And the Trees Hugged Me Back

I went for a walk in the woods in the late morning last Wednesday. I knew it would be a long and stressful day as we endured planned protests to the certification of the electoral votes for our new president, and I was trying to do some self-care to keep my stress level in check. Every new day seems to push me to what feels like a new limit to my endurance, and I worry about the long-term health consequences of constant high levels of cortisol and adrenaline in my body. I really miss being able to go to the gym.

On this walk, I stopped often to look skyward and enjoy the feeling of being comforted by the trees “hugging” me. Maybe they’re repaying me for all the times I’ve hugged them?

I’ve been off my photography game lately, but on this day I decided to snap some cell phone photos of mosses and lichens. At this time of year they’re a welcome pop of color in the mostly-brown-and-gray woods. I don’t know much about these organisms and can’t identify most of them, but I love looking for them.

On this walk I found lots of large trees with moss socks going up several feet from the ground. I often stopped to pet them and enjoy the tactile aspect along with the verdant feast for the eyes.

This tree is wearing a moss sock
A wood fern, another nice green surprise in the winter woods. (Maybe dryopteris genus.)

As I drove home from my walk, I turned on the radio and heard the news of the domestic terrorists invading the US Capitol. I finished my drive in a state of shock, anxious to get home and see what was on the tv news. I remembered that I had ended my last gratitude post with a statement that now seemed like a dare: “Show us what you’ve got, 2021. We’re ready.” I have to take that back now…we were not ready. At. All.

I think this is the first time I’ve photographed this particular lichen. It appears to be one of the rosette lichens in the genus Physcia. It occurs to me that this might be the reason I’ve been craving mint chocolate chip ice cream…you see it too, right?

And here we have a lichen sitting on a soft bed of moss. The moss is a plant, but the lichen is not. Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga, allowing the fungus to benefit from the photosynthesis ability of the alga, and thus retain a constant source of nourishment. (At least this is how I understand it at a very basic level.) Luckily for me, it’s not necessary to understand the science in order to enjoy them.

I need to get back on board with my fairy photo project soon. I used to carry little fairies and gnomes with me so I could pose them on big mushrooms or tucked into beds of lush moss. That project gave me a lot of pleasure, and it should be one more thing I continue to help keep my mind off of all the scary things that I have little or no control over. I hope you remember to take good care of yourselves too. I can highly recommend being hugged by trees.

Get Ready, Here Comes 2021

2020 worst year ever

It’s okay, don’t let that title scare you. You’re reading this, so you’ve already made it through one of the toughest years the human species has had to face for decades. Take a moment to acknowledge that, if you can. Breathe in, breathe out. I’ve learned how immensely important it is to get serious about mindful gratitude these days, because life can be turned on its head in an instant.

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the day-to-day details of life that we forget to appreciate the good parts. And it’s far too easy to find things to complain about this year, so let’s not do that today. I want to mention some things that I’ve been especially grateful for recently, in the hope that this will encourage you to do the same.

Friendships

My gosh, where to start? For a couple decades of my life I lived a relatively unsocial lifestyle with few meaningful friendships. After making the scary decision to leave my former life six years ago and start over, I have felt like a new person. The change wasn’t instantaneous and it wasn’t easy, but I pushed myself to adopt new habits and new ways of interacting with the world. I dug deep and kept trying after each setback. And before I knew it, I’d built a life full of wonderful friends and meaningful relationships with colleagues in my nonprofit volunteer work. I sometimes couldn’t believe I’d been able to do it after having been trapped in the old patterns for so long. I finally felt needed and respected, and had as much social life as I could handle. Life was great.

Then the pandemic hit. After all the work I’d put in to build my new life, and when I’d realized that I really did need people, all of that important social interaction was taken from me virtually overnight. I wanted to pound my fists and scream, “No fair!” But, alas, life is what happens when you’re making other plans, right?

Wingspan game day at my house…in 2019…sigh.

Of course the friendships remain, but we can’t spend time together now.  No more game nights at my house with a kitchen full of laughter. No more meeting a friend for coffee or lunch. No more community theatre dates with my theatre buddy. I do meet a couple friends for walks occasionally, but it’s getting too cold for that to be fun anymore. I didn’t realize it was possible to feel this lonely. I’m normally so grateful that I can live alone, but some days I would give anything to have someone in my household “pandemic pod” so I could get a hug. I know things will eventually return to some kind of new normal in which we can be together again, but this forced separation has made me realize how important these people are to my life.  Some friends teach me new things, others make me laugh, and yet others share those deep conversations about life that I love to engage in. I cannot wait for the day that it’s safe to grab every one of my friends in a huge bear hug — I may never want to let go again!

Time

I’m very lucky that I don’t have to deal with a job and kids during the pandemic.  So lucky that I feel guilty about it. I try to make up for that by donating to causes that help the people who are suffering more than me with more immediate physical or financial needs. Most days I have to myself now, with very few appointments or even reasons to leave the house except for groceries or a walk in the park. Despite the loneliness, I’m incredibly grateful for the mental space I’ve been able to reclaim with all this solitude. I see the benefits I’m reaping from being able to use my time to read and write.

