Monday, October 5, 2015

crossing the gravel

crossing the gravel
a banded woolly bear meets
a sprouting acorn

          I've been seeing more woolly bear caterpillars with unusual banding this year. Usually the Isabella tiger moth larva have about equal bands of obsidian black on both ends and a copper mid-section. The one above is mostly orange with a black head and just a small patch of black on the hind end, whereas the one below has a long black head and distinct black rear end.

          This is the time of year when these intrepid caterpillars migrate in search of a place to curl up and freeze solid over the winter, surviving by producing a cryoprotectant in their tissues. While cleaning up the yard, I often find them rolled into a fuzzy orange ball under a piece of wood. In the spring they will thaw out, feed for a few months and then pupate into a lovely golden moth with black spots and a fuzzy thorax. The moth has only a few days to mate. What a strange life.
          Even stranger is the case of banded woolly bears who live in the Arctic. There is so little time to feed that the larva have to overwinter many times before pupating, sometimes as long as 14 winters. Imagine, 14 resurrections and then only a few days with wings to find your soul mate.

          I am doing my usual zigzag driving on the highway to avoid the "bears" as they cross in both directions. When I go for a walk along our gravel road, I carefully pick up any I see, their heads covered in limestone dust, and move them to a safe spot in the foliage, in the direction they were headed. I watched one for many minutes as it climbed with great determination through the thatch of grass. It climbed the stem of some plant, got to the top and then took some time, waving its head about, before it climbed back down. What a tiring journey it must be, even with all those legs.
          Today I noticed several small black caterpillars, each clinging to the end of a dry grass stem. When I prodded one, it didn't move. One of them had raised its head and died there, frozen in that position. Strange way to die.

          When I stepped back from examining this curious caterpillar corpse, I looked down and saw a banded woolly bear, curled up. They do this when disturbed. I bent over to pick it up and move it to safety, but then I saw a bit of bright green stuff protruding from its underside. I realized to my horror that I must have stepped on the poor thing. All this time, trying to save them from vehicles and here I killed one with my foot! 
          It may seem strange that I would be upset over killing an insect, but so it is with me. If something comes into my attention, it becomes dear to me, no matter how small. To cause its death, whether unwittingly or accidentally, makes me very sad. 
          Unfathomable are the ways of life and death on Earth.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

robed in royal orange

robed in royal ornage
a Monarch butterfly floats 
among star flowers 

The green, black and white striped caterpillar I saw a few weeks ago, in its final instar before going through the mysterious transformation inside a chrysalis, has emerged cloaked in wings of orange, black and white. Floating in a field of wild flowers, this fourth generation Monarch butterfly will soon begin the long journey to sunny California or Mexico. 

Sipping nectar with folded wings, a Monarch displays the beautiful black veins on the golden underside of the wings and the white spots on the black wing edges. Unbelievable that a  journey of over two thousand miles begins with such small sips.

True Monarchs, they are also drawn to the regal plumes of Goldenrod. I hope our wildflower field, surrounded by our neighbor's corn and soybean fields, continues to be a safe haven for these endangered insects. 
          What about next year's caterpillars? I saw almost no milkweed plants this year, traditionally the only food the caterpillars will eat. But I came across a site that shows caterpillars faring well on alternative food. Would you believe it, pumpkin slices and the skins of crisp cucumber! 
          Check it out:

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

curving back around

curving back around
a black-eyed susan, a monarch
caterpillar seeks
a twig to hang upside down
into a green chrysalis

I've been picking small fuzzy white caterpillars off of my goji berry vine outside our front door. They eat the leaves, so I carefully relocate them. But when I scan for creepy crawlies today, I'm surprised to see a large black, white and yellow striped caterpillar making its way slowly along one of the stems. It's really quite beautiful, with those striking stripes and curvy black horns on both ends. Almost as beautiful as what it will turn into, a Monarch butterfly. It's nice to know that there are still Monarchs around this area, even though they are threatened by all the pesticides applied to monoculture crops.

This specimen, born from eggs laid in September, is a fourth generation Monarch caterpillar. When it emerges from its chrysalis into an orange and black butterfly, it will not die after a couple of weeks of mating and laying eggs, like the first three generations that came before it this year. Instead, it will fly all the way to a warmer climate like Mexico, where it will live for six to eight months before starting the whole cycle again. 

I wonder if it is still looking for a milkweed plant to eat, or whether it's ready to turn into a chrysalis. The strange thing is, I have seen hardly any milkweed plants in our area this year. Usually the swath between the road and the trees is filled with milkweeds. I've looked and looked, but only found one small milkweed plant, with no flowers and no sign of the leaves being chewed by a caterpillar.

These photographs of the sequence of transformations of the Monarch from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly are from an excellent website, which describes the entire generational cycle:

Perhaps if I had left the Monarch caterpillar on my goji vine, instead of placing it on a Black-eyed Susan for a colorful portrait, it might have attached itself to a goji stem, turned into a chrysalis and hatched into a butterfly. Wouldn't that be exciting? But the nights are getting cooler, and if frost threatens I may have to bring my potted goji inside. Then what would happen to the butterfly if it hatched inside? A warmer clime for sure, but no mates within thousands of miles!

