earthworms.  In fact, the last book he published dealt with this subject. Darwin pointed out, as others have since, that earthworms may play a valuable role in nature. Their tunneling forms passageways for oxygen and water to enter the soil. Their waste products, mucus slime, and dead bodies fertilize the soil. This is well and good within a lawn or garden. However, more recent studies have shown that non-native earthworms, of which Indiana has a few, may be detrimental in forests where their overabundance can reduce soil fertility and thus diminish the number of native plant species present.

Earthworms, as you might guess, are a food source for a variety of animals. These range from the robins one sees hopping about in the yard to the moles lurking below the surface. Ah yes, moles; now we come to the crux of this story. I’m afraid moles are most often thought of by humans in the most negative of contexts. I must admit that skimming over one of their raised tunnel rooves while mowing and thus removing a huge clump of sod from a well-manicured lawn is aggravating. However moles are highly beneficial for soil aeration and water uptake in the same way as earthworms. Home owners often blame them for damage to their plants but moles are innocent. The fact is they are voracious little carnivores. Scarab beetle larvae, ants, ground beetles are all fair game. But guess what animal constitutes their favorite prey? If you said, “What are earthworms?” the Jeopardy prize is yours.

With some effort, I’ve tried to imagine the life of an earthworm. Can you too picture yourself creeping along a tiny, claustrophobic tunnel in a cool, damp world totally bereft of light? This is a Stygian realm, dark and forbidding as Miller’s Cave. There are monstrous beasts here; gigantic, furred creatures with but one thought on their minds – the securing of a nice meal of earthworm. We are blind and without defense in this gloomy world. Slowly inching forward by taking mouthful after mouthful of soil; it would be fortunate that our tiny brain could not foresee the inevitable, gruesome end as three dozen sharply pointed teeth render us into mole fodder.

That was the image that originally existed in my mind regarding the subterranean interaction of moles and earthworms. I saw the worms as little more than slowly moving targets waiting to be consumed by the much larger, more intelligent, and vastly more powerful mole. I’m afraid I had underestimated the behavioral potentials of the earthworm and the power of natural selection to shape them. This is how I came to that conclusion.

Standing in my flower garden, I was leaning on my rake taking a well-deserved break from a morning of tilling and planting. Idly glancing down at the ground, I was quite surprised to see three earthworms suddenly appear onto the surface and begin to crawl rapidly away from the spot from which they had emerged. If one could apply the term run to animals without legs, this was such a case. They seemed to be fleeing for their lives as if in a state of terror. As I watched them speed away, another sight caught my eye. Within a foot of where the worms had emerged, the soil was making periodic, upward, pulsations. It was an eastern mole paddling its way through the topsoil.  I really was quite flabbergasted as I made the connection between the emergent flight of the earthworms and the sudden appearance of the mole.  It was rather obvious that the worms were sensitive to the vibrations produced by the approaching mole and had taken to the surface in a last ditch effort to avoid becoming a meal. To me this seemed a remarkable piece of behavior from animals with a brain about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. If the worms recognized the vibrations as a threat, did this imply that they could remember? Didn’t this behavior suggest not only the capacity of memory but, more specifically, the ability to recall that the vibrations were produced by their arch nemesis, the mole? Did this indicate that they then had to analyze this memory and decide upon an appropriate response? In other words, were they actually capable of advanced neural integration? I don’t want to be anthropomorphic but the earthworm equivalent of memory, integration, and response borders on what I had always assumed were marks of intelligence. Darwin, in his aforementioned studies, devised experiments to observe how worms handled leaf material of different shapes. The results suggested to him that they did possess intelligence. He compared their abilities to the highly developed dexterous sense possessed by people who are deprived of sight.

To me, the fact that such high powered sensory effort could be accomplished by an animal with such a primitive nervous system was stunning. What was going on within that relatively tiny accumulation of neurons? Some might say, well it’s just instinctive behavior. But, what does that mean? It only opens another series of questions. What is instinct? Yes, I know that instinct is an inherited behavior but how then does a neuron convert DNA code into a physical behavior? How does an earthworm, or a human for that matter, store the information needed for an instinctive response in a cell that for all intents and purposes is no different than a skin cell? Neurons, like skin cells, have a cell membrane within which is the cytoplasm. This is mostly water. Scattered within this protoplasm is a collection of organelles such as the nucleus which acts as the cell’s control center. There are mitochondria for energy production and ribosomes for synthesizing proteins. Where, and how, on earth does a worm store a memory of what the vibrations of a mole feel like? For that matter, how do we store the memory of a favorite song, a list of phone numbers, or the recollection of a favorite vacation spot? I’ve read that neurobiologists explain memory as the repeated use of certain nerve cell processes.  I’m still left in the dark. What does that mean? If I could miniaturize myself, like the crew in Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage, and actually look at a stored memory, what would I see? Would the recollection, implanted those many years ago, of my wife’s first kiss exist as a huge organic molecule of some sort? Would it be a dendrite somewhat thicker than all the others protruding from a brain cell? Would one nerve cell, or a group of them, have a plethora of dendritic extensions compared to others? Somehow, in trying to understand the magnificence of memory and brain function, whether in earthworm or man, I arrive at an impasse. I can go no further in my attempt to comprehend either the biological or the transcendent marvel of it all. Contemplating the maneuvering of the little earthworm trio certainly opened a world of wonder for me.

So here we have it, a remarkably complex escape behavior in an animal we all too often view with total indifference, if not disdain. And lying beyond that, a doorway into the curious world of instinct, memory, and intelligence is opened. The whole earthworm/mole encounter forced me to contemplate how many other phenomena of the natural world have rested at my feet, unnoticed through simple inattention. All in all, such chance meetings serve as illustrations of the incredible complexity of interactions that make a typical ecosystem such a marvel to behold. If only we take the time, give ourselves the opportunity. Observations, which at first glance seem so simple and straightforward, will often compel us to consider in even greater depth just how multifaceted, entertaining, and extraordinary is the living world we inhabit.

A Postscript:

In investigating the fascinating phenomenon of earthworms responding defensively to the presence of moles, I ran across an interesting way in which humans capitalize on this behavior. It seems that quite a few folks were way ahead of me in being aware of how earthworms respond to vibrations in the soil. This is a very handy piece of knowledge if one is interested in collecting bait for fishing.  Ever hear of worm grunting? Check it out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FK-Oo7NwPiQ

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2566961/

5. From So Simple A Beginning

. . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and

most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Charles Darwin

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few of you may recognize the story told in my first blog. I have told it before. On the surface, this story describes my first nocturnal venture into the tropical rainforest of Southeast Asia. But, of course, I really intended for it to mean more than that. I related the tale for three reasons. First, it is my belief that the natural world offers us limitless opportunities for learning, wonder, pleasure, and fulfillment. These opportunities give us the chance to indulge in self-reflection, accumulate knowledge, escape from world-weariness, and provide a pathway to understanding our place in the world. Such activities are particularly human ones. Indeed, I would argue that these types of mental gymnastics are what set us apart from other species. We may be members of the animal kingdom but it appears that we are exceedingly special animals in this respect.

Secondly, it seems that both anecdotal and experimental evidence now suggest that contact with the natural world is vital for the psychological health of humans. For millennia, it was the natural world – the rainforest, the prairie, the desert – that provided the environments within which our human proclivity for curiosity, inventiveness, contentment, and meaning were satisfied. Achieving these desires brings us a sense of satisfaction and happiness. They make our life whole and purposeful.

And finally there is this – the big-picture idea – to consider. It is now apparent, after five-hundred years of progress in science, that the world in which we live is part of an astonishing, I would even say miraculous, emergent process. I have long wondered why is there is something rather than nothing in the first place? If all we know has emerged from nothing, what is this “nothing”? Was it the absence of space? The absence of time? These are questions that have occupied the minds of scientists and philosophers alike for a good while. Whether the question is valid or what the answer to this enigmatic query might be (if one is possible), one fact seems clear. From a state of virtual nonexistence has materialized a world of incredible complexity and biodiversity. Some will disagree with my belief that cosmic and biological evolution have direction. Others will accuse me of making a leap of faith. Still, I would argue that the evolution of the universe, and subsequently earth’s biodiversity, do display both purpose and direction. From the spawning of the first simple element hydrogen, emerged the stars that populate the billions of galaxies of our universe. From some of these stars, the elements that, so far as we know, comprise all matter were then generated. The calcium in our bones, the nitrogen in our DNA, the gold filling in our tooth, all these have been forged from the titanic forces generated by exploding stars. Once formed, the elements have yielded molecules and compounds which have made possible the evolution of life itself. From the first primitive cells, whose precise origins are lost in the vapors of time, have arisen all of the organisms, simple to complex, which have graced the earth.