A few of my favorite inspirational books

The other day I finally took some time to remove all the books from my messy shelves and re-organize them. That process gave me the chance to rediscover some of them, and I’ve developed the new habit of just pulling a book from the shelf and reading a chapter at random. I’m focusing on my large collection of books about writing, mostly. I’ve long had a fascination with the processes of other writers: how they get ideas, how they organize their notes, and how they tell stories. I feel some momentum building toward my dream of writing my own book. I’m getting more confident that I have something to say that other people will be interested in reading. It’s scary, but I’ve always believed that doing the scary things is important in order to move yourself forward.

My Pets

After my cat Mickey’s traumatic death during my divorce, I was determined not to have pets again because it hurt too much to lose them. And I managed not to look at any cute kittens for more than a year…until a colleague wore me down with her constant urgings for me to get a cat. I begged her to stop telling me about stray cats she’d found or people giving them up for adoption, but she persisted relentlessly. Eventually she wore me down, and I adopted two five-year-old cats from someone who was getting married to a guy with severe cat allergies. 

That was five years ago. I’ve sometimes regretted that I allowed myself to be pushed into adopting them, especially when I had to deal with expensive pet sitting rates and when I found out that one of the cats is very demanding of my attention. But…and this is a major but…since the pandemic and the ensuing isolation, these cats have saved my sanity. I love them both and adore their little quirks. Sophie is my little brown and black tabby girl with the softest fur and loudest purr you’ve ever heard. Her legs are so short she has to try several times to get up on the bed. And the big orange one, Sam, sleeps curled up against my chest with his paw across my neck. It’s hard…really hard…to be alone in this time of such uncertainty about the future. And if I didn’t have these cats to keep me company, well, I just don’t want to imagine how much harder it would be.

And before I finish with this subject, I’ll mention the pets of my friends too. Two of my friends have graciously shared their dogs with me — isn’t it strange that dog walking is something new for me? I realized that I had never walked a dog in my life before the pandemic. And I discovered that I love it! When you can’t hug a friend, the next best thing is to hang out with their dogs. I’ve helped one friend train his rescued dogs to get socialized in the park, and the other friend has allowed her dogs to smother me with kisses and an occasional tackle.

So those are some of the things I’m especially grateful for these days. What are yours?

(Yes, I need a haircut!)

So now we move ahead into a new year. Sure, it’s just a number on a calendar, but we give it a great deal of symbolic significance. There are hopeful signs that life may get better soon: Vaccines are beginning to be administered, and the leadership of our government will be much more sane in just a few short weeks. I’m generally a cynic about New Year’s resolutions, but not this year. I resolve to hold on just a while longer. I’m so tired of wearing masks, but I’ll keep doing it a while longer. I miss my friends and family so much, but I can endure this separation just a while longer.

Show us what you’ve got, 2021. We’re ready.

Puzzled by Nature

A micro puzzle that comes in a plastic test tube…fun!

That title is an apt description of my addled mind these days, as a long pandemic winter settles down on us in northwest Ohio. Brain fog has become a familiar companion in the absence of any human contact and little structure to my days. I long for a return to my active life full of time in nature with my friends. But until that’s possible again, I’ve had to become resourceful about finding new ways to occupy myself during seemingly endless hours of solitude.

Of course I still have virtual meetings and virtual game days, but that’s the extent of my interaction with other humans these days. I do a lot of reading…and writing…and some drawing too. But I’m beginning to feel the walls closing in on me lately, and felt the need for something new in my life. So, naturally, I’ve joined the legions of devoted dissectologists, otherwise known as people who enjoy jigsaw puzzles.

The pandemic has stimulated a huge demand for puzzles reminiscent of the one that took place during the Great Depression. (Here’s a brief history of jigsaw puzzles that will clue you in to the origin of the term dissectologist.) I’ve found working jigsaw puzzles to be a rather meditative activity that helps keep my mind focused away from unproductive thoughts and worries.

Caterpillar puzzle from The Caterpillar Lab — 11″ x 14″

There’s an incredible diversity of puzzles available these days, and I discovered that I’m quite picky about the subject matter of my puzzles. It won’t surprise anyone that my favorites are nature-themed puzzles featuring insects, birds, and other animals. I’ve spent hours browsing websites, turning my nose up at puzzles with city scenes, reproductions of famous paintings, and images of colorful donuts. I also like book-themed puzzles, like the ones that have images of bookshelves overflowing with interesting titles. The photos in this post are some of my favorites from the nature puzzles I’ve done recently.

Article about the demand for puzzles

I’m particularly fond of the huge dragonfly puzzle below. Full disclosure about that dragonfly though: I didn’t finish it. I did the entire border and the dragonfly in the center, but only finished the lower half of the interior because it just felt tedious by that point. The design is exactly the same all around, and that just isn’t fun for me. I guess I’m picky about the subject matter and the level of difficulty. I’m a Goldilocks puzzler, looking for just the right amount of what I want…not too easy, not too hard.