Monday, September 14, 2015

end of summer corn

end of summer corn
ready for harvest, rural 
mailboxes, passing clouds

It's very much a typical Iowa scene: a rack of rural mailboxes against a backdrop of golden yellow field corn and a sapphire sky accented by a few little white clouds. 
          The only thing that spoils the scene for me is knowing that the GMO corn is destined to be fed to beef cattle and hogs. It's an expensive and unhealthy use of resources and land that was once covered with tall grass prairie instead of monoculture crops of corn and soybeans.
          Rural Free Delivery is still a good thing, even if the old humpback mailboxes are being replaced with locked cluster boxes to protect customers from baseball bat wielding vandals and identity thieves.
          The sky is still mostly unpolluted, though we do now have a huge grain elevator at the edge of town. And we just discovered that a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) is being built a couple of miles from our house, which will increase air pollution when manure is spread on fields, as well as pollution of our waterways from the runoff, and an increase in antibiotic resistance.
          What can we do to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the value of our property, which declines due to the stench? Be vigilant and proactive. Our group of neighbors are meeting in a few days to discuss how we can support JFAN (Jefferson County Farmers and Neighbors, Inc.) to help the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) crack down on too much manure being applied to fields.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

belly deep in the pond

belly deep in the pond
a herd of cattle cool off, 
all except one

First day of school, but the weather says it's still summer, hot and humid. A herd of beef cattle stand belly deep in a farm pond, cooling off; except for one lone cow still grazing nearby. One of the black whiteface cows looks over at me as if to say, "Come on in, the water's fine." However, I prefer the reservoir, just over the hill, a bit less muddy. The pond is a typical Iowa farm pond, dug into the orange-red clay that can be seen around the edge. The heavy clay holds the water in the pond, but when the bottom is stirred up by cattle it makes a fine silt in the water. Not so much fun for swimming, but still, that clay is some of the finest clay in the world for building. The thick walls of our house are made with this clay, dug from the site and mixed with straw.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

studded with fuzzy

studded with fuzzy
ripe fruit the pliant peach limbs 
arch down to hands' reach

With no late frost and a lot of rain, our old peach tree outdid herself this year. Every branch bears dozens of blushing golden globes covered with baby-soft fuzz. Many of them have fallen to the ground, where deer, squirrels and raccoons have been feasting on the sweet fruits. Some of the peaches still on the tree show signs of bird pecking or bug boring. Of course, we do not spray our trees with toxic pesticides, so we accept a certain amount of loss. But there are plenty left whole.

The branches are so heavily laden that they hang down over the protective wire cage, low enough that we don't have to use a ladder to harvest the entire crop. More than a few of the warm juicy peaches go into our mouths while we collect and place them in wicker laundry baskets.

We gather four baskets full, probably the equivalent of four bushels. Because a lot of them are already quite soft and ripe, I spend several days slicing and putting them into plastic quart bags for the freezer. Well, the freezer on top of our Sunfrost refrigerator is already packed almost full with frozen aronia berries. So I start giving away dozens of peaches to family and friends. Someone asks, "How many peach trees do you have?" I hold up one finger.

And there's still a superabundance. My son suggests we buy a separate freezer. What a good idea! I find one at Best Buy, an 8.5 cubic foot upright Danby that will just fit between our washer and dryer. It's on sale and they'll deliver it for free. What a deal. Now I've filled all of the bins in the bottom of the refrigerator with peaches, hoping they'll keep until the new freezer arrives. We'll certainly have plenty for the rest of the year, and maybe even the year after. What a joy to grow your fruit and eat it too, though really, the credit for this bounty goes entirely to Mother Nature.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

rain on shadow lake

rain on shadow lake
glistens roots, rocks, bark, black glove
on the wooden bridge

My friend has just had a liver transplant, a kind of rebirth, and I am here to help take care of him during his recovery. But I also need to take care of myself, and that means submersing in nature. I walk to a little lake tucked away among houses in this big city of Charlotte. At the entrance, a sign says "SHADOWLAKE." I look at the letters and see "SHAD" "OWL" "AKE." This is going to be interesting -- river fish stuck in a lake, a bird of the night and ake, which means "bright" in Japanese.

The lake is surrounded on two sides by houses, but there is a public picnic area on one side and a bridge that leads to a wooded path on another side. As I walk toward the bridge, I pass by a tall clump of goldenrod. It's raining lightly and I notice a number of elongated insects hanging underneath the sunny panicles, like women in bright embroidered kimonos sheltering from the rain.

As I cross the bridge I'm startled to see a crumpled, shiny black vinyl glove shed by a human hand, perhaps symbolic of my friend shedding his old liver.

On the far side of the bridge the path turns and runs through a wooded area, providing me with a little shelter from the rain and many delightful surprises.

A black root that looks like a turkey foot. Turkey, symbol of thanksgiving for a successful harvest, peaceful coexistence with friends and neighbors, and the renewal of family connections.

The rocks in this area are hard and black, perhaps from the transformation of lava into rock. But this one sports a wide white quartz stripe, yin and yang, harmonious coexistence of opposites. 

A sycamore with an owl face staring back at me from the peeling bark. Owl is a symbol of wisdom, insight and foresight.

The Green Man, ancient symbol of rebirth and renewal.

A vine in the form of a snake, another symbol of rebirth, healing, rejuvenation.

A butterfly shaped scar on a tree trunk, and of course the butterfly is yet another symbol of rebirth and transformation.

A strange silvery green mat of moss on the floor of the woods is as close as I get to seeing a shad, but if it's there, it's the fish that fed the American founders, so it must be a symbol of nurturance. With these auspicious signs, I turn back to the house where my friend is welcoming his new liver to a renewed life together. May they both live long and prosper!