Monday, September 15, 2014

Curious Beast

M has a guest post about pitcher plants up at Mud Puddles to Meteors today.

With a little encouragement from his mama.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

More Caterpillars

A few days ago, I went out to the garden to pick some carrots for dinner and saw the most beautiful green caterpillar with black stripes and orange dots. I didn't even have time to grab my camera right then, but later in the evening, after eating and homework and chores were done, I flipped through a field guide and found it had been an Eastern Black Swallowtail. A quick search online and I learned that, yes, they can be safely raised indoors, although its late summer appearance meant I would have to overwinter the chrysalis. I went back out to the garden to see if I could find him among the carrot tops and found a second one too.

I brought them inside and set them up in a big pretzel jar (I'm using a plastic jar instead of my usual vase since it will have to spend the winter in the garage) with lots of carrot tops and some parsley and fennel for variety (they feed off plants in the carrot family). Each evening I replace their wilted and depleted carrot tops with new ones and empty out the frass (caterpillar poop) from the bottom of the jar. (I've been trying to get the kids involved, but other than an occasional glance in the jar by one of them, it's been all me this time around).

The interesting thing about these caterpillars is that when they feel threatened, they extrude two tiny (but very, very scary) orange "horns" out of the front of their head. They also exude an odor that smells...exactly like chamomile. Which is funny, because ever since I was a child I've thought chamomile tea smells "like squished caterpillars." I have no conscious memory of squishing or otherwise encountering a swallowtail caterpillar ever before, but I must have had a run-in with one and the smell lodged deep in my reptilian brain. (I do like the smell and taste of chamomile, but it does smell like caterpillars).

This morning, they both appeared to be assuming their chrysalis-making position (clinging to the lower side of a slanted stick). When I got home this evening, they were still there, hanging out like a pair of quotation marks. I guess shedding your skin, spinning a protective coating around yourself, and getting ready to dissolve all your insides takes some preparation.

Last time I posted about raising caterpillars indoors, I received some comments expressing concern about how it might affect caterpillars, butterflies, and their environment. Everything I've read indicates that captive-reared caterpillars have a better survival rate because they're less likely to be attacked by predators (though not totally safe--we once had a very tiny praying mantis eat a very tiny monarch caterpillar we were raising). And rest assured, we raise them only to release them back into the wild, not to add to a collection.

I found our information on raising and overwintering a black swallowtail here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


When I started my Master Naturalist class in June and was given the assignment to collect and identify forty wildflowers over the summer, I asked C if there even are forty different types of wildflowers in Maine. (His answer, a rather indignant "Yes!").

Over the next two-and-a-half months, I collected and collected and collected. Everywhere I went--beaches, hikes, strolls, parking lots, weedy edges--I looked for unfamiliar plants, snagging a representative sample and stuffing it in my bag, pocket, or car to be looked up later when I had the leisure to flip through Newcomb's and key it out. 

It's amazing how learning the names of flowers, and searching for new and different ones, has made me so much more aware of all the diversity of plant life, even in my own yard. For instance, I've known what a goldenrod is for years, but I never knew there was more than one kind of goldenrod (in fact dozens!). I never noticed the great variety in leaves, growth habits, shade of yellow and size of the flowers, and blooming time. Now I see a new species I've recently learned and it's like recognizing a friend, "Hello Slender Goldenrod, I see you're looking fine today." [Of course, there are the many flowers I learned briefly, who are more like that passing acquaintance whom I was introduced to once, but who I don't quite recognize, and whose name I don't quite remember. Is that Early Goldenrod or Canada Goldenrod? I hurry past those, not making eye contact, hoping they don't notice my rudeness.]

I passed the forty mark some time ago and kept going, finding flower number 100 right on the edge of the grass outside my office Friday morning (red sand-spurry). I don't think I'll stop there, though, but rather spend the fall sorting through the many asters and whatever last-gasp of growing season flowers come my way.

Shown above:
White snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum)
Slender-leaved agalinus (Agalinus tenuifolia)
Large-leaved goldenrod (Solidago macrophylla)
There's also a nodding bur marigold (Bidens cernua) in the vase, but I think it's nodding so much it's out of the picture.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Holding onto Summer

Saturday was hot and sticky--the perfect kind of beach day. Unfortunately E and Z had their first soccer game of the season that morning, and thunderstorms were called for in the afternoon, so the beach was not meant to be.

Sunday, M had a commitment in the afternoon, so I got up early, made everyone breakfast (which is outside of my job description), rounded up some towels and sunblock, and hustled everyone into the car. We hit the road by 8:15--a record for a non-school day. And we made it home in time for a late lunch at 1:45, with plenty of time for M to catch a ride to band practice, and half a day ahead of us all. This is why morning people rule the world--they get twice as much out of a day as the rest of us.

For some reason, these boys of mine complain a whole awful lot about having to go to the beach, but then they have a whole awful lot of fun once they get there (except, perhaps M, who lay bundled up in a hooded sweatshirt reading the whole time).

After the thunderstorms blew through Saturday evening, our hot, humid weather went with them, bringing a cool breeze. It wasn't exactly the kind of day that begs you to plunge into frigid North Atlantic waters, but a couple of us made a valiant attempt at swimming--C and Z even getting wet over their heads (up to my waist was good enough for me, thank you very much).