I’ve loaned the dragonfly puzzle to a friend and I may have another go at it when she’s finished with it. I love the colors on that puzzle and may even consider framing it to hang on the wall. One day it’ll be a reminder of pandemic life, I suppose. Might as well find some beauty in these bizarre times, right?

The “Ecosystems of the World” puzzle (below) was a lot of fun because it made me curious about some of the ecosystems as I was studying the images. If a puzzle is visually pleasing, keeps my mind and hands busy, and teaches me something along the way, then it’s done its job well.

Ecosystems of the World — a very fun puzzle
Detail from “Charley Harper Tree of Life” puzzle
Detail from a puzzle of fruit label art

I often listen to podcasts and music as I work on a puzzle, taking breaks to dance with Sam whenever Fleetwood Mac pops up on my Spotify playlist. He just loves to be held on my shoulder so he can nuzzle my chin while I dance to “Second Hand News.” Seriously, he seems to have a real interest in that particular song…it’s so weird. He doesn’t seem to mind that I only know the lyrics to two lines. And yes, I know what you’re thinking — it’s possible that I’ll turn into the stereotypical cat lady spinster by the time this is all over. But come on, I can’t be the only one falling into some odd behaviors at this point, right?

Sam likes the beetle puzzle as much as I do

I realized the other day that even once it’s my turn to get the vaccine (hopefully by late spring), I still won’t know how long it protects me, so how can my life change at that point? I can’t imagine that we’ll be able to safely abandon the face masks and social distancing for quite some time. The uncertainty is so frustrating, and there’s no telling how long it will be before we can start to put the pieces of our lives back together. But it will happen at some point, for sure. In the meantime, you’ll find me in the jigsaw aisle….

Words Matter

Two bumblebees sleeping on New England asters in my garden — not icky at all!

Gross. Icky. Scary. Disgusting. Creepy crawlies. Those are the kinds of words often used to describe bugs. If you do an internet search on an insect name, many of the first results you’ll get are for websites that tell you how to kill that insect (or arachnid). If you don’t believe me, do a search for “spider in my house,” and see if you don’t get lots of results telling you how to kill it.

It’s a shame that humans have decided that our homes (and even our lawns!) should be sterile havens from those creepy crawlies. In some cases it’s understandable because they can do damage that has a significant financial or health impact, as with termites or rodents. But most insects are harmless to us. When you know more about them, they become much less scary. And as I’m finding, the more you pay attention to them, the deeper your connection to nature becomes. And having a closer relationship to nature is a way to make your life richer.

With that in mind, I’ve been trying to study and photograph various kinds of insects. As you know, 2020 has been my first Big Bug Year. But even before this year, I’d begun tracking insects in my own yard — and in my home. This last part was inspired by the book “Never Home Alone,” by Rob Dunn. Don’t freak out, but there are nearly 200,000 species of insects and other organisms potentially living in your house. Although I’ve only recorded 15 species in my house so far…mostly spiders and ants. (I feel like I need to keep pointing out that spiders aren’t insects, but it’s just easier to keep saying “insects” as an all-inclusive word for the arthropods I included in my project.)

Sometimes I’m amazed at how my attitude toward insects has changed in recent years. I grew up with the feelings toward them that I described in the first paragraph above. I did things as a child that horrify me now, like pulling the lights off of lightning bugs to wear on my finger, or using a magnifying glass to pop ants in the sunlight. I had no concept of them as individual life forms just trying to survive. I feel like I’m trying to make amends now by sharing interesting info about these misunderstood tiny organisms that make up the intricate web of life that supports our own lives.

Common eastern firefly, aka lightning bug — a beneficial insect for your garden ecosystem

Some insects are naturally interesting to us because they’re pretty and we see them on flowers. They’re not threatening at all. For most people, butterflies would be in this category. In my case, dragonflies caught my interest first, and then I began learning butterflies as well. But aside from those more obvious and charismatic insects, it’s a tough sell to get most people to open their minds to being more tolerant of insects, let alone to study them. But I persevere with my mission….

My yard list has 145 insect species at this point, a number that really surprised me. Eventually I’m going to track the changes in insect diversity in my yard as my native plants mature, to see if I can discern any changes. But that’s a separate project for another time.

Everybody loves butterflies like this eastern tiger swallowtail, right?

Because of the pandemic, I didn’t travel far from home this year. All of my insect observations were in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. My Big Bug Year project on iNaturalist shows 351 species at the time of this writing, but there are some caveats to interpreting that number:

  1. Many of my observations are still unidentified at the species level, and some not even at the genus level. I’m nowhere near an expert, and have to rely on people with more knowledge than me for some identifications. And I’ve found that in many cases, insect identification can’t be done from a photograph alone. It requires having the insect in hand to put it under a microscope. And honestly, that level of study is beyond my interest.
  2. Some of the identifications may change as other people review my uploaded photos. The community on iNaturalist is full of dedicated identifiers of various types of life forms, and sometimes they disagree with each other over an identification. I learn so much from the discussions that ensue from some of these (always friendly) disagreements.
Grapevine Beetle - Pelidnota punctata
This grapevine beetle is an inch long — very big for a bug!

