Category Archives: Visual

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Nature Photography Day

So did you get out to take pictures?

(I know at least one of you did. How about the rest? I may not be getting a lot of traffic here but I do have more than one reader for a fact. So.)

1306_nature photography day_042The Ebony Jewelwing damselfly picture in the background on the front page is the favourite so far, but if you want to see some other shots, they’re all on my flickr stream. And just as I said, I looked for things that most people would be able to find within a walk of their home, no matter where they live.

Like … bugs! Surely there are caterpillars and beetles in your vicinity. (Fun fact: beetle species make up 40% of all insect species and 30% of all animal species. That’s a lot of beetles! But by weight the ants win; if you took all the ants in the world and weighed them up together, they would weigh as much as all of the people in the world put together. That’s a LOT of ants. There are probably at least a few ants within a few feet of you right now, whether you can see them or not.)

This lovely fellow is a six-spotted tiger beetle; very common in woodlands in these parts and easily seen because he likes to sun himself on paths, rather than in the foliage.

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And garden flowers. I don’t know if I’ve ever been anywhere that didn’t have at least a windowbox growing something with petals–and very likely there is a front stoop or boulevard garden with roses growing nearby.

The deer, turtles and frogs I admit you may not see on a stroll around your neighbourhood.

But by far the best part of Nature Photography Day was getting out on a gorgeous afternoon with enough time to poke around and discover some previously unexplored corners of the trails near my home. The first led me to a small, shallow pond full of tadpoles; the second to a larger, deeper pond full of frogs, with turtles sunning on a log and dragonflies (mostly Common Whitetails) and damselflies (mostly bluets) darting around the edge like WWII fighter planes. It was Happy Season for the Whitetails; I lost track of the number of mating sessions I saw in the two-hour span I sat there for, the bright bluish-white males and the golden-brown females flying by, joined in a heart-shaped loop, then the females laying their eggs in the pond while the male guarded them from above. I did try to get pictures but they all turned out blurry. Maybe next time.

Overhead, flycatchers (I think) swooped over the pond in low arcs, while woodpeckers called from the trees. It was odd to think that while I sat there, taking some time away from any kind of work and entirely at peace, I was surrounded by animals busily at work providing for themselves and their families, largely by eating each other. And yet it was perfect. I somehow doubt that our human, urban environments provide our non-human neighbours with the same sense of calm.

It has recently come to my attention that all of my environmental do-gooderism is a carefully constructed front for my real desire to infest the countryside with wildlife-destroying industrial machinery, all for financial gain. Thought you should know.

Nature Photography Day is Tomorrow

I write a lot–when I have time to write, which lately happens to be more often, hurray!–about how nature is everywhere and everything, and you don’t need to go far (or anywhere) to find something beautiful. Tomorrow, on Nature Photography Day, I would like to challenge myself and you to get out there with whatever camera you have and take a picture of whatever nature you have close to hand. Your finger counts, if you’re really stuck, but also consider:

  • weeds in the sidewalk or growing through your driveway
  • street trees, living and dead
  • grass, other things that grow in grass
  • bugs
  • a puddle
  • gardens, flower or vegetable
  • windowboxes and flower pots
  • nurseries and garden centres
  • stormwater ponds and drainage ditches
  • overgrown lots

If you want to participate officially, join the Nature Photography Day facebook page, and then post one photo you took on Saturday June 15 of a natural subject. You’ll have a few days to upload your picture afterwards. It’s not a contest and there are no prizes; the goal is simply to enjoy the nature that we have all around us, all the time.

I am planning on getting out to a Conservation Area tomorrow to see some of my favourite green kin and non-human neighbours for some (hopefully) good shots, but I’ll also take a few of the kind I list above. I’d love to see yours too, whether you post a link in the comments below, post it to the facebook event page, send me an email, or however suits you best.