Over its four and one-half billion year history, our planet itself has undergone extreme emergent geologic change. From its molten origins has come a world of rock, soil, air, and water. As a boy, exploring the waste from the numerous underground coal mines near my home in southwestern Indiana, I found evidence (in the form of bivalves and crinoids ) that the land I now walked upon was once the bottom of a sea. Further east the Appalachians had risen to snow-capped heights rivaling the Rockies. Over the eons, the ravages of wind, water, and ice have reduced them to their present aspect of rounded, rolling domes – the Smoky Mountains. The very continents themselves, we now know, wander restlessly over the earth’s mantle. Viewed from space, the visage of earth today is very different than when the dry lands were merged to form the immense super-continent known as Pangaea.

Within the realm of living matter, the emergent complexity and increasing biodiversity we see is perhaps even more remarkable. The ancient archaea and bacteria, their simple cells lacking even a nucleus, first arose billions of years ago. Soon they inhabited the soil, water, and rocks of the earth. Seemingly no habitat was too extreme and even the hot springs and salt lakes teem with these so-called extremophiles in their untold numbers. Then the more complex nucleated protists, the algae and the protozoans took their place upon life’s stage. The algae began the first tentative movements of life onto the dry land. These colonizers in turn gave rise to the primitive plants, such as the mosses, and eventually to complex autotrophic organisms such as the cone-bearing and flowering plants. The latter group, owing to their great biological success, clothed the earth with photosynthetic greenness. Their leaves, pollen, and nectar provided sustenance for a vast assemblage of heterotrophic species and thus triggered an evolutionary explosion of diversity within the animal kingdom.

With my apologies to plant lovers, I now follow the trail to the animal kingdom. From animal-like protozoans extended a pathway to the jellyfishes, corals, and sea anemones. Even today, their stinging-cell armed descendants constitute the cnidarians which swarm the seas of the world and build the limestone bulwarks we call reefs. Some six hundred million years past the multitudinous and varied realm of the worms emerged onto the ancient scene. Flatworms crept through marine and fresh waters. Many of their descendants became adapted to a parasitic lifestyle and comprise the fascinating clans of the flukes and tapeworms. Roundworms filled the soils of Earth in their millions. The segmented worms too found their places in both the aquatic and terrestrial abodes of the world. Today they reside as marine tubeworms, earthworms that till the soil of your lawn, and the sanguivorous leeches. Mollusks, in their remarkable and diverse forms from squid to snail, began to swim, crawl the sea bottoms, and to probe into the dark, moist places of terra firma. That great assemblage of animal species known as the arthropods appears in the fossil record some five hundred and forty million years past. They claimed their portion of the aquatic environments of the world in the shape of shrimp, crab and lobster. In the guise of centipede and scorpion, spider and insect the arthropods also came to be the dominate invertebrates of the dry lands of the planet. Today nearly one million species of insects alone are known to science. The echinoderms, the spiny-skinned starfish and urchins, in their rich variety dispersed themselves through the earth’s vast oceans. Descendants of this group became the ancestors of the fishes which eventually claimed dominion over the waters of the world. From one group of ancient fish antecedents came the audacious back-boned creatures which first climbed from the water and into the forbidding world of air and sun. Thus, the first amphibians evolved some four hundred million years ago. Over the next three hundred million years there emerged the reptiles, the birds, the mammals. For over one hundred and fifty million years, the dinosaurs reigned as the dominant group of terrestrial vertebrates. The sudden extinction of the dinosaurs allowed birds, descendants of theropod dinosaurs, to take a turn as the most biologically successful of vertebrates. They were joined in this new world order by the mammals, themselves descended from reptilian ancestors known as synapsids.

It isn’t just the emergence of such varied and abundant forms which astounds me. It must be remembered that none of these organisms exist in isolation. We have also seen the emergence of a hierarchy, like a set of nested boxes, of interrelationships. Organisms form populations, populations give rise to communities. Communities and their nonliving environment have been organized into ecosystems. Ecosystems comprise the biosphere, the thin living shell which surrounds the earth and within which all life is found. The interactions within the ecosystems of the world are complex and varied in the extreme. So much so that even today, in the twenty-first century, we cannot claim anywhere near complete understanding of all their workings. British poet Francis Thompson must have intuitively sensed this when he wrote “All things . . . hiddenly connected are. That thou canst stir a flower without troubling of a star.” All this from a great mass of hydrogen spawned from a Nothingness.

Among the mammals, one group was special. The hominids, with their tremendously developed cerebral hemispheres, rose to prominence. Within this group was a modern species known as Homo sapiens  –  us. And here, after fourteen billion years of evolutionary progress, a true miracle occurred. . With the appearance of humans, the universe has now, finally, at last become able to contemplate its own evolutionary history. We are, as Carl Sagan so aptly put it, “stardust contemplating the stars”. I find this revelation fulfilling. It is the antithesis of the argument that life is purposeless. Can miracle be too strong a word for what has occurred? In an online dictionary, I find the word miracle defined as: a highly improbable or extraordinary event . . . that brings very welcome consequences. In my contemplation of life on earth, this seems to fit what has happened. I find the mere fact of my own existence, let alone the plethora of earth’s organisms past and present, extraordinary. I certainly consider the wondrous biodiversity of our planet a welcome consequence. It is vanity I suppose that compels me to also consider my own existence a welcome consequence of the unfolding universe story.

In the end, our world and its origins and its complexities, still provides puzzles and enigmas aplenty. As I have aged, I have found myself somewhat more willing to acknowledge that perhaps this big brain of ours isn’t really big enough after all. Like a little Commodore 64 that has been asked to solve a complex problem in celestial mechanics, our brain simply isn’t up to the task of totally comprehending the immense mystery and splendor of the cosmos. Charles Darwin had the following to say about our contemplating the enigmas of the universe. “I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.Darwin was correct about a good many things. Perhaps he was in this case also.

And so, I must be content for now with the idea that one of our most important purposes in life is simply to engage with and appreciate the living world around us. I have previously voiced my congruence with Alfred Russel Wallace who offered this simple foundation for achieving meaning in our lives. Said he, “Can we believe that we are fulfilling the purpose of our existence while so many of the wonders and beauties of the creation remain unnoticed around us?”  And there are wonders at every turn.  We should marvel at the beauty and humbling immensity of Orion, faithful companion Canis Major at his heel, as they wheel through the blackness of the winter sky. We ought to find our breath taken away by the flash of a blue morpho’s wings as it wheels through the rainforest understory. We should stand awestricken before the spectacle that is a giant sequoia.  Perhaps we cringe, but we should also ponder with admiration the exquisite relationship of parasite and host, of predator and prey. We should marvel at the little ruby-throated hummingbird that has traveled a thousand miles to once again find the feeder we have proffered. We ought to stand in amazed meditation as wave after wave of sandhill cranes descend, on parachute-like wings, into their marshland roost. All of these phenomena are part and parcel of the Universe story. So are we.

We know so much more than our great-grandparents did. We now understand that the very deoxyribonucleic acid which carries our genetic code represents an immortal thread. Our DNA embodies a strand that is a shared lifeline stretching back through the temporal history of the evolution of life on earth. We now appreciate that we have DNA sequences that are communal, not just with other humans, but with most other life forms on this planet. Perhaps this is why the natural world, given the chance, can be such a wellspring of joy, contentment, entertainment, and meditation. We are hard-wired into interrelationships with other species. The natural world is our world, our home, our birthplace.

This is why I consider the opportunities for emotional, psychological, and spiritual wholeness provided by contact with nature to be treasures of rare and lasting value. This is why I feel myself compelled to unabashedly jump with both feet into my experiences in nature.  I want to see the earth through the stalked eyes of fiddler crab, imagine the world through the super-senses of bird and bat, to feel the tug of tide and pole. Like Leopold, I envy the muskrat lying eye-deep in a marsh, eavesdropping on the loquacious geese. I want to follow Thoreau’s advice and suck the marrow from nature’s bones.  I want to come closer to Henry Beston’s understanding of animals not as underlings but as, “other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”  Yes, had I a hundred lifetimes, I reckon there would still be too much to see, to ponder, to appreciate,  to leave me in besotted admiration of the miraculous wonder that is life on earth.

