“Scream By Tree”

This is a story of irony, hypocrisy, and maybe hilarity. You be the judge.

I spent last week in the picturesque Finger Lakes region of New York, indulging in a personal writing retreat. I’d chosen an isolated place where I would have privacy and quiet, planning to spend most days writing and walking in the woods.

My cabin at the top of a steep hill

I’m always a bit anxious before I arrive at a new vacation rental, not knowing if it’s going to live up to my hopes and expectations. But I found the place easily and my car managed to make it up the steep gravel driveway. Check. The cabin was cozy and had everything I needed. Check. So far so good.

Hammock. Check.

I enjoyed reading the magnetic poetry left behind by previous guests.

I circled a couple of my favorites. (Click to see it bigger)
Hmm, sounds like they had an interesting visit — scream by tree?!

After a quick exploration of the cabin, I walked up through the woods to the top of the hill to see the wind turbines. I’d been concerned about being so close to these monstrosities, but after I saw them I felt okay about it. And I couldn’t see them from the cabin, so they didn’t bother me too much. Although when I was outside I could hear a steady hum and occasional clicking sounds from them, so I know I could never live near one of those things. My sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) would cause me to fixate on the noise and it would make me crazy.

After I settled in, I got plenty of writing done and enjoyed taking breaks to photograph insects in the nearby woods and meadows. As to be expected, the cabin also had its share of insects and spiders inside. I’m used to seeing the occasional spider or beetle in my own house, and I always enjoy trying to identify them before releasing them outdoors or just letting them go about their business. A rustic cabin in the woods is a whole different experience though. I knew it would be a challenge for me to live up to my “do no harm” policy toward the larger numbers of six- and eight-legged critters.

I didn’t mind the numerous moths who found their way indoors, as they mostly ended up on lamp shades or in the window screens, and I know they pose no threat to me anyway. But on my last night there, I was sitting in bed reading when a large wolf spider ran across the sheet beside me and scared the bejeebers out of me. I jumped out of bed so fast I almost hit my head on the loft ceiling. I shook out all the bedding and shivered as I wondered where the heck it had gone. After a minute or so, I reluctantly got back in bed and picked up my book. Two minutes later I felt something on my head and reached up to find another spider in my hair. Out of bed again…not happy at all at this point.

I know, I know. I constantly write about how we shouldn’t fear insects and spiders, and we should leave them alone to live their lives if they aren’t hurting us. But as tolerant as I want to be, if a spider startles me by running across my bed or my head, that’s where I draw the line! I’m not saying I’d purposely kill a spider for this egregious violation of my personal space, but I take no responsibility for any accidental injuries they might sustain from being flung across the room when I panic.

Ha, it seems someone else had a similar experience here: “Why spider me”

At the end of my week, I’d had several sleepless nights in the cabin and was looking forward to returning home and getting caught up on my sleep. (Don’t judge me, but I was scared being alone in the woods and couldn’t sleep well. And there were two days of steady pouring rain and wind that made me worry about getting down off of that hill alive….) My drive home should have taken six hours, but it ended up being closer to eight because of weather-related detours and multiple stops for caffeine. The area I’d been staying in was impacted by tropical storm Fred, and on the day of my departure there was a state of emergency due to flooding in local communities. Travel was prohibited along the route I’d planned to take, so I changed my route to avoid the flooded areas.

I finally arrived home in the evening and greeted my happy cats, who then “helped” me unload my luggage. My plan was to quickly throw all the dirty laundry in the washer, get a quick shower, and fall into bed.

That’s not how we unpack, Sophie!

But as I walked into my kitchen, I couldn’t believe my eyes: the windows were covered with flies! There had to be a couple hundred of them — it was like a horror movie. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I hope I never do again.

I texted my friend who had been in the house that morning to take care of my cats. “Um, did you see any flies in my kitchen today?” “Yeah, there were four or five and I killed them.” Based on that information, I figured they had all emerged that afternoon from…someplace…in the house. But there was no rotting food or any obvious source, so I still don’t know where they came from. I suppose a fly could have laid eggs on a dead mouse in the walls or the attic. Gross. (I swear, I don’t live in a filthy house!)

I opened the windows and swatted about 80% of them out within the first half hour. That left me to deal with a few dozen of them. As I started slamming them against the windows, I admit I got great satisfaction in watching each lifeless body drop to the windowsill or floor. I’ve spent many happy hours watching other types of flies, but these nasty ones are a different story. If they’re the common greenbottle flies, as I suspect, they can lay up to 200 eggs per clutch, so it was important to get rid of them before they were able to lay more eggs.

Random sunset picture to contrast with the mental image of the flies. You’re welcome.

As I was killing them (and saying “sorry” to each one), I realized the hilarious irony of how I’d been looking forward to coming home to get away from the excessive numbers of insects and spiders in the cabin, only to walk into my own personal Hitchcock movie. I also wondered why my two lazy cats weren’t showing the slightest interest in helping me catch the flies. Useless felines.