The picture in the background of this post, by the way, is a little spider on the petal of a gerbera daisy I planted in a flower pot. You don’t have to go anywhere to find nature, or something beautiful. If all else fails, take a picture of the sky.

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may apples

The may apples are finally blooming–now that it’s almost June, thanks I’m guessing to the chilly spring. I wouldn’t blame you for not noticing, though …

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…since when they bloom, they look like this. Go ahead. Find them!

A large field of flat-topped five-lobbed leaves, and underneath every plant with two leaves, growing from the joint between them…

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… one hard, waxy, white flower with a bright yellow centre.

As is common with other spring ephemerals (trilliums, trout lilies, bloodroot, etc.), may apples reproduce both sexually (through the flowers & fruits) and asexually (by spreading roots underground and forming colonies). The colonies can be quite large so while it is difficult to see the flowers when they’re blooming, it’s impossible to miss the leaves! And if you scootch down on the ground and take a peak beneath, you’ll see dozens blooming all at once, a whole dimly-lit wonderland of lovely ivory flowers.

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Later in the summer they’ll become small fruits, which are not poisonous if eaten when ripe in small quantities. The leaves and roots, however, are toxic, although First Nations would use the extracts to treat stomach aches.

May apples are another way nature has to reward those who are willing to take their time and really look. No one ever saw a may apple, while distractedly rushing through the woods.

my open-window policy

This isn't my house, no, but you get the idea

I have been thinking, lately, about weeding my driveway.

It is paved, yes; and apparently the impermeability of asphalt has been vastly overstated, as there are weeds growing through the cracks all over the bloody thing. Oddly, I don’t want to weed it. I like it. All of those supposedly fragile bits of green cracking their way right up through our technological magnificence. Take that! they say. Ha! Some Masters of the Universe you turned out to be.

I have been thinking about raccoons, too.

We have no garage; therefore, the garbage is kept outside; therefore, raccoons eat it. This does not philosophically bother me. After all, simply by putting something in the garbage, I’ve declared it to be a useless thing of no further value to anyone, and as such, I’d rather it find a good home in the warm belly of a living creature than sit, unrotting, in a landfill for 500 years. That this places me outside of mainstream North American opinion I am well aware. I don’t like the mess, but honestly, how can I complain? We came in, chopped their homes to the ground, and now we expect them to slink away quietly like friendly and cooperative wildlife and make a home for themselves somewhere we don’t have to be inconvenienced by the needs we prevent them otherwise from filling. I say, if our occupied human communities showed this grit … actually, when our occupied human communities show this grit, we call them terrorists and blow them up. In any case, my sympathies are firmly with the raccoons.

Which doesn’t mean I enjoy scraping rotting food off of the patio stones once a week, so I caved eventually and found a heavy rock to place on the lid. The raccoons, clever devils, chewed a hole near the bottom of the plastic garbage can and spilled it all over the patio stones anyway.

Frances says that raccoons are “messy little composers” and that if she were a raccoon, she would do the considerate thing and take away what she’d like to eat in a garbage bag, and eat it neatly after climbing through the crack in the front steps where we suspect the raccoons hide out in poor weather. That would be very much like a Frances-raccoon, but it’s not like the actual raccoons, who make a mess.

I admire them. They’ve made a life for themselves in hostile surroundings, and proven to be clever and much tougher than we are.

My home was never going to be separate from nature anyway. There’s bugs in the walls, eh? Ants, spiders, millipedes. Let them stay. Why not? There’s air–air’s nature, right?–there’s water, and water’s definitely nature, even chlorinated and filtered. There’s Frances’s little pots of half-starved seedlings on the windowsill. There’s the wood beams in the walls–that’s nature–the steel posts–nature too. Gypsum, concrete, cotton; nature, nature, nature. And, of course, there are the warm animal bodies themselves: two guinea pigs, two primates. And apparently a couple of raccoons eating silently under the front steps.