Having said that, and after downloading all of my data for the year and starting to sort through it, I’ve already realized that I have tons of questions. And that makes me a happy girl. I could easily spend the next year researching the answers to all of those questions. I’m especially interested in all kinds of beetles right now, as they make up the largest portion of the insect world and are so varied in their ecosystem roles as well as their appearances.

We all know that words have enormous power to influence how people think and respond to ideas. In my own life, I’ve discovered that by consciously changing the words I use in my self-talk, I can drastically alter my feelings and behaviors. If I tell myself that I’m a loser, I’m going to feel and act like one. But if I consistently tell myself I’m strong and can do anything I set my mind to, then I’m going to end up believing that and behaving in ways that make it true.

So I’d like to propose some new words for our conversations about insects and other arthropods (yes, including spiders!). How about cute, amazing, incredible, fascinating, or even funny? If you look at each insect and think about why it’s there and what part of its life it’s showing you, then maybe you’ll be more inclined to want to know more about it. You may still decide you don’t like it, but I think you’ll be surprised at how often you’ll decide you’re glad you discovered it and are sharing this world with such a cool critter. Try it out and let me know!

Black-legged meadow katydid — Adorable! Fascinating!

Yes, We Have Tigers in Ohio

Tiger beetles, that is. (Yes, I used “click bait” to get you excited, and I’m not sorry.)

I know you’re all waiting with bated breath for news of my Big Bug Year, but I’m having some difficulties downloading the data I need from iNaturalist. That will come soon enough, but for today I want to introduce you to one special kind of beetle that’s starting to attract a wider fanbase of human admirers lately.

Six-spotted tiger beetle staring me down (Cicindela sexguttata)

Tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) are a subfamily of the ground beetle family of insects (Carabidae). They’re fast-running beetles with massive, scary jaws. They can run so fast that their vision gets distorted, and they have to stop periodically to reorient themselves as they chase down their prey. This behavior results in their movements being compared to those of shorebirds who run/stop/run/stop. Imagine being an ant and seeing those jaws coming toward you.

The last thing the ant saw was those massive jaws….

Part of the reason there’s more attention on them lately is that my friend Judy Semroc is working on a new book about the tiger beetles of Ohio. I invited Judy to be the speaker at our annual meeting of the Toledo Naturalists’ Association this past week, and our members were enthralled by her talk. She’s one of three co-authors compiling data from around our state for the book, to be published by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. You’ll remember that Ohio recently finished a three-year survey of our dragonflies, right? (If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you definitely read about it multiple times, as I participated quite enthusiastically.)

LeConte’s tiger beetle (Cicindela scutellaris ssp. lecontei), a subspecies found in the Great Lakes region

The Ohio dragonfly survey was lead by a fantastic team of coordinators in each region of the state, and it’s starting to sound like many of those dragon hunters are going to be on the tiger hunting team next summer too. Bug geeks unite! It’s so nice to have something to look forward to these days; this has really lifted my spirits quite a bit.

Anyway, let’s talk tiger beetles now. Like dragonflies, these insects are quite charismatic, and easily observed with very little training once you know where to look. Ohio has 21 recorded species of tiger beetles, with 18 species recorded on iNaturalist. (I’m not sure about the missing three species, but I’m guessing they’re just too rare to be on iNat yet. I know I’ll get the answer to that question and many more when the new book is published.) By the way, there’s a project set up on iNat where you can contribute your own photographs of tiger beetles to help Judy and her fellow researchers make the new book as complete as possible.

I braved scorching hot sand dunes to find this ghost tiger beetle last summer. (Ellipsoptera lepida)

As you can see from the photos, they’re quite distinctive insects, with their big eyes, long legs, and often metallic backs. The shell-like coverings on their backs are called elytra, and they protect the membranous wings. Tiger beetles hunt primarily on the ground, but when they fly, those elytra lift up so the flight wings can extend. Many of their elytra are brown or black with cream-colored markings that have their own sort of beauty, but the ones that seem to be crowd-pleasers are those that are bright metallic green or blue or purple. This six-spotted tiger beetle is the most common one in Ohio as well as nationwide.

Those long legs help them run fast, as well as to lift them off the hot sand to regulate their body temperature.

Tiger beetles live in a variety of habitats including power line cuts, clay banks, and sunny forest patches. Here in the globally-rare Oak Openings region of northwest Ohio, we’re lucky to have an abundance of sandy places, one of the best places to find these pretty beetles. I’ve found them on the beaches of Lake Erie and on sandy paths in many of our metroparks. But even with all the sand in this area, I’ve only photographed six species of tiger beetles so far. That might be because my attention has been laser focused on dragonflies though. Next summer, while I’ll continue my dragonfly chasing and monitoring activities, I’ll also be making a point of trying to find some more species so I can help fill in our statewide distribution map.

I hope you’ll follow me next summer on my quest to find more of these fascinating beetles and learn more about their lives.