Photo Credits:

Darwin's Tree of Life - Charles Darwin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons'
Phylogenetic Tree - By Maulucioni y Doridí [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Hubble Deep Field - By NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons'
Crinoid Fossils - George Sly
Hercules Beetle - George Sly
Albertosaurus & young - George Sly
Horsehead Nebula - Natl. Aeronautics and Space Admin.
Darwin Portrait - By Charles_Darwin_seated.jpg: Henry Maull (1829–1914) and John Fox (1832–1907) (Maull & Fox) [2] derivative work: Beao (Charles_Darwin_seated.jpg) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

4. Not So Big and Not So Bad: My Encounter With Wolves

Sometime in 1908, near as I can tell, old Josiah Hoosier was sitting under a shagbark hickory in his favorite southern Indiana squirrel woods. Comprised of a nice mix of hardwoods, the forest’s mast crop was bound to attract a hungry bushy-tail soon enough. Not long after sunrise, he heard a critter coming his way. The manner in which it disturbed the leaf litter indicated it was – big, four-footed, and coming at a trot. Likely someone’s black and tan, loose and out for a morning run Josiah imagined. He sat statue-still under his tree as the approaching animal neared the crest of a hill not twenty yards in front of him. Much to his surprise, the creature that topped the rise wasn’t a coon hound at all. Still unaware of Josiah, and still at a trot, there appeared a gray wolf. It had been a mighty long spell since he’d seen a wolf. But he still held the belief that the only good wolf was a dead one and he didn’t hesitate. Josiah greeted the ill-fated animal with both barrels of number five buckshot. In so doing, Josiah deprived me of any chance of ever seeing a wild gray wolf in Indiana; he had killed the very last one.

Of course, I can’t verify the historicity of this particular sequence of events. I am however confident in the depiction of the animosity toward wolves harbored in the breast of a good many folks. The hatred of wolves seems to have come to North America with the original European colonists. Native Americans, living here for thousands of years before the arrival of these colonists, seemingly had no such loathing toward wolves. Their conceptions of wolves varied. In some cultures wolves were seen as fierce fighters, in others larcenous apparitions; still others admired them for their cunning and hunting skills. There seems to have been no innate detestation of them.  For early colonists however, there was no ambiguity. Wolves were an enemy to be eradicated.

Our country’s battle with wolves started immediately. In 1630, a couple of years after its establishment, the Massachusetts Bay Colony offered a bounty on wolves.  This was the first of many bounties to follow as our nation expanded westward. One may wonder why this antipathy for wolves existed but it is, I believe, fairly simple to understand. The people who colonized our country were agriculturalists. Aside from the planting of crops their lifestyle, unlike that of Native Americans, was heavily dependent upon domestic animals. Colonists brought with them horses, cattle, pigs, chickens, and other assorted beasts. Their farms being carved from a wilderness, the boundaries of the homesteads lie right against these wilds. It wouldn’t take long for predators, such as wolves and cougars, to figure out it was a lot easier to kill a plodding cow than a fleet-footed white-tailed deer. Thus the wolf was viewed from a totally different perspective than that taken by North America’s aboriginal inhabitants. Perhaps another factor in the aversion to wolves is the genuine fear people seem to have in regards to encountering them. Although gray wolf attacks on humans are exceedingly rare, they have occurred. It wouldn’t take much stoking of the imagination, and collective gossiping, before a community perceived wolves as a real threat to human life. Given these factors, it is little wonder that the human-wolf conflict was quick to blossom.

In spite of feeling great sympathy for the plight of the gray wolf, I can empathize with these early colonists. In the oxymoronic tameness of what passes for wild, here in southwestern Indiana today, I’ve had my own battles. In our area, it is often the raccoon that tends to test the patience of one living in the country as we call it. Our house sits in a small patch of hardwood forest that provides good raccoon habitat. Believing that they were here first, my wife and I have always tried to cut them some slack. If they raid the bird feeders, I add more seed. If they dig up our newly planted spring flowers, we replant them. If they prowl the patio and stare in our bedroom window, we stare back. Only once in the nearly forty years we’ve lived here have they driven me to violence. One spring we were set upon by a big male who was seemingly possessed by an urge to set the record as the most destructive raccoon in Sullivan County. In the space of a few nights, his crimes were legion. First, he dug up over a hundred dollars worth of bedding plants my wife had put in. She patiently, albeit with some mumbling under her breath, replanted them. That night he dug them up again. She repeated the re-plantings. The raccoon moved on to other mischief. The third night he raided one of our bluebird boxes. The next morning I found the heads of the nestlings lying on the ground under the box. The raccoon followed this performance with a foray into our water garden where he proceeded to devour the resident koi. At this point, my displeasure was becoming palpable. His next target was a relatively expensive bird feeder. Carrying seed out to it the next morning, I found the feeder chewed and bent into a useless piece of junk. That was the last straw. I called upon my friend Mr. Remington and there were no more depredations.

And so, I can easily imagine the magnitude of losing a milk cow or a year’s supply of pork to a wolf. If one’s life literally depended upon the successful raising of livestock, raids by such predators simply couldn’t be tolerated. Nowadays, the threat posed by gray wolves is directed more toward the farmer or rancher’s bank account than his physical survival. Still, they could rightly argue that the continued existence of a business, as well as a way of life, was at stake. Thus, the conflict between man and wolf has been waged for generations and continues to create disputes even today.

 Not surprisingly it is the wolves that have come out on the losing end in their confrontation with humans. State by state they have been extirpated. Even the federal government joined in the zealous drive to eliminate the gray wolf wherever it occurred. In 1914 the U.S. Biological Survey, originally formed to study certain non-game wildlife, was designated as the government’s main predator control agency.  This agency then proceeded to enthusiastically wage a campaign of poisoning, trapping, and shooting against virtually every predator in the far west. Believing, erroneously, that elimination of predators was of long-term benefit to their prey species, anti-predator programs were even carried out within our parks. By 1926 the crown jewel of our national park system, Yellowstone, no longer had a viable population of gray wolves.

But there were people, even in those days, that came to realize extirpating wolves might not be such a good idea after all. In one of the classic conservation essays of all times, Aldo Leopold tells of his own role in the killing of a female wolf. This event occurred in 1909 in Arizona’s Apache National Forest where Leopold was working as a forester. Entitled Thinking Like a Mountain, Leopold’s essay appears in his posthumously published book, A Sand County Almanac. He wrote, “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. Believing that fewer wolves meant more deer and a paradise for hunters, he had had no hesitation in shooting. However, upon looking into the eyes of the dying wolf, Leopold had a revelation. “. . .  after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain shared such a view.” Henceforth, Leopold began to reassess the ecological role played by large predators. Now considered the father of wildlife management in the United States, he became convinced that predators exerted beneficial effects within their ecosystems. This is a finding borne out by subsequent years of research in wildlife biology.

Mountains do not think of course. So what was Leopold getting at when he suggested that “the mountain” didn’t share the notion that no wolves equaled hunter’s paradise? In his wonderful prose style, rich with metaphor, Leopold was elucidating an ecological concept that was both fundamental and farsighted. He was using the mountain as a symbol for what the nonspecialist might call “Mother Nature”. Others might see this interplay of predator and prey as a component of the complex inner-workings of the Gaia Hypothesis. My interpretation is that Leopold was thinking of what we more precisely refer to today as biodiversity. Even though the term hadn’t yet been coined, he intuitively understood that biodiversity should not be thought of as only the variety of organisms living with an ecosystem. Rather, we should think of biodiversity as also encompassing all of the ecological interactions among the members of a community. The gray wolf should not be thought of as simply one of the several species living in a particular area. Instead, when thinking about the wolf, we should consider what role it plays within the wilderness world it inhabits. Leopold himself originally saw wolves merely as destroyers of game animals. “But after seeing the green fire die . . .”, he came to realize that the wolf was actually an animal of critical importance to not only the health of deer herds but perhaps to the well-being of entire ecosystems. Leopold thus instinctively, and in prophetic manner, had arrived at the understanding of the gray wolf as what we today describe as a keystone species.