I am a sorry excuse for a suburbanite. I like my civilization happily permeable, hopelessly intermixed with nature–because the suburbs are nature, just mangled to within a bare millimetre of their lives. I like to think of the human nature of my little home and the non-human nature of its surroundings knotted together like the warp and woof of a woven fabric.

I’m not going to keep non-human nature out of ‘my space’ no matter how hard I try, so why not welcome it in?

babies are always cute

Cute!

On the way home from Frances’s school last Monday–a walk which is by the way all of five minutes and 1 1/2 blocks long–she stopped, suddenly. “Mummy, look!”

I looked, and saw four baby skunks gamboling on the neighbour’s lawn, composed of equal parts grass and clover.

Four cuter little fluffballs you never have seen. Each was the size of a small kitten, fluffy black and white fur bristling out all over, scampering and digging in the dirt. Smaller than squirrels, cuter than chipmunks. Who knew?

According to the Hinterland Who’s Who, skunks are normally born in March or April, so these little guys might be as much as two months old–the typical time for weaning. Where was Mum? No idea. We didn’t see a peep of her.

We saw one particularly tiny baby skunk whose fur was mostly black, with a white tip on his bushy black tail. “The runts are always the cutest,” said Frances, and I had to agree. For the fifteen or twenty minutes we sat and admired them, other neighbours joined and left as well, taking their own pictures and reminiscing about the baby skunks they’d known and loved as pets. It’s one of the things we love about Dundas: not only are we surrounded by natural areas and not only does wildlife commonly live in the town, but most of the people are there because they also value these things. Everyone wanted to stop and love the baby skunks.

Frances, of course, wanted to adopt one.

At the same time, though, I wondered how this would have been seen here, even a hundred years ago, these little baby skunks on the lawn. I have to think it would have been a much more common sight. Imagine, a hundred years ago, flocks of birds that covered the sky, vast forests, wildlife everywhere of every kind and description–would they have noticed our baby skunks, and if they had, would they have stopped and stared? Would have sat down to watch them? Would it have been even remotely remarkable?

How much have we lost?

Near IS the New Far (or: I Told You So)

bloodroot

I became very afraid last weekend about the potential apocalypse. There I was, going about my regular business, when I saw this giant yellow flaming ball in the sky. Then I remembered that it was something called the sun, and usually heralded a good day to spend outside. I obliged.

Mostly this consisted of yard work–lawn mowing, hedge trimming, and weed pulling–speaking of which, do not, for the love of god, plant a garden of ground-climbing roses. They grow like weeds, take over the lawn and the sidewalk, and it is impossible to weed them without skinning your forearms. I’ve decided more or less officially to let half of the backyard grow in wild and leave it unmowed, and claim this is for the good of the neighbourhood birds and rabbits. You can judge the honestly of this claim for yourself. At any rate, it does make my life a bit easier.

But mostly–Dear Readers, I went to the forest. And it was green! There were things growing. Pretty things, just like spring had actually begun and winter was really truly over. Just in time for summer, in fact, as June starts this week, but whatever. There were trout lilies, trilliums, and the Royal Botanical Gardens’ magnolia glade in full bloom. Yellow warblers and red-winged blackbirds, green and leopard and tree frogs, cacophonies of spring peepers at dusk.

It was, in every way, perfect, except that Frances was at her Dad’s house all weekend so I didn’t get to see her geeking out over all the cool frogs.

It was also, in every way, a perfect illustration of the central thesis of Richard Louv’s recent The Nature Principle, which extends the argument of his prior Last Child in the Woods to society at large, and about time. His point? That you, your longevity, your mood, your relationships, your physical strength, your family, your neighbourhood, your community, the world at large, and the non-human world as well, all stand to benefit from a reconnection between us and our green kin and neighbours. An important book that deserves to be widely read and will almost certainly be ignored in favour of Apple’s latest profit statements, it made me dizzyingly happy. I read it in snippets between long stretches outside and felt both smugly self-righteous and determined to spend that much more time outdoors. Even in winter (perish the thought) since apparently winter walks provide just as much benefit as summer walks do, only people don’t enjoy them as much.