Bronzed tiger beetle (C. repanda), with some lovely cream markings.

Brooding

As the days have ticked away on the countdown to Election Day, I’ve found my mood alternating between an almost breathless panic and an odd calm. I don’t sleep much, and when I do, I have nightmares. It’s unsettling, to say the least. This afternoon, unable to focus on the project I should be working on, I decided to go for a walk to clear my head.

The mood on the prairie at 3:30 this afternoon

I bundled up against the cold wind and headed for the prairie. With my earbuds tucked under my hat, listening to a soothing musical playlist, I quickly got lost in my thoughts. Before I knew it, I’d made several loops around one of my favorite trails. Not ready to come home yet, I stopped for a moment to sit on a bench and contemplate what might happen tomorrow, and how I might cope with each outcome.

I looked up, lifting my hand to shield my eyes from the bright sun, and was struck by the beauty of the clouds. I think this might be what’s called a mackerel sky, and if so, it’s supposed to be followed by changing weather. One can only hope so, at least when it comes to the political climate in this country. I know I’m not alone in being exhausted by the never-ending vitriol and chaos. I long for the days when we could go about our lives without having to worry every day about the next affront to decency and humanity coming from our own government.

Trees reaching for the clouds

We may not know the outcome of the election for days or even weeks, but whatever it is, I hope there will be some way for us to begin healing. I hope our leaders will begin to lift us all up together. I hope we can mend the torn relationships with friends and family.

I hope…because without hope, all is lost.

I leave you with a short video that I’ve titled, hopefully, “The Winds of Change.”

The Soil Will Save Us

You know how often we hear the warnings that we have to do (or not do) [xyz] to “save the earth”? Every time I hear that, I think we need to fundamentally shift our perspective about environmental issues. Because the truth is that the earth will go on just fine, with or without humans. The real issue of importance to us is to save humanity, right? When Earth Day rolls around on April 22, I think we should begin calling it Humanity Day instead, to emphasize this perspective.

I don’t mean to trivialize the value of the earth–the earth is everything. But if humans disappear from the planet this very day…or even if we slowly die off over a period of years from some catastrophic event (let’s say, a pandemic), the earth will survive. In fact, the earth will be healthier without us. I just watched David Attenborough’s new film, A Life on Our Planet, in which he walks through the town near Chernobyl* to show us how quickly plants and animals have retaken the city since people left it in 1986 when the nuclear power plant melted down. (Watch the movie trailer here.)

But as long as we’re here, I believe it would be immoral of our species if we didn’t at least try to change the behaviors that contribute to the degradation of the planet that sustains our lives. Many of these behaviors are deeply-ingrained in various cultures around the world though, and there are significant institutional and political forces that make change difficult. I get that. But for the species that likes to call itself the smartest of all, with dominion over all…well, we ought to be able to do this stuff. It’s frustrating to watch humanity sometimes!

These days, as we continue living under pandemic restrictions and worrying about the latest turmoil surrounding our upcoming election, I’m finding it hard to write much. I alternate between too much media consumption or total avoidance. And either way, I can’t focus. I was planning to experiment with writing shorter & more frequent posts, but I can already see that I’m having trouble with that. I just can’t seem to stop once I get going, LOL.

Kiss The Ground by Maggie Eileen
“Which model do you want your food to be produced from? The answer is pretty simple to me.” – Gabe Brown, in Kiss the Ground

But today I happened upon a new documentary on Netflix, and I was surprised to find that I felt hopeful when I watched it. Hope has been in short supply for me lately, and I got emotional as I experienced this strange feeling today. The film is called Kiss the Ground, and it’s about the importance of healthy soil and how farming practices can be altered to make radical improvements in our soil. They argue that “regenerative farming” could perhaps be key to saving our species. And it makes a lot of sense. We’re so used to hearing talk of improving the air and water, but how often do we hear about the soil? (Watch the film trailer here.)

So that’s all I wanted to share today. I bet some of you would find these films interesting and maybe even uplifting, as I did. Be well and safe, my friends.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*You can actually use Google Street View to “walk” around the deserted city of Pripyat to see what it looks like now, 34 years later after the Chernobyl explosion. When you get to that page on Google maps, click on the little man in the bottom corner and drag him onto any street that shows up in blue, and you’ll instantly be standing on that street. It’s way cool. Who says we can’t travel during the pandemic? 😉

Going Native in Toledo – Update

It’s been far too long since I updated you about the progress in my native garden project, so let’s fix that today. In re-reading my earlier posts in this series, I discovered that I hadn’t shared very many photos either. I guess I was more focused on writing about the ecological basis for this project, and hoping to get everybody up to speed about the critical importance of native plants. So you can go back and read those earlier posts if you’re interested in the background stuff. Today you’ll see photos and get a few more details about what’s been working and what’s not. (Depending on what kind of device you use to read this, you’ll see a link to “My Native Plant Project” at the top or bottom of the blog, so you can find those posts all together.)