A keystone species is a member of an ecosystem whose presence and habits have important positive, wide-ranging, stabilizing impacts upon the system. Conversely, the removal of a keystone species can have broad, negative, destabilizing impacts upon an ecological community. The reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park serves as an excellent example of the former. As noted, viable wolf populations were absent from Yellowstone by 1930. In 1995 and 1996, after years of debate, petition signings, and lawsuits gray wolves were reintroduced into the park. These animals came from Canada and formed the basis of a population that now fluctuates around one hundred individuals in about ten or eleven packs. It was assumed that the wolves would impact the population of elk within the park. This the wolves certainly have done. It is estimated that as many as twenty-two elk are killed per wolf each year. Like other large predators, wolves tend to take a disproportionate number of elk which are aged or in poor health and thus cannot contribute to the overall vigor of the population. This is the primary reason wildlife biologists consider predation to be beneficial to the overall health of prey species herds.

 The elk population of the Yellowstone National Park has been reduced by some fifty percent. The reduction of elk numbers within the park has had some interesting ecological ripple effects. With the reintroduction of wolves, elk were no longer able to unconcernedly loaf about in the stream valleys of the park. Here they had browsed heavily upon riparian vegetation such as willow, cottonwood, and aspen trees. With the number of elk reduced, tree growth flourished. This in turn has led to an increase in the number of beavers within the park. These rodents eat the bark of trees such as willow; they also use the branches and logs cut from such trees to construct their dams and lodges. More beavers mean more beaver ponds. As a result there has been an increase in available habitat for waterfowl such as ducks, geese, and swans.  Improved riparian habitat is also beneficial to songbirds (nesting habitat), trout (less siltation into streams), and moose (more browse and cover). Others animals which have benefited from the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone include scavengers such as ravens, eagles, and bears which may feed on the remains of wolf kills. The coyote population within Yellowstone NP was also cut by fifty percent. Wolves will kill coyotes and both species will prey upon the others’ pups given the chance. When wolves were removed from the park, the population of coyotes increased greatly. Coyotes are too small to prey upon elk but they were the primary predator upon pronghorn antelope calves. When coyote numbers were reduced by the presence of wolves once again, the population of antelopes in the park underwent an increase. Coyotes also compete with foxes and so populations of the latter have also gone up as a result of the presence of wolves. This so-called trophic cascade of impacts shows what a restored keystone species can accomplish given the opportunity and the time.

As one might imagine, the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone was not welcomed by all. Even today we continue to see the seemingly never ending argument over the place of wolves in our modern world. Should they continue to be protected under the 1973 Endangered Species Act? Should they be delisted? Should they be hunted? Should ranchers be compensated for livestock loss attributable to wolves?

Regardless of such questions, the overall ecological benefits of wolf reintroduction to the park ecosystem seem to me to be clear. Perhaps this demonstrates that wolves and men can have a truce in at least a few areas. Surely, for those of us who cherish wild places, this is not asking too much. To call for less than 1% of the lower forty-eight’s land area to be restored to a semblance of the primordial North America encountered by Lewis and Clark surely bespeaks a modest dream. We treasure the great works in our National Gallery of Art. We lovingly view the reminders of our cultural past in the National Museum of American History. Certainly the living museums of natural history represented by our monuments, refuges, and parks deserve our restorative nurturing as well.

And so, over the years, I had pretty much given up on ever seeing a wild gray wolf myself. I had always imagined seeing a wild wolf would be a fine experience. The gray wolf seemed to me the very emblem of places untamed and primeval, unsullied by the workings of man. But with the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone my expectations brightened. Finally, just a few short years ago, my hopefulness was rewarded. Anne and I had traveled out to Yellowstone in late September. It was a trip we had given ourselves in celebration of our retirement after a collective sixty-five years of public school teaching.  It was our first trip to Yellowstone this late in the year. Gone were the huge crowds of summer that we had experienced on previous excursions there. There were still visitors aplenty but most were retirees like us.

Rising early in the morning to begin our game watching, we were reminded that we were at both a higher altitude and greater latitude than in Indiana. Back home, September is pretty balmy. The morning temperature in the park hovered in the high-teens and the windshield needed scraping. However, the brilliant clear air and bright sun made it seem much warmer. Stepping out of the cabin and inhaling the crisp, pine-scented morning air was wonderfully energizing. With great anticipation we motored off toward one of our favorite spots, Grizzly Overlook which lies just south of Canyon Village along the Yellowstone River. Along the way, even though their numbers may be fewer now, we saw many elk. At this time of year the bulls were in full rut. Here was another first for us, as we paused to watch a small herd of cows, the curious and unmistakable bugling of a bull echoed from the surrounding forest. Over the years, I have found that certain natural sounds have the ability to swiftly transport me back in time. The transition may be brief, but these sounds nevertheless give me the most satisfying illusion of being the only human present on the face of the earth. I stand alone in a primordial world unsullied by city or interstate highway, strip mall or strip mine, oil well or oil spill. The trumpeting of sandhill cranes cascading from unseen heights is one such sound. The eerie, falsetto bugling of a frantically amorous bull elk is another.  I like best to hear this bugling when the enamored bull is actually out of my sight. Standing, patiently listening, I suddenly hear the distant herald descending down from a pine forested slope. Up there is wildness it tells me. Up there lay a world where mindfulness, fitness, and individuality are rewarded. Up there exists a world beyond the inanities of reality TV, political posturing, Facebook, and Twitter. Up there is the real world.

So it was, on this particular day, that we found ourselves standing on Grizzly Overlook. Other lovers of the wild were there too. Our spotting scopes were arranged in an orderly phalanx all looking northward up the valley of the Yellowstone. Wolves had been seen up that way the two previous mornings and so we waited. And then quite suddenly from an entirely different direction, off to the southwest, came a sound new to me but imminently recognizable. It was a sound which I can now file away, in my catalog of favorites, along with the wondrous music of cranes and elk. Rolling over the grass covered hills, borne on a westerly wind, came to us the mournful, drawn out howl of a wolf. Once, twice, three times the wail reached our collectively appreciative ears. And then the vocalization ceased and we were left with the sound of the wind playing over the grasses and through the riverside pines.  There were grins all around and glances were exchanged that asked, was that really a wolf? But yes, it was. There was no mistaking this deep, chesty, bawl for the high-pitched yapping of a coyote. We really had heard a wild gray wolf.

Gratifyingly satisfied, I returned to my spotting scope and scanned the sage flats north up the river valley. Minutes passed, then an hour. There was nothing. Patiently I waited and periodically I put my eye to the scope. There was nothing and then – wait – there was something. A black form moved through the sage and shimmering heat distortions of the air. The animal soon emerged into the open and I, at long last, was gifted with my first look at a wild gray wolf. What a wonderfully memorable experience this was. After so many years of hopeful dreaming, I had finally seen wilderness incarnate.

This wolf was soon followed by two other adults and two well-grown pups. With a determined bearing, they now continued on westward in that wonderful ground-eating trot that can carry a wolf uninterruptedly for miles. In fact, all too soon, their trot carried them out of sight behind a large hill to the northwest. Anne and I were ecstatic in regards to our good fortune in achieving our long-held goal of seeing a wild gray wolf. We decided to pack up and head back to Canyon Village for a reward of hot coffee. Leisurely driving north along the road from Lake Village to Canyon, we had just passed the Chittenden bridge junction when Anne shouted, “What’s that?” Following her gaze, I looked into a meadow on the west side of the road in time to see three adult gray wolves bounding through the grass. They were so close, mere yards away! After patiently waiting for just a distant scope view of a wolf, this was incredible luck. I even managed to quickly snap a few photos before the wolves disappeared into the surrounding lodgepole pine forest. As I reviewed the images something odd struck me. The wolves weren’t wet. Yet, here they were on the opposite side of the river from the group we had seen only minutes earlier. That pack was over on the east side of the Yellowstone River. For such territorial animals, it seemed odd to us that there would be another group so close to the Canyon Pack we had just seen.