Bummer. I’ve lost my excuse to stay inside in January.

At any rate: on the assumption that any readers of my little blog are likely to be pro-green and well-disposed to the occasional out-of-doors afternoon, pick it up. You will have to imagine how it thrilled me to see and read “Near is the New Far,” seeing as it’s only what I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen for the past ten years, which isn’t many people, except now I can add “and Richard Louv agrees with me, so there!”

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I want to write more here, and soon, and not just because Louv filled my head with a lot of green ideas, either. I miss it. But between coordinating field visits for frog-counting and debating the merits of various methods of ensuring soil visibility for archaeological surveys, writing Natural Heritage pieces for Heritage Toronto, raising a daughter, maintaining a house, reading, sewing, running, and sleeping a couple times a week, this has been the one thing that gets dropped. That should change, soon.

If you see me here again in June, then it has changed. Otherwise, not so much.

Mother’s Day Skull Walk

Ah, Mother’s Day. A leisurely sleep-in, to be woken at a civilized hour by an adorable jammie-clad child bearing a pancake breakfast on a tray, with Dad clearing up heroically in the kitchen. Then, flowers! A much-cherished homemade gift from the adorable, small child, mis-spellings intact. According to the television commercials, a meal later on at a restaurant is also de rigeur, and maybe jewelery, and certainly no housework.

I did get much-cherished homemade gifts from the adorable small child, all low on capital outlay but high on capital thoughts. And a very nice boy did stop in with flowers in the afternoon. We even bought KFC for dinner and ate it on paper plates so I would neither have to eat nor clean (I acknowledge that it’s not the most environmentally ethical thing but, you know what? It’s one day a year).

On the other hand there was laundry and groceries and skulls.

Umm, yes. Skulls.

Why yes, this IS a dead animal after it's been thoroughly cleared out by carnivores, scavengers and insects

It happened like this: Frances and I wanted to see if we could find frogs and tadpoles in a very large pond near our house, and one of Frances’s little friends decided to come along. Frances and I wore our rainboots and the friend wore mudshoes and I had my camera and off we went.

We got to the pond all right, but once there found the water too silty and dark to see if anything was in it. No frogs along the shore. Some fish jumping in the water. Lots of red-winged blackbirds, some robins, a hawk of some kind, and a lot of walking around the pond hoping for frogs and tadpoles. And then, what’s this? Teeth and an eye socket coming out of the ground?

“Hey Frances,” I said. “Come and see!”

Wouldn’t you know it, but these two seven-year-old girls thought a buried skull was THE MOST COOL THING EVER and demanded that I dig it out and clean it off. (Done.) And of course we had to put it in my backpack so we could bring it home. (Done.) Then since Frances had one her friend had to have one too–and after much scouting about, we’d found a bunch of leg bones, a duck skull (bill attached) and foot, and a couple of carnivore skulls of some kind, one of which was fairly putrid and still attached to whatever it used to be, half-buried in muck. The friend got her skull, though–a different one–and I got to be the cool mom who goes for a nature walk with the neighbourhood kids and brings them back a bunch of dead animals for their parents to pretend to be impressed with.

I’ve been told a bit of peroxide will clean ‘em up right pretty. In the meantime, I wouldn’t trade my Mother’s Day for any other, even if it did include less relaxation and more body parts than advertised.

a long and lustrous winter


I love the way snow turns blue at dusk, and how everything looks beautiful with the escarpment in the background.


These are a few weeks old now, and the snow has melted and frozen and snowed again since then. Groundhog Day is meaningless here; we’re lucky if spring beats Easter and we actually get a chance to dress our daughters in those lovely pastel-coloured dresses in April, let alone a mere six weeks of white stuff following February 2. But it’s coming. We’re halfway to spring.

In the meantime, winter gives us plenty to love.