When I started this project, I was so enthusiastic that I started ripping out everything that wasn’t a native plant. That was a mistake, and I’m glad I stopped myself from continuing that. I’ve come to accept that this will be a years-long learning project, and I may end up keeping some of the non-natives that I have a particular fondness for.  There are some allium cultivars here that are structurally interesting and attract lots of pollinators, so they can stay. And the 15-foot tall Rose of Sharon shrub is a hummingbird magnet, so it stays too.

Hoverfly on NE aster w sig
Hoverfly on New England aster

But at this point, I have about 60 species of natives in my garden. After three growing seasons, I’ve started to become more familiar with the habits of some of the plants and am able to make better decisions about when and where to add new plants or more of the same species.

New England aster monster
New England aster last August – what a monster!

For example, I know that New England aster can take over the entire garden while you’re at the grocery store. In late June I cut it down to three feet tall and it’s back up to about six feet again and leans over onto the less-sturdy plants around it. Its purple and yellow flowers are beautiful, and are important for migrating monarch butterflies and other late fall pollinators, but it’s definitely a tough one to control. I’d like to try putting in some goldenrods and other asters for fall blooms, and maybe then I can eliminate some of the N.E. aster.

Here are some photos of the first native bed I started along my east fenceline.

Various views of my garden - EB - blog (1)
My first native bed, in its third year

You can see a gap in the middle where some plants had to be removed, but the rest of it is doing great. Scanning from right to left, you’ll see common boneset (white flowers in back), pink coneflower, monarda (bee balm), and Sullivant’s milkweed, and then across the gap there’s rattlesnake master, cardinal flower, blue lobelia, black-eyed Susan, New England aster, and shrubby St. John’s wort. It’s funny, last year the black-eyed Susans were on the right side, in front of the coneflowers, but this year they showed up on the left side. Apparently they’ll move around from year to year, so you have to be prepared to go with the flow. There are some other plants mixed in this bed too, but I want to show you closer shots of a couple of these amazing native plants.

First up is rattlesnake master, a plant that grabs your attention simply by saying its own name. And if that’s not enough, just look at these wonderful globe-shaped flower heads! In this wider shot, it’s on the right side.

Various views of my garden - EB - blog (3)

Rattlesnake master flower heads - blog - NIMT
Rattlesnake master

I’ve got some cool photos of insects on those globes, but I’ll save that for my update about Kim’s Big Bug Year.

The shrubby St. John’s wort is also a beautiful plant, and I’ve regretted putting it back there in the corner where it’s mostly hidden. The flowers and leaves are so pretty. But thanks to my friend Kate, I’ve got two more young plants of that species that I’ve just put down as specimen plants in another new bed. First a wide shot, then a close up:

East bed alternate view with shrubby St John's wort - blog - NIMT

Shrubby st. john's wort with bumble bee
Shrubby St. John’s Wort with bumble bee

If you look back at that wide shot above, you’ll see my swing, and behind it two huge boxwood shrubs. I want to take those out and put some natives in there eventually. Have you ever smelled a boxwood shrub? It’s not something you want to sit beside for any length of time. The only reason I’ve hesitated removing them so far is that there’s only a 3-foot tall fence behind them, so when they’re removed there won’t be anything blocking the view into my garden from the road in front of the house. It’s not that I don’t want anyone to see the garden, but the reason I tucked the swing back in that corner is because it’s the most private part of the yard, and I like that. If I could buy mature native shrubs that were already five feet tall, I would do that in a heartbeat. But whatever goes in there will take years to grow big enough to give that privacy back. Decisions, decisions. Oh wait! I just realized I could plant something on the other side of that fence and let it grow up, and then remove the boxwoods. Aha, a plan materializes!

I’ve had some manual labor help lately too, and I’m glad I did, even though it was shockingly expensive.  There was this area back by my shed that had shrubs that were declining and just kind of ugly — there was hibiscus, purple smoke, and a huge arborvitae, along with a few raggedy hostas that didn’t like all the sun they got there. Here’s what it looked like before the contractor arrived a few weeks ago:

Before shrub removal 7-16-20
Before….

And a few hours later, I’d already started filling it with native plants…button bush, ninebark, shrubby St. John’s wort, white snakeroot, purple coneflower, and Riddell’s goldenrod. I’ll be adding some more in this bed after I go to the last native plant sale of this year in a couple weeks. It should look great next year.

New garden bed July 29 2020 - blog - NIMT
…and after! So much potential!

That’s one of the shrubby St. John’s worts front and center, ready to be the star that it should be!

This year also brought the first blooms on the gray-headed coneflower that I grew from seed and planted in 2018. I had been impatiently waiting for them, and when I saw them finally bloom last month I could have jumped for joy. I raised them from teeny tiny seeds and they are spectacular! I did that! (Well, the Earth did that…but I helped.)

gray-headed coneflower - blog
Gray-headed coneflowers beside tri-color beech tree – nice combo

That tri-color beech tree was here when I bought this property, and I thought it was probably going to remain a small tree, but I’ve seen some in the neighborhood that are forty or fifty feet tall, so I guess I’ll find out…in twenty years.