When in doubt, ask a ranger. So, into the Canyon visitor center we went. No, that wasn’t another pack we were told. These were three of the adults we had seen on the other side of the river. Why weren’t they wet? Simple, said the ranger, they use the Chittenden Bridge to cross the Yellowstone. Of course, why hadn’t we thought of that? We immediately recalled a previous trip to Yellowstone during which we had shared the bridge with a passing herd of bison. They had looked quite impressive as they pressed against the side of our tiny car. We stared at each other literally eye to eye. Theirs’ was a mighty wild eye too I must add.

The park ranger explained that these wolves had more than likely left the pups with another adult while they were off to hunt for prey, a common gray wolf strategy. As Anne and I reflected on this information, there emerged an awareness of an especially impressive fact regarding these three wolves. It had taken us only a few minutes to hop in the car and drive the two miles to the spot where we encountered the wolves. In this same span of time they had left the valley of the Yellowstone, crossed the river itself, traversed an intervening stand of lodgepole pine, and darted across the main road. It gave us a graphic understanding of just how much ground a steadily moving wolf can cover.

I still couldn’t get over the thrill of being so close to wild gray wolves. The image of their proximity has stayed with me over the years. Two of them were a luxurious golden brown marked with white, while the third was the black I had first seen in the valley. Loping through the meadow, their mouths gaped as they gulped in the crisp morning air. I couldn’t help but anthropomorphize. To me, their expressions looked like nothing so much as the canine equivalent of broad, contented smiles. I tried to imagine the glorious wild freedom engendered in these three magnificent animals. Theirs’ was not a life of ease to be sure; there was hunger, intense cold, and violent death in their world. But this morning, all was well. The sky was clear and a lovely cerulean blue.  The rising sun hinted at a pleasantly warm afternoon. A gentle breeze carried the scent of elk upon the air. These wolves inhabited a domain whittled to the bare bones of necessity: to hunt, to rear young, to stay alive individually and collectively. Not so different from our distant, and perhaps not so distant, ancestors as well. As I ruminated over these thoughts, their world seemed to me a realm distilled to its essence. I suppose I would have to admit to a fleeting emotion of envy for a life so devoid of the distractions, absurdities, and manufactured stresses of the world in which I live. Could this sentiment, I wondered, be what Thoreau was getting at when he said that “. . . in wildness is the preservation of the world”? Surely such a primal world could at least lead to the preservation of our sanity.

 So you see, in accomplishing my dream of someday seeing a wolf in the wild, I achieved much. This was more than simply another species to add to my life list. The experience led me into my own cascade of more thoughtful considerations. I considered more deeply the relationships of predator and prey.  My belief in the need for wild things and the wildernesses in which they can exist was verified. I now more fully recognize the impact of the presence, or the absence, of a keystone species. The sighting reinforced my conviction that Thoreau was more prescient than most people imagine. My encounter with gray wolves, and the subsequent understanding of how they have restored a semblance of the original Yellowstone ecosystem, opened another window as well. I now better grasp what Aldo Leopold meant when he spoke of thinking like a mountain.

In the end, stored in my memory bank like a precious Brasher doubloon, rests one last important observation of the wolves I saw hurrying through the Yellowstone meadow. As they neared the lodgepole pine stand on the far side of the clearing, an old she-wolf glanced back over her shoulder and, for the briefest of moments, our gazes met. Even now I recall that in her eyes there burned a fierce green fire.    

Photo Credits:

howlingforjustice.wordpress.com

leesonphoto.photoseller.com

commons.wikimedia.org

 

 

 

 

 

3. The Wood Ducks Return

The wood ducks came back today. Saturday, 2 April, 2017 it is. Looking out my window, the forest across the creek seems to think it is still winter. Like a somber crowd all dressed in monotonous, brown overcoats the trees look subdued and dreary. Granted, the grass in the lawn is greening and the daffodils are in bloom but these are about the only things showing green. In spite of this dull scene, the two ducks are reminding me that the spring eruption of new life is about to begin. My spirits are lifted by seeing these two harbingers of warmer days and sunlit skies. Around this date, for several years now, I have looked out the window to find these feathered reminders that nature is about to shift into high gear. The thought of eggs to be laid and future ducklings making their daring leap from the nest box in the sycamore fill me with anticipation. The return of the wood ducks is at least one symbol in an overcrowded, industrialized world that the biosphere still holds to its ancient rhythms.

What beautiful birds they are. The female, like most members of the avian clan, shows her beauty in an understated perfection of camouflage. Just this morning, I watched her perched in the ash tree near the nest box. Shifting my gaze caused me to struggle a bit to relocate her feathered body of subtle browns and mottled breast. The male showed no need for such subtlety. The wild, orange-red eyes and beak were set upon a head of iridescent green marked with bold highlights of white. The chestnut breast and fawn flanks were overlain by a back that seemed black but suddenly morphed into lustrous emerald when he shifted position and the morning light struck from a different angle. One would be hard-pressed to find another North American bird which surpasses the beauty of a male wood duck.

These two were on a scouting mission. It was not by chance that I happened to see them judgmentally eyeballing the wooden box set high in my sycamore. Likely they are the same pair that was here last year. Based upon past experience, I know that I will see them on their scouting forays for another few days and then they will seemingly disappear. Once the nest is established in their chosen cavity, wood ducks become nearly as elusive as the fabled unicorn. Last year I was sure wood ducks were using my box. I had seen them closely inspecting it several times. But, as April moved on, I saw no further sign of them. Then one evening, near sunset, I was standing on my front deck when they again showed themselves in a most spectacular manner. From directly behind me, and over the house, roared the enamored pair. Flying in tight military echelon like two A-10 Thunderbolts, the ducks sped directly toward the nest box on the far side of the yard. As they neared the box, the male peeled away and rocketed into the forest to the southwest. The female bore onward toward the nest box at what seemed suicidal speed. A last second flaring of the wings, a momentary touch of the feet against the box, and she had disappeared within. So rapid was her entrance into the box that I was given the impression she had flown directly into its four inch wide opening. It was suddenly very clear to me why I was so seldom aware that my nest box was being used. Indeed, on occasion I have checked and cleaned the box and found egg shell fragments without ever knowing that the box had been used.

Of course such secrecy is warranted. There are others out there who would much enjoy a meal of wood duck. Several years ago I saw a Cooper’s hawk, hardly bigger than the duck itself, try to drag a female into the creek bed beneath the sycamore. The duck escaped but barely. The male I saw this morning appeared again later in the day. This time with a red-shouldered hawk tailing him and showing what seemed a sinister interest. Yes, I think sneaking in and out of the nest box is a good idea.

Their cautious nature extends to the ducklings as well. Having had the nest box in a good viewing position for over a decade, one would think I might have looked out and seen the fledglings emerging. I never have. I can imagine the courageous youngsters, spread-eagled like little skydivers, plunging from the box to the ground sixteen feet below. In wildlife films, I have seen them hit the ground and bounce off the leaf litter like miniature elastic balls. I surely would love to see this phenomenon with my own eyes. Perhaps someday my patient observing will be rewarded.

I am also intrigued by the question of where the downy, diminutive pioneers go after their brazen leap of faith. Yes, there is a small stream practically beneath their nest. But it is intermittent and doesn’t seem to offer much that would appeal to a duck. Maybe they follow mom down the streambed to Page Ditch some half-mile distant. Perhaps they secretively cross my lawn, climb the hill behind the house, and scuttle into my neighbor’s lake. Its south end is bordered by forest and filled with the skeletons of forest sovereigns past. It looks like fine habitat. That’s where I might go if I were a wood duck. In truth, of course, I don’t know to where they disperse. The broken eggshells I see tell me that several have hatched. Their absence tells me they have left the nest box. Their elusiveness leaves me baffled.

Yes, the wood ducks have returned. But I can rest assured that they will remain as wary and elusive as they can possible be. We will renew our annual and daily game of hide and seek. Maybe this will be the year that I finally win another round.

 

2. Musim Bunga: The Season of Flowers

This is what spring is called in the Malay language – “the season of flowers”. It is a good name, simple and like many Malay terms so understandably descriptive. I suppose one would need a good, evocative name for a season which, in the form known to us here in the temperate world, is nonexistent in tropical Malaysia. As I write, musim bunga is upon us here in Indiana.