Am I a hypocrite? Maybe. It’s so easy to tell people to respect insects, but I don’t deny that there are definitely some exceptions to that. I still believe we shouldn’t just reflexively kill any insect we see — without good reason. But I decided that 200 flies in my kitchen was a good reason to use any means necessary to get them out.

The next day I found a couple dozen more, and on the third day just two or three. I hope they’re gone now. But something really cool happened on the third day. I was sitting in my sunroom talking to my parents on the phone. I saw a lone straggler fly on the window. I also saw a little jumping spider on the wall. I’d been watching that jumping spider for a couple days, enjoying having him in there. (You’ll remember me writing about the cuteness of jumping spiders before.)

Anyway, it happened so fast I couldn’t believe it., but the spider ran over and grabbed the fly. The spider was no bigger than the fly, and yet he caught it easily. My parents laughed as I interrupted our conversation so I could use my phone camera to try to get photos of the capture. That didn’t work because the spider and fly were backlit by the bright outside light. So after I ended the phone call, I got my real camera and tried to get better pictures as the spider continued to dine on its bounty. I went outside to tape a piece of green construction paper behind them, then went back inside and got some decent photos.

I’m grateful to the spider and I say “good riddance” to the fly. Hosting this jumping spider in my house makes me feel somewhat redeemed for my unwarranted fears of the spiders in the cabin. I’m telling you all of this so you’ll understand that (most) spiders are awesome and you should be happy to have them in your house (unless they’re venomous, of course).

In the end, I suppose I understand and accept my hypocrisy as part of being a human in a complicated world. I’m doing my best to help other people get over their fear of insects by teaching about them here, but it’s clear I still have some work to do on my own fears. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so fire away in the comments!

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!

26 Letters

{ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z }

There’s a lot of power in those 26 simple symbols. That small set of letters is our entire tool kit for communicating with one another in the English language. Every word we write or speak is formed from nothing more than these few building blocks arranged in various ways: letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. Endless combinations to express innumerable thoughts and ideas. The U.S. Constitution. War and Peace. The Bible. Your grandmother’s love letters. The owner’s manual for your car. The script of the latest blockbuster movie. It’s really remarkable when you stop to think about it.

Kindle keyboard (1024x683)With these 26 letters we can convey our feelings upon witnessing something wondrous like the birth of a baby, or something horrific like a car crash. We can give names to each other as well as to every species of plant and animal on the planet. We can tell bedtime stories to our children.

We need no more than these 26 letters to explain why the leaves turn those brilliant colors in the fall, where birds go when they migrate, or how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. These same letters can be combined to form something as important as your birth certificate or as mundane as a grocery list.

We educate, entertain, compliment, insult, soothe, incite, encourage, and irritate each other with words made from this very small group of symbols. Think about some historic inspirational speeches: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” or John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). Combinations of these twenty-six letters, that’s all.

There’s such power in language, whether it’s written or spoken. Because of our mastery of language, our species has been able to dominate the world. We’ve done good things with this power. And we’ve done bad things. I often wonder what the other animals would say to us if they could use our language. I’m sure they would teach us some valuable lessons.

I believe we have an obligation to use this powerful gift to make the world a better place for all of us, not just those like ourselves. I’m saddened when I see words used to tear down or belittle other people. So much potential is wasted by those words, so much unnecessary hurt inflicted. On the other hand, when I hear language used to uplift and encourage people, my heart smiles with hope. I push aside my doubts about the future, cast off the weight of my fears, and am inspired to try harder to be a part of the solution.

If you ask me, these 26 letters have the power to save us all.

Extreme Birding: One Tree Limit

I ran away today. The road commission was out on our dirt & gravel road doing their never-ending maintenance, assailing my morning with the loud and incessant sounds of backup beepers and grinding truck engines. So I packed up my laptop and some books for writing inspiration and headed to the park, hoping to find a quiet spot for an afternoon of writing. Here’s how it went:

View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk
View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk

It’s a cool, sunny day, about 70 degrees with a brisk breeze that results in me being bombarded with a hail of cotton puffs from the cottonwood trees. I settle myself at a picnic table a couple hundred yards uphill from the lake, and get busy typing. Of course I’m immediately distracted by the birds, but I remind myself that I will not be birding today. I’m here for writing. But I still have my binoculars (“bins” in birderspeak) and 300mm lens, just in case something incredible happens by.

Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)
Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)

Just to get warmed up, the first couple paragraphs I type are about the birds I’m hearing and seeing. In particular, a chipping sparrow is singing constantly from the inner branches of the tree right in front of me. He even dropped down to the ground a couple times to nibble on a caterpillar or other delicious tidbit.