So that’s a good update for now, I think. Maybe next time I’ll show you some of the other native beds. I’m having so much fun growing native plants, and–especially this year–have enjoyed spending much more time than usual just being among the plants and insects. My fellow Wild Ones members have continued to be generous in their support of my new-ish garden; they give me plants and advice whenever I need it. And when I visit their mature native gardens, I feel better about what I’m doing. I see that, even for the most experienced among us, this is a process of trial and error. It’s messy and it’s hard work, and it’s never done. But it’s definitely worth it.

Yucca_filamentosa from Wikipedia
Yucca photo by Moriori on Wikipedia

I’m going to finish up here with a sort of warning — a “buyer beware” message. Three years after moving here, I’m still waging an epic battle against the yuccas (Yucca filamentosa). There are probably 15 of them scattered around the property, front and back. They look like they would be native to the desert southwest, but it turns out they’re native to the southeastern part of this country. I’m still a bit confused because the USDA Plants Database shows them as native to Ohio as well as much of the eastern US. But regardless of whether they’re natives or not, I have a strong dislike for them. And yet many people plant them around their houses, probably because they’re evergreen, and they don’t require any watering or other maintenance other than cutting down the enormous flower stalk that towers above the leaves each year. But they multiply prolifically, and turn into these monstrous multi-plant clumps that are so tough to eradicate that a web search on “how to get rid of yuccas” turns up hundreds of results. (Some of the videos are quite entertaining, like this one, and the one where Mike doesn’t think I’m trying hard enough.)

Yuccas removed from yard Aug 2019 - blog
A few yuccas I dug from my yard last year

Despite what Mike-on-YouTube thinks, I am trying hard! I’ve tried digging them up. Nope, life’s too short. I paid landscapers try to eradicate some of them two years ago, but they used a stump grinder which only served to chop up the massive root system and sprout hundreds more of these horrible plants. Last year I chopped one off at the ground and painted herbicide on the stump. It came back anyway. Earlier this summer I paid the teenager next door to try to dig one of them out. He spent more than four hours digging up ONE plant, and it re-sprouted a month later. (That poor kid will probably never come over here again after being defeated by a yucca.) Here’s a pile of the roots from that one plant — and this is only about a third of them!

So I’m experimenting with another technique now — I’ve covered the yucca hole with two layers of thick cardboard and a heavy layer of mulch. I’ll check on it next summer and see if I’ve finally managed to kill one of them. Stay tuned for my next yucca update, in which I fully expect to report that they’ve tried to kill me in my sleep.

Stop the Presses!

Calico pennant with background blurred - w sig
Calico pennant male on equisetum (aka scouring rush)

This isn’t what I’d intended to write today, but something awesome has happened.

Last week I was expecting a long-awaited book, but it was lost in the mail and didn’t arrive on Wednesday as it should have. Aargh! A couple days later, Amazon re-ordered it for me and told me it would arrive on Sunday. Sunday came and went and no package. Double aargh! Why was I so frustrated, you ask?

Well, the book is Chasing Dragonflies, the newest work by my dragonfly kindred spirit, Cindy Crosby. She has authored or collaborated on about 20 books, and her book The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction, was a big help to me in learning more about native plants. So I was thrilled last year when I had the opportunity to contribute some information for her new dragonfly book, and was anxious to find out if any of my stories had made it to print.

But let’s go back to last week for a moment. As I was doing my regular dragonfly survey last Thursday afternoon, I was approached by a smiling man who looked familiar but I couldn’t place him. He reminded me that we’d met briefly once last year and that he’d subscribed to my blog. (Oops, sorry Ron!) He then told me that he’d read Cindy Crosby’s new book and that she had mentioned me several times and even quoted me. This little tidbit of information served to stoke my excitement further, and I conducted the rest of my dragonfly survey with a huge smile on my face.

Chasing Dragonflies book
Finally, in my hands!!

Cut back to today, when I had impatiently resigned myself to just waiting for the book to show up…eventually….  And then, suddenly, it was here!!

I’ve ignored phone calls, chores, and emails today so I could dive into it, and I’m loving it.  Cindy writes about the lives of Odonata, as well as the community of people who study them. I think it would even be engaging to someone who doesn’t particularly have an interest in dragonflies, but just likes to read about the natural world. And who knows, it might motivate more people to join us in monitoring these under-studied insects and their habitats.

Over the past year as Cindy and I have commented on each other’s blogs, I’ve grown to think of her as my dragonfly-sister-from-another-mother. (Ha, this will be the first time she’s heard that one.) I feel a kinship with her through our shared concern for both native plants and Odonata. It’s so nice to know there are women being recognized for their expertise in the male-dominated world of dragonflies. She’s an inspiration to me in many ways.

If you haven’t seen her blog yet, I highly recommend that you check it out. You can subscribe so you’ll get an email each Tuesday with a link to her weekly posts. It’s called Tuesdays in the Tallgrass. She walks her Chicago-area prairies regularly and photographs plants and insects, writing about them in ways that I can only dream of doing.