My aged aunt has been abandoned by her short term memory. Now she is left to tread the familiar ground of old remembrances. Inevitably, when the conversation turns to the weather, she will repeat a now familiar refrain. “I like all the seasons,” she will avow. One could argue on behalf of her notion. The seasons here in Indiana do, each in its own way, offer much to admire. Who could not be enthralled to awaken, after a winter evening’s snow storm, to a living Christmas card outside the window? But sadly, at least in my mind, such winter mornings in Indiana are offset by day upon day of gray, sunless skies and barren fallow fields of uninteresting character. Unfortunately, as I have aged, I have noticed a concomitant inability to tolerate being cold. These days the winter winds seem more brisk, more bitter, more capable of penetrating even my multilayered clothing. I just don’t like it.

What about fall you may ask? Surely this is a season without fault. I could not say that an Indiana fall is without merit. The dry, warm days and the crisp, clear nights offer a near perfect type of weather. Flying, at low altitude, over the timberlands of Hoosier National Forest one is struck by the impression that God has been at work with Her collection of spray paints. The palette contains yellows of every conceivable shade from lemon to gold. There are reds of scarlet, merlot, cherry, blood, and mahogany. The somber oaks offer browns of chocolate, umber, peanut, and penny. The paints have touched the leaves with apricot, tangerine, carrot, and yam. Some of the trees are reluctant to surrender their chlorophyll to the coming cold. And so, passing below are miniature solar collectors of emerald and sage, parakeet and olive, pear and pickle. Yes, it is indeed a wondrous site.  But, in the back of my mind, always lurks the recollection that winter is to follow. The days of warm sun upon the back will soon turn to virulent blasts of icy wind down the shirt collar.

Summers in Indiana can be a Jekyll and Hyde season. To be sure there are those days, when the humidity is low and the temperature moderate, that are glorious. Late summer brings the luscious fragrance of new mown hay. With this perfume comes the remembrance of teenage summer times spent toiling in the hayfields. It was brutal work for sure but it was tempered by the vigor of youth and the carefree comradeship of the youthful haying crew. Summer brings lovely pastoral scenes of grazing cattle, fields of wheat rapidly turning to gold, corn speedily reaching for the sky, and a zillion leaves bartering CO2 for oxygen. The bluegills are biting; the water in the old swimming hole is warm. The evenings are lit by lampyrid beetles and made richer by the trilling of amorous Fowler’s toads. There is lightning on the horizon and a summer thunderstorm comes on with the sound and speed of a rapidly approaching bison stampede. A pillar of fire flashes in the nearby forest. The thunder booms, the windows rattle, the trees sway. There is the smell of ozone in the air. I gaze out and am reminded that we humans best not get too big for our britches. There are still plenty of things greater than us.

But there are those endless days of summer during which the temperatures soar toward the century mark and the humidity causes one to believe they are in the tropics. There are stretches of days upon days without rain during which farm folk look skyward with desperate hopefulness in their eyes. The persistence of the mosquitos makes each trip into the yard an unwinnable skirmish. Deer flies orbit my head like so many electrons whirling about their nucleus. A bite from one is sure to endow me with a large, itchy welt. Lone star and dog ticks prowl the land eager to hitch a ride on a passing leg and partake of a blood meal. Late summers brings an onslaught of chiggers. Remembrance of the maddening itch from an infestation by these little hitchhikers will stay with one awhile.  As a boy prone to wander the oldfields in search of adventure, I recall that the chiggers had a disconcerting inclination to head for the most vexing or inaccessible parts of the anatomy. A horde of chiggers encamped abundantly upon one’s scrotum is a most unpleasant infestation to be sure. Yes, summer here in Indiana is not all peaches and cream.

But I haven’t spoken of spring and, for quite some time now, I have harbored the conviction that this is the season I most unabashedly love and anticipate. I have pondered why this might be so. Perhaps, I’ve thought, it is the release from winter’s icy grip. Maybe it is the hope of sunny days rather than leaden skies.  Or could it be that, as a retired teacher, I subconsciously yearned for the academic year’s end? The promise of several weeks of reduced stress and less than ten hour work days was alluring. But lately I’ve been more inclined to believe that my love of spring is very closely tied to a discipline that has been both my vocation and my lifelong avocation – the study of biology. It is, I’ve finally decided, the springtime explosion of activity within our biological world that so enthralls me with this time of year. After months of waiting, a prolific rebirth is about to begin.

Here in Indiana, spring officially begins in March. In the northern hemisphere, the vernal equinox (autumnal equinox in the southern) marks a time of equivalent hours of daylight and darkness. From this time until late June the hours of daylight will really begin to outpace the nocturnal periods. However, in my biologically oriented mind, spring actually begins in February. For it is during this month that the large raptors begin to nest. Surely I tell myself, in spite of frigid evidence to the contrary outside my window, the presence of hawk and owl eggs means it is spring. True, there is no more miserable sight than a barred owl doggedly incubating her eggs while a mantle of snow drapes her head and shoulders. But the promise of new beginnings is there. Like Phoenix from its ashes, new life will arise from the frosty February forest.

The next signpost of spring I eagerly await is the emergence of the amphibians. One of the first, and often most noticeable, members of this cast is the chorus frog. This little frog is only about 25mm in head and body length. Thus it is often mistakenly identified as a baby frog. But, of course, “baby frogs” are tadpoles. My field journal shows that from 1977 through the year 2000 the average date upon which I first heard this species calling was February 20th. As noted, that’s a pretty early date for “spring” in Indiana. There is still plenty of time for a bitter cold snap or several inches of snow. And yet the breeding imperative of this little anuran is strong. Barely has the ice melted from the surface of every small pool and pond than the plaintive croak of this diminutive fellow is heard. The voice of the chorus frog has been described as sounding like the rubbing of one’s thumb across the teeth of a comb. With the water temperature near freezing, it is often a very sluggish rubbing of the comb that occurs. Nevertheless, for millennia this voice has bespoken the release of winter’s grip and the onset of warmer weather. “Here I am,” says the little croaking. “This is my breeding territory,” the sound affirms. “Ladies, I am worthy,” croon the pint-sized singers.

Soon after the chorus frogs begin their wooing of mates, the spring peepers commence their chorusing. Sounding like a high-pitched, whistled peep, their mating calls are highly cryptic in regards to finding their source. Wade into a shallow pool of chorusing spring peepers and try to pick out an individual. You’ll see what I mean. And yet the females unerringly find a mate and soon fill the breeding pool with masses of eggs suspended inside their gelatinous coverings. From here on a riotous explosion of anuran voices fills the night air. The chorus frog and spring peeper are joined by wood frogs, leopard frogs, , green frogs, crawfish frogs, gray tree frogs, bullfrogs, Fowler’s and American toads in mixed choruses of wonderful variety.

My neighbors have a large pond just over the hill from my house. In late spring it is a favorite haunt of a multitudinous number of Fowler’s toads. I sit upon my deck reveling in the ability to be clad in short sleeves and  watch darkness descend upon the surrounding forest. Serenaded by the peculiar, strident trilling of the toads, I suddenly feel an aboriginal peace of mind. It becomes very clear that the vocalizations are meant for me too. “Here is the world as it once was,” they say. ” Take note of the ebb and flow of the seasons,” they shout. “You are a creation of the natural world as well,” they remind me.

This gradual increase in anuran activity and diversity is, of course, matched upon the land by the spectacular explosion of diversity among the avian inhabitants of the Indiana fields, wetlands, and forests. The raptors, as I have noted, have gotten a head start on the proceedings. But following closely upon their heels comes an invasion of spectacular proportions. I can see one of my favorite constituents of this incursion just a few short minutes east of my home. For here 9000 acres of restored wetlands have been created – Goose Pond FWA. The response of avifauna to this restoration has been nothing short of spectacular. And now, in the early spring, it is my great fortune to be able to witness the annual northward return of the sandhill cranes. Until Goose Pond was established, I had never seen these birds in southwestern Indiana. What strange, non-human means of communication enabled them to learn of the existence of this new wetland confounds me. But learn they did. Now I am able to stand in enraptured wonder as thousands of sandhill cranes descend onto their feeding grounds or alight at their evening roosts. Since first vouchsafed this spectacle, I have become enamored by sandhill cranes. Their far-carrying bugles seem to me the epitome of wildness. I’m sure that the great conservationist Aldo Leopold, with his unmatched eloquence, has touched upon the source of my fascination with these birds. Says he, “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.” Yes indeed; there is much fodder for thought in the call of a sandhill crane.