I finally put down the bins and resume writing, chastising myself for my lack of focus. I make some good progress in the next hour, stopping periodically to look at the birds. Suddenly it dawns on me that I could write about the experience of birding in a single tree. That seemed an intriguing idea, so that’s what I’m doing. Pretty clever, huh? I’m writing, but I’m also birding. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Our tree for today's "Single Tree Birding" experiment, a pretty black locust
Our tree for today’s “Single Tree Birding” experiment, a pretty black locust

Before I tell you about the other birds, let me introduce our tree for the day. This is a 30-foot-tall black locust tree located on the edge of a parking lot. At least I think that’s what it is, after perusing two tree field guides. Other trees nearby include cottonwoods, various evergreens, oaks, elms, and many more I don’t know how to identify (yet). There’s a large lawn area too.

The little chipping sparrow appeared to “own” this tree, as he sang from it for the entire three hours I was there, entertaining me with his pretty little song.

Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects
Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects

At one point I think I see a kingbird fly into the back side of the tree, but can’t confirm it. But 15 minutes later he pops into view on a branch right in front of me, posing nicely for his photo. I later watch him launching flycatching forays from the highest branches of the tree, grabbing insects midair. The kingbird is a member of the flycatcher family, birds that grab insects on the wing, often coming back to land again and again on the same branch. I’m always delighted to see this feat of timing and speed, not to mention eyesight. I can’t even see the insects they’re grabbing.

I open a document of notes I took at a writing workshop recently. I read some of them. I look back up to try to see the chipping sparrow (because now that I know what I’m writing about, I realize that a photo of him would be a nice addition). As I look up, I see a bluebird fly out of the tree with a caterpillar in its mouth. He flies overhead and goes into a tree behind me, where I soon see his mate as well. No matter how many times I see a bluebird, it always makes me smile because I think of the “Bluebird of Happiness.”

Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree
Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree

Back to my notes. The writing workshop was led by Dr. J. Drew Lanham, a professor at Clemson University. This was my first time being taught by him, and I came out of that workshop with some notes that I know I’ll refer to many times in my future writing efforts. One of my favorites of his ideas was to pick up a leaf nearby when you see a special bird, and insert it into your field guide to remind you of how you felt and what you saw at that moment. So I stopped in my writing to bend down and gather up some of the cottonwood seedpuffs that were coating the grass.

Now the breeze slows down and the air feels warmer. A robin starts singing loudly behind me. I can hear a blue-gray gnatcatcher in another tree nearby, and now goldfinches have gathered in the interior of our locust tree, softly chattering among themselves. A flicker announces his presence with his boisterous calls. And still the chipping sparrow sings every five or ten seconds. Does he sing for the pleasure of it, or to get a mate, or to protect his territory? Possibly a bit of all those, I think.

Turkey Vulture flyover
Turkey Vulture flyover

I stand up to stretch and see a turkey vulture soaring over our tree.  As I sit down, some blue jays and crows are having an argument in the trees behind me. Two cowbirds land beneath the tree and walk around poking around in the grass.

A chickadee is singing his sad-sounding two-note call in a nearby tree. The breeze has brought a sweet smell now, from some plant I can’t see around me and can’t identify from the scent. But trust me, it’s lovely. I can’t inhale deeply enough. Maybe honeysuckle?

Down near the lake there are red-winged blackbirds calling occasionally. They seem to have already settled down from the noisy and aggressive early part of breeding season. A couple geese land in the lake as a red-bellied woodpecker makes a brief stop in our tree.

I keep writing. I make good progress, ending up with two draft articles for future use.

Taking a break from eating to sing again
Taking a break from eating to sing again

Then I hear a catbird softly mewing behind me. I play a catbird song on my Audubon bird app and he responds by singing back to me for twenty seconds or so. (I try to be judicious in my use of bird calls so as not to cause distress to the birds, but I thought in this situation it was ok to play it one time.)

Chipping Sparrow with leaf
Chipping Sparrow with green  caterpillar

So to summarize, I saw the following birds in this single locust tree during my three hour writing session: Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Bluebirds, American Goldfinches, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.  This unassuming tree managed to feed or shelter at least five species of birds this afternoon, not to mention all the work it did to capture carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen to make our planet healthier. A tree is a special thing. (And this “one-tree birding” idea is fun and I might just try it again soon.)

And, just because I’m compelled to record all the birds, here are the others who didn’t actually visit our tree: Northern Flicker, American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-winged Blackbirds, Canada Geese, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Turkey Vulture, American Robin, Gray Catbird, and Black-capped Chickadee.

The sparrow is finally quiet and I find that I feel lonely without his pretty serenade to inspire me. I hope he’s taking a well-deserved nap up there in the cool interior of that lovely tree. I’m heading home, rejuvenated and relaxed, happy that I can share this peaceful afternoon with all of you.

Maybe a change of scenery and some fresh air would do you good too. Why not try it and find out? And don’t forget to hug a tree while you’re out there. 🙂