It felt a little bit like it might be our last day at the beach this summer, though that's a thought I can't bear to face. Maybe one more this weekend. And if everyone grumbles about it, maybe I'll just go by myself!

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Golden Nest

In The Blue Jay’s Dance, Louise Erdrich describes a bird nest she found that holds hairs she combed from her daughters’ heads. Perhaps inspired by Ms. Erdrich, or maybe driven only by my own reluctance to throw away anything that can biodegrade, I've always tossed bits of my children's hair outside, rather than in the trash. In my essay, Memento Mori, I wrote about how I imagined the birds finding these sweepings: "After I trim their hair, I sprinkle the clippings off the deck and into the yard, in hopes that a bird will pick up the strands and weave them into a golden nest." 

But never did I really think I'd come across one such nest, until last weekend, when C brought me this:

He'd found it lying on the edge of the driveway, where it must have blown down from the branches of pine tree or the apple tree above. The whole inside of the twig and grass and pine needle nest is lined with golden hair. A tiny feather clings to one edge and a long, white horsehair springs out the other side.

Erdrich writes of her daughters' hair nest: 

Now, as I am setting the nest on a shelf in the light of an eastern window, our middle daughter’s blond hair gleams, then the roan highlights of the rich brown of the eldest’s and perhaps a bit of our baby’s fine grass-pale floss…. 
It is almost too painful to hold the nest, too rich as life often is with children…. I see that bird alone in the nest woven from the hair of my daughters, and I cannot hold the nest because longing seizes me. Not only do I feel how quickly they are growing from the curved shape of my arms when holding them, but I want to sit in the presence of my own mother so badly I feel my heart will crack. 
Life seems to flood by, taking our loves quickly in its flow. In the growth of children, in the aging of beloved parents, time’s chart is magnified, shown in its particularity, focused, so that with each celebration of maturity there is also a pang of loss. This is our human to let go while holding tight.

I love Erdrich's writing, and I love that my children's hair warmed a baby bird as it grew up in our own front yard this summer. I love the weaving together of hair and twigs, motherhood and nature, and the gorgeous, heartbreaking impermanence of it all.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Weekend Things--Easy Does It

Increasingly, Labor Day Weekend has become a time to rest up and recover for summer, and brace ourselves for all that fall brings--school, homework, soccer.

Again this year, we opted to spend just one day at camp, eating, lolling on the dock, trawling for fish from the boat, paddling to Ten Pound Island to pick blueberries and huckleberries.

At one point, the boys were all inside playing poker and I was sitting on the edge of the lake, reading a book, when I heard a rustling in the trees overhead and something large and feathered plopped into the water right in front of me. I let out a yelp of surprise (those inside the camp claim it was more of a shriek that could be heard echoing up and down the pond) and the osprey, no doubt as startled by its sudden drop as I was (I really do think it fell into the water) shook his wings and took off up the lake, trailing his last shreds of dignity.

On the way home, we stopped at John's Ice Cream for dinner, and ended up going into a cafe for French toast (the boys) and a veggie burger (me) first. It started to rain just as we got back in the car and made our way toward home and one last day of summer vacation.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

First Day

The mood was somber.

Two pairs of eyes woke up glowering at me beneath furrowed brows, as if the blame for the end of summer fell squarely on my shoulders.

Where was their father's culpability in all this?

But of course if it weren't for my civilizing influence, they all four would turn feral.

I blamed the same scapegoat parents have blamed since time immemorial: "If you don't go to school, the truant officer will come arrest you."
And they gave it as much credence as children have since time immoral.

I thought some words ("Why can't you be more like your brother?" who has never complained about school since he was four years old, and who has gotten up and gotten ready to go since second grade) and said some words ("You're big boys now, not babies, and I expect you to get up and get ready for school without all this nonsense!").

Outside, the fog reflected the mood inside. A mourning dove played the soundtrack to the melancholy morning.

Maybe it is all my fault. Not the end of summer, but the bad attitude. I always feel like school starts just as the kids have hit their stride, when they're being their most creative selves--E and Z's Pokemon obsession turning into making their own Tom Lighthouse's World trading cards, M churning out a new song every day--just in time to squelch them into little automatons. The "back to school" fliers in July depress me as much as if I were the one going back to school. Friday I made a half-hearted trip to Target for a few notebooks, glue sticks, and a planner (of which they were wiped out). Over the weekend, I sharpened last year's colored pencils (no sense in buying new ones when these are barely used, other than the red and black ones) until my thumb blistered and sewed a patch on M's second-hand backpack over the pink "CM" monogram (which, coincidentally, is his initials in reverse, if one choose to ignore the first half of his hyphenated last name). When the weather turns in a few weeks, I'll dig out the hand-me-down bins, buy a few pairs of jeans, some wool socks. Summer sneakers should last until boot weather.

As always, I missed that "getting on the bus" shot. But they did it, with no shoving, no further threats of truant officers. And they came home with reports of "good" when asked about their day, their moods considerably improved.

I'd still like to leave them to their own devices for a whole year, see what they come up with, but that's not really in the cards right now, and I think they'll survive another year of school
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