Typically following the sandhill cranes northward through the spring skies comes a host of waterfowl species unseen since last year. Having spent the winter months entertained only by the Canada geese which have learned that migration isn’t really a necessity, I am now regaled by the return of great throngs of their brethren. Accompanying the cranes to Goose Pond are mallards, blue-winged and green-winged teal, gadwalls, northern pintails, American widgeons, canvasbacks, redheads, northern shovelers, ring-necked ducks, greater and lesser scaup, snow geese, and greater white-fronted geese. It is a flamboyant expression of the season of renewal which I now see reinvigorating the marshlands.

Upon land, a similar explosion of arriving bird species can be seen. Now returning to my woodland, some from as far away as Central and South America, are golden-winged warblers, Kentucky warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, yellow warblers, northern parulas, and ovenbirds. Joining them on a list that progressively lengthens day by springtime day are Baltimore orioles, orchard orioles, thrushes and thrashers, swallows and swifts, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, flycatchers, and vireos. The days are made more interesting as I monitor the wood duck box on a nearby sycamore tree. I see a pair haunting the neighboring trees. Will they use the home I have provided them? The female is an expert at surreptitiously making a dive through the box’s entrance hole. Perhaps I will not know of their nesting until the fall when, upon checking the box, I discover egg shell fragments. Now my mornings are made brighter by the piercing, crystalline “teakettle-teakettle-teakettle” of an amorous Carolina wren.   The evenings become sublime as the haunting, fluted “eeh-oh-lay” of the wood thrush resonates from the darkening woodland.  Is it any wonder that springtime sends the dedicated birder into paroxysms of joy as they again recognize familiar voices, record their “first of the years”, and anticipate the Big May Day count?

Despite the entertaining chaos of returning species, there is one bird which has always verified for me that spring is here to stay. It is the red-winged blackbird. At about the same time that the chorus frogs begin their calling, I begin to notice that some red-wings have left their winter flocks. Going solo now, males begin to stake out a likely piece of terrain. Typically, by the end of February, they have taken up permanent guard duty over the small plot that will become their breeding territory. This early establishment of territory can have its setbacks. Few things connote misery more clearly than a sodden male red-wing hunkered down and waiting out an early spring mix of rain and snow.

But eventually come the warm days when, perched high in a favorite willow, the males flash their gaudy, red epaulets and produce their wonderful liquid warble. It is a sound irresistible to a female red-wing. It is also a sound that instantly transports me, via the vehicle of memory, to youthful days spent eyeing a bobber floating upon the waters of a favorite bluegill pond. Standing water = red-winged blackbird song. Red-wing blackbird song = standing water. The two images are as inseparable in my mind as the notion that male red-wings on territory mean spring.

Having an inclination toward zoology, my ruminations upon spring have so far centered upon wildlife. But of course it would be a reprehensible injustice to speak of spring and confine myself to the Animalia. In February I begin to notice that distant tree lines have changed their appearance. Their winter colors of gray and brown are now replaced by blushes of red and green. The colors are an announcement that things are astir in the plant kingdom too. Close examination of these trees reveals leaf buds ready to pop, catkins, and flowers set to explode as soon as temperatures and light permit. Each year I am amazed to see the speed with which plant productivity accelerates from nonexistence to high gear. Tiny leaves emerge and, day by day, grow in size with astonishing rapidity. One day I look out my window and clearly see, through the nearby forest, my much too close neighbor’s house.  Then seemingly overnight the solar collectors of ash, walnut, hickory, and maple are too large to allow me to see more than thirty feet into the forest. From then until November I can at least pretend to be living in some degree of isolation from other humans.

There is another event that marks the coming of spring. It involves neither animal nor plant. It is a happening highly anticipated by the rural folk who populate my world. It is the emergence of the morel mushrooms. Successfully finding morels is something of a knack. Hunters who can spot a tiny morel at thirty paces and come home from a quest with bulging sacks of these delicacies are highly regarded in these parts. I dare say that I hold such a person in much higher esteem than a typical member of the Indiana legislature. I love to mushroom hunt but few would consider me an adept in this art. Nevertheless, along with my wife and daughter, we find our share. Weekends spent searching our woodlands for black, half-free, gray, and yellow morels have provided many an hour of pleasant companionship for us.

Seeking morels is serious business in rural Indiana. I recall one outing, on a day particularly hot for an Indiana spring, when this fact was brought home to me most clearly. Having clambered about like a mountain goat on some rugged strip-mine spoils, I suddenly found myself experiencing the symptoms of heat exhaustion. It was either flop down on my back to recover or pass out and tumble to the bottom of the spoil bank. My daughter, initially frightened by my symptoms of course, used her skills as a nurse to conclude that it was the heat and not the heart at fault here. After a half hour or so of lying comatose, I finally felt like rising and trying to walk back to our vehicle. As I got up and dusted myself off Michelle announced, “I found six more morels while you were passed out.” I can’t describe the father’s pride I felt at that moment.

Of course, a morel hunter would rather endure the tortures of the rack than reveal the location of a productive mushroom patch. Knowing where to successfully find morels is a piece of information that disproves the notion that blood is thicker than water. You may be my sibling but don’t even ask where I found all these mushrooms is the rule of morel law. As I said, finding these delicacies is serious industry.

I have already admitted that my morel hunting skills are about average at best. Now I must confess to a serious shortcoming which is likely the cause of my paltry ability. The fact is I just can’t seem to keep my mind on business while I’m mushroom hunting. There is simply too much else going on in the spring woods. For example, I recall one spring day of perfect light and temperature. I had just begun my search when a hen woodcock suddenly flushed from under my feet. Usually, when this happens, I next see the bird rapidly disappearing into the distant forest like a small, brown bullet. This time the woodcock displayed a slow, fluttering flight that carried it no further than just over the next spoil ridge ten yards away. Strange thought I. Then it dawned on me that perhaps I had nearly stepped on her nest. Remaining planted where I stood, I carefully scanned the leaf litter around me. Imagine my delight when I saw there, practically at my feet, three baby woodcocks.  Tiny little balls of downy fluff they were. Their coloration was so cryptic and matched the dead leaves upon which they sat so well that I was somewhat astonished to have even spotted them. Not a millimeter did they move. Not an eye blinked. I carefully reached down and touched a down feather. Still as stone the crafty little mote remained. By such instinct do they remain invisible to fox and weasel.  I slowly moved away secure in the knowledge that mom, listening intently just over the ridge, would soon return and lead the little brood away. Who could think of morels when bequeathed such a rare glimpse into the secret life of the woodcock?

That was the first time I had ever seen fledgling woodcocks. It may be the last. But there is no  dearth of observations destined to distract me from the job of finding morels. After many years, I simply accept this fact. I find myself intrigued to find an eastern box turtle. I encounter it sluggishly emerging from the springtime leaf litter. Its head and carapace are plastered with mud. The orange-red iris tells me it is a male. The mud upon the back suggests this fellow is just emerging from his long winter nap. Likely it’s time for him to think about a post-winter snack and a search for another of his kind; the one having the dark eyes.

Next to the box turtle is a patch of spring beauties. How appropriate their name. After a winter of barren, brownish leaf litter the delicate, white flowers with their pink venation and yellow anthers are among the first forest plants to announce that musim bunga has arrived. Digging into the soil I retrieve a filbert sized corm from one of the plants. Brushing away the soil, I pop the morsel into my mouth, crunch down, and am rewarded with an earthy, potato flavor. Nearby stands half a dozen specimens of toothwort.  This small, white-flowered herbaceous plant is quite common in the woodlands of Indiana. I recall that the name refers to use of the plant’s segmented root as an herbal remedy for toothache. This in turn causes me to ponder upon the fact that practically every plant I see around me was likely used in some way by Native Americans. Whether it be food, fiber, or building material that was needed, a plant that fit the bill could be found in their environment. The pioneers who displaced the native inhabitants were also aware, likely to a lesser degree, of the natural pharmacy and food larder that surrounded them. Sadly this is a knowledge and skill that is as nearly extinct among modern Hoosiers as the passenger pigeon. My guess is that the vast majority of modern humans are cerebrally disconnected from their continued reliance upon the plant kingdom for our survival. I dig up a small, two inch root of a toothwort and sample its texture and taste. Yes, very crispy as I had heard and it does indeed taste like horseradish.