I’ve already found the places in the book where she used my material (pages 67, 108, and 117), and I have to sheepishly admit that I’m delighted to see myself quoted in print. That’s only happened a couple other times in my entire life.  Maybe I’m silly, but it’s something that has lifted my spirits a great deal today. In this time of isolation and social distancing, it makes me feel that I’m a valued member of a special community, and that my opinions matter. (Hmmm, I should write sometime about the strength of the human desire to be acknowledged and feel valued….)

What the heck, I’ll confess that when I saw that package in my mailbox today, I felt a little bit like Navin Johnson in this clip from the 1979 movie, The Jerk:

So thank you, Cindy, for a wonderfully captivating book and for allowing me to be a tiny part of it. And congratulations on such a successful book project!

Maybe Dorothy Was Right

It’s been more than two months since I’ve written here. My absence hasn’t been because I don’t have anything to say, or anything to show you, but rather because I have too much to say and can’t figure out how to channel it into something good and uplifting. The turmoil in our society has become something that weighs heavily on me, and it’s getting harder to stay optimistic when there’s no end in sight.

Monarch on butterfly milkweed
Monarch on butterfly milkweed

My usual solution of going to nature for solace doesn’t always help anymore. But I cling to it, still, out of sheer determination to not succumb to despair. I admire my blogging friends who have been able to write regularly and optimistically. I know some of them will be reading this, and I am so grateful for their writing about nature. They are my inspiration to sit here now and try to put some positive energy out into the world.

I want to show you some bits of my native plant garden and the critters who live in it. After the early-blooming spring ephemerals are done, most of the other native plants in my garden don’t bloom until at least late June. I’ve had to be patient, but that makes it so much more exciting when everything finally bursts into bloom. I took this video of my biggest monarda patch yesterday, trying to show you the dozens of pollinators buzzing over it. This section is about 10’x3′ and there were easily a couple dozen bees working through the flowers.

You’ll notice how that bee in the close-up portion goes completely around the flower, making sure to get every possible bit of energy it can from it before moving to the next one.  That patch of monarda is about four feet tall and I can stand right up against it with my face only inches away from the buzzing bees, and they don’t pay the slightest attention to me. It’s such a calming, meditational thing to do.

One of my favorite plants is this Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum), with its cheerful lemon-yellow flowers and glossy leaves. This one is about four feet tall in its second year and looks fabulous. A friend gave me another small one and I can’t wait to see how big it will be next year.

Shrubby st john's wort

Anemone virginiana - tall thimbleweed
Tall thimbleweed flower, only an inch across

Last year I put in two Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) that another friend gave me. They’re blooming this year and I’m in love with their dainty little flowers and the “thimbles” that remain after the flowers are spent. This plant has large lobed leaves below bare, thin stems that tower a couple feet higher and support the flowers. When I’ve found thimbleweed on my walks in local parks, I’m always struck by how easy it would be to overlook it. So many native plants seem to be overly enthusiastic (“we’re gonna take over everything!”) that it’s nice to have a few that behave themselves better. I’ve got these at the front of a bed where they’re easy to see and enjoy, and they won’t get bullied by anybody else.

I found this little grasshopper eating a leaf on boneset. I watched him. He watched me.

grasshopper collage

One of the first times I noticed Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) was when I photographed a Snowberry Clearwing moth feeding on it a couple years ago as I hiked in a state wildlife area. I took a series of photos that remain some of my favorites. Here’s one of them from that day.

Snowberry clearwing moth feeding on blue vervain

I also found a dragonfly on this plant along the shore of Lake Erie last fall. Dragonflies aren’t pollinators and so it’s not common to find them perched on flowering plants like this Common Green Darner was during fall migration last September.

Green darner on blue vervain

And here’s a pic from my garden this week, where my own Blue Vervain is just beginning to bloom. The tiny purple flowers bloom from the bottom to the top of each spike, with just a few blooming at a time. I just adore this plant!

Blue vervain - verbena hastata

I’ve noticed that I often use the word “love” to describe how I feel about some native plants. Since I’m spending lots more time at home these days, I’m getting to know my plants more intimately, and I’m feeling very connected to them in a way that feels like love. I take care of their needs. I mourn when the rabbits chew a young plant down to the ground before it even gets a chance at life. I spend lots of time just wanting to be near the plants, to enjoy their beauty and the unceasingly fascinating world of the insects who come to eat them. The garden is my connection to something larger than myself, something intensely gratifying and life-affirming.

When the pandemic first arrived and we were just getting used to lockdown, I wrote about desperately missing my friends. As time went on, I wrote about starting to enjoy some time without a busy schedule. These days I see a few of my friends regularly (outdoors only, and always six feet apart). As my schedule has gotten busier again, I find myself wanting to hold on to as much of my “home time” as I can. Sure, there’s a lot to see “out there,” but this place is where my heart is, and where I find peace and a connection to the natural world. So I guess I’m a bit like Dorothy in discovering that you don’t always have to leave home to find what you need. #TheresNoPlaceLikeHome

Young rabbit in my yard
One of my resident bunny twins chowing down on ferns