Of course I am not distracted by only a plant species or two. If my morel hunt is done in a species rich, older forest the visual feast I am offered will be delicious. There will be the exquisite simplicity of trillium to behold. The lovely white pantaloons of Dutchman’s breeches will catch my eye. Likely there will be Virginia bluebells, Jack in-the-pulpit, mayapple, blue violet, trout lily, and bloodroot.  Of course I can’t neglect consideration of the woody plants. Redbud, my favorite, dogwood, and spicebush transform the nearly leafless forest into an impressionist opus. There is so much to see and muse upon here. How could anyone keep their mind on morels?

Once, meandering along while searching the forest floor for Morchella esculenta, my eyes fell upon a small russet lump lying quietly in my path. Liberally sprinkled with white spots and sporting eyes and legs that were far too big for the tiny body rested a white-tailed deer fawn. Like the tiny woodcocks the fawn instinctively made not a move.  As the sunlight played through the canopy and fell in white dollops around and upon the fawn, the little deer became virtually invisible although lying only a few feet away. As I moved closer, the breathing of the little one slowed and not a hair stirred. I reckoned in another week or so my coming nearer would result in the sight of a white flag held high as the youngster bounded over the nearest hill. But for now I was free to casually and carefully inspect the diminutive wonder that lie before me. Even at this tender age the fawn exhibited the graceful symmetry of torso and limb which causes us to associate the terms elegance and loveliness with this animal. What would be this little creature’s fate I wondered? Many hazards lie ahead. Coyotes are predators of deer fawns. Should it survive these wild canids, there are harsh winters and hunting seasons to come as well as dangerous roads to cross. Good luck little wonder thought I. Thank you for bringing beauty and grace into my world. As I moved away the fawn remained as inert as when I had first encountered it. Doubtless the doe would soon return and together they would move off into a realm alien to me. Only a brief peek into this world was I granted. But what a delightful glimpse it was.

Perhaps these short vignettes have given you an understanding of why there is little chance I will be crowned the Sullivan County Mushroom Hunting Champion. Doubtless if morels were the only things to be found in the spring woodlands my odds would be much better. But, it has been my good fortune to find that they are not the sole occupants of these timberlands. I would be willing to bet that others hunters suffer the same weakness as I. The forests of April and May are simply full of diversions of wondrous variety. They are there for you too – bird and beast, flower and frog, art and adventure, homage and history. All it takes is some time and the pretense of going afield in search of a nice “mess” of mushrooms.

 

 

 

 

 

1. Gifts from the Universe

(This blog is also available as an audio essay at georgesly.podbean.com)

Although it has been over forty years now, I still remember my first tentative step into the nighttime world of Malaysia’s tropical rainforest as though it happened last week. And why not? Since boyhood I had dreamed of walking in this warm, rich world. As I stood at the edge of the lawn of the University of Malaya Field Center, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I could barely believe my good fortune. My dream was finally to be fulfilled. I was about to experience the favored haunt of some childhood heroes – Jungle Jim, Tarzan, Ramar of the Jungle, and how could I forget the stories of Frank Buck? I still have the Classics Illustrated version of his Bring ‘Em Back Alive. But, on the other hand, Buck’s accounts of the “jungle” reminded me of its many hazards. This was the retreat of the king cobra, the world’s largest venomous snake. Didn’t I recall pictures of giant reticulated pythons bigger than a man’s torso lying in wait along over-hanging tree branches? Also playing on my mind was another favorite childhood book, Jim Corbett’s Man-eaters of Kumaon. The gruesome fate of the victims of these predators sent shivers down my spine. And yes, there were still tigers and leopards in these forests.

With these thoughts in mind, I stepped from the carefully manicured world of humans and into the darkness of the surrounding rainforest. A myriad of sounds greeted me as I stepped along the damp trail leading to the Sungei Gombak. Already I could hear the small but turbulent stream’s muffled roar as it plunged towards its union with the waters of the Sungei Klang and eventually the Straits of Malacca away to the west. A mixed chorus of insects, toads, and frogs chimed, bleated, buzzed, and barked around me. The forest itself launched its own barrage on my senses. Clumps of Giant Bamboo reared nearly fifty feet above me along the trail. Lianas climbed into the canopy, their leafy crowns far out of sight overhead. The dank smell of decaying vegetation wafted on the air and the forests’ oppressive one hundred percent humidity pressed in upon me like a living organism. I was reminded of being in a lush greenhouse on a warm summer’s day. Even in the dim illumination of my headlamp, I could discern the sensory overload I have since experienced in tropical rainforests around the world. The sheer magnitude of the plant biodiversity was overwhelming. The sounds were a complex muddle of cacophonies. The smells were rich, fecund, and alien. How could anyone ever become familiar with so much life? I recall all of these sensations combining to give me an eerie feeling of being surrounded and closed upon by forces disturbing, dark, and unknown; perhaps unknowable.

As my headlamp played upon the trail ahead of me, and probably no more than forty meters into the forest, I saw my first rainforest snake. Stepping closer its beautiful lime-green body and red tail became apparent. One glance at its lance-like head, tapering to a fine point at the nose and distinctly posed upon a slim neck, also told me that this was a specimen to be treated with respect. For here as beginner’s luck would have it was a Sumatran pit-viper, an Asian relative of our copperhead and rattlesnakes. Like most wild creatures when confronted by a human, the snake decided that it would be safer elsewhere and began to glide from the path. However quick use of my snake-stick resulted in the bagging of the first of what was to become many Malaysian snake specimens. With nerves slightly jangled – handling a venomous reptile will do that you know – I continued toward the footbridge which crossed the Gombak just ahead.

My evening of adventure wasn’t over. Lying directly in the middle of the bridge was a centipede. This wasn’t the little fellow which runs for cover when we overturn a rotting log here in the U.S. This specimen was nine inches long and quite willing to hold his ground. I knew a fellow who had been bitten by a Scolopendra such as this one. He described the pain as a week’s worth of feeling as though his hand had been slammed in a car door. Taking a pair of long forceps from my pack, I grasped the centipede mid-body. The brute twisted around and struck the forceps with its fang-like, modified forelimbs in an attempt to inject its venom. With a lurch much stronger than I had anticipated from a mere arthropod, it easily wrenched itself free of the forceps and, in a flash, disappeared over the edge of the bridge. Although disappointed in loosing such a nice specimen, I was still mightily impressed by its strength and agility.

I leaned against the bridge railing for a breather and some reflection. I had been in the forest for the space of half an hour and had covered less than fifty meters. My first encounters with animal life had been with two of the most venomous inhabitants of the tropical rainforest. Could the popular accounts of fang and claw at every turn be true? As a professional biologist, I should have known better. Luck was simply with me this evening. As I was to learn, it is quite possible to tread a rainforest trail for hours and see nothing alarming at all. During the remainder of the evening no king cobras reared in the trail ahead of me. No pythons dropped from overhanging branches and I was never, at least to my knowledge, stalked by any large predators.

In the months to come, I was to find as other naturalists have before, that the reality of the tropical rainforest’s immense biodiversity is really more exciting than fiction. Many have speculated as to exactly why tropical rainforests do have such a wealth of species. One idea I find appealing is called the Available Time Hypothesis. Its basic thesis is this. Unlike the Neotropical forests, the reproductive biology of Malaysia’s rainforests has been uninterrupted by the periodic advances and retreats of glaciers. The result of all this unbroken time (over a hundred million years by most estimates), and subsequently many generations of reproductive output, has been the evolution of a bewilderingly diverse flora and fauna. These exhibit nearly every conceivable form of body, behavior, habitat preference, and dietary predilection.

The living treasures I have encountered in the rainforest remind me of a story in Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard describes how, as a child, she used to hide a penny along a sidewalk. She would then draw large arrows, in chalk, which pointed the way to the prize penny. Walkers were motivated onward by her chalked signs proclaiming “SURPRISE AHEAD”. She described how she would become tremendously thrilled when she thought of how some fortunate stranger might discover this great reward. The penny was, she imagined, a free gift from the universe.

And so it is as one walks the trails of a tropical rainforest or for that matter a flowering prairie, the lush Sonoran desert, a soaring woodland, an urban park. At every turn, one may find a precious hidden penny. Be alert, this penny may assume the guise of bejeweled insect, magnificent flower, splendidly colored bird, or majestic sequoia. But they are there for you, every living thing, a free gift from the universe.