The Royal Botanical Gardens is an extra treat for those of us who live nearby; it has the gardens, yes, but also many kilometres of hiking trails through nature preserves and active nature education programs for artists, adults, kids and families. Naturally Frances has been a constant attender of the daycamps since we moved here a few years back. This past weekend we took advantage of the other programs and attended their Fun with Fireflies evening.
The RBG staff started with a presentation on fireflies (fun fact #1: fireflies aren’t flies. They’re beetles) a few games outside while waiting for the sun to set; then we set off on a short walk to the shore to see if we could find any fireflies, bug nets in hand.
Did we ever. There were hundreds of them, twinkling in the trees like a fair city. Frances didn’t manage to net any, but I did get one exceptionally blurry photograph.
Besides stalking fireflies in the woods in the dark, which was pretty fun, I loved learning about their deceitfulness. No, really. They use their flashing butts to talk to each other and find mates of their own species, as you probably already knew. But females will also use the flashing patterns of females of other species to lure in those males, and then eat them (yes, fireflies can be cannibalistic). And, in a lovely mind-bending twist, the males will sometimes use the flashing pattners of females of other species who are pretending to be his species in order to convince the males of their own species that they are in imminent danger of being eaten, to frighten them away, so they can have the territory and the females to themselves. Amazing.
Fireflies are declining in numbers and becoming endangered, due likely to light pollution (hard to talk to each other when they are being washed out by streetlights everywhere) and habitat loss. If you’d like to learn about how you can help them, or about the different species of fireflies, check out firefly.org. You can even contribute your firefly sightings to help scientists further their research into these important and beautiful insects.
(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.)
The 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.
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.
I am taking it as a propitious sign that, my first spring in my first house, there are not one but two robin’s nests on our outside lighting fixtures: one in the carport, and one by the front door. We have watched since April as the nests were built, the eggs were laid then hatched, and now the baby birds are being raised by their Mama Birds (with some help from Papa). It has become, temporarily, a three-family home.
My daughter is ecstatic. The light fixtures are a metre or two above the ground, and even I can only see into them by way of a stepladder and a carefully angled cell camera. She loves these pictures, and I send them to her when she’s at her Dad’s house; when she’s at my house, and the weather is nice, all she wants to do is sit outside and watch her “favourite TV show”: the nests. “Mummy! I see heads! Oh, she’s stretching! What a cute little baby bird. I see beaks! They’re chirping! Oh, here comes Mama Bird with some worms! Hungry babies. Aww, now they’re snuggling.” At times she becomes quite indignant: “Mama Bird, where are you! Your babies are hungry and asking for food. When is she coming back, Mummy?” (When she finds some worms, I’m sure.) “Well, how long can that take?”
Mama Bird II, by the front door, has her work particularly cut out for her, as she takes flight whenever my daughter or I enter or exit the house. “Sorry, Mama Bird!” we say. “We won’t hurt your babies, promise.”
We are all about anthropomorphism, at our house.
Look: if you believe that we evolved, along with all other animals, from common ancestors, then our emotions are not a gift that arrived precisely at the moment we became homo sapiens sapiens. Our emotions, too, evolved; and we have them in common with our non-human kin. The relationship between mother and child was first; all of our relationships–father and child, mother and father, nuclear family, extended kin, tribe, friendship, and on and on–are built on the basis of the feelings and patterns of care that first developed between mother and child, millions of years ago. Whoever you love and how much, and however you express that love, is all possible because millions of years ago, an ancestor distant beyond knowing looked at her babies and first felt that she would die for them. That ancestor was not human. She was not even mammalian.
One of those first mothers began the time-honoured tradition of chewing up her baby’s food and spitting it in to the baby’s mouth, soft and somewhat pre-digested; it is from this that our kisses have evolved. Even sex, as much as we like to keep it as separate as possible from any tinge of maternity–all of those good feelings use hormones and chemicals that first evolved in the context of maternal care.
For the newer nest, by the front door, when I first carefully angled my camera phone to take a picture of the first newly hatched egg, that little naked blind bird, so much smaller than even my hand, reached its head up to the camera with beak open wide for food. That helplessness and vulnerability struck me as so essentially the same as our own babies, that dependency on unearned trust because it is only by trusting in the adults nearby that there is any hope of surviving–even if sometimes, even if often, the trust is misplaced and the hovering shadow is actually a snake or a rat, or the adult arms reaching to pick up the wailing infant mean to leave it on a hillside to die. Babies can’t afford to be choosy. They so need care, that they must trust that the care will come, even when it doesn’t.
But the care came for these little robins, with the dedicated and hard-working Mama Birds hunting and bringing back pre-chewed treasures to vomit in their hatchlings’ mouths. And the hatchlings became baby birds, little brown heads with yellow beaks propped on the nest’s rim, waiting for Mama and–possibly–wondering when they get to do more than just stretch their wings. The first nest has already fledged.
I’ll miss them when they go (though we already have plans to take their nests into the house as souveniers, since robins won’t re-use a nest). My daughter will miss the babies, the daily dramas of their feedings and stretchings and growing, their cuteness and compactness and how they are all snuggled in the nest together. I will mostly miss the Mama Birds, how they would scold me from the shrubbery if I ventured too near the nest while they were watching, their effort in hunting the tastiest morsels for the little beaks back home, the solid white chunks of poop they would scoop away in their beaks to keep that nest clean and comfy, their snuggling in with the growing birds–giving them a hug. Because we’re not so different, those Mama Birds and me, and I know they love their babies just as I love mine.
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?
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 recentThe 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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you ever noticed the way buds open, almost erupting as if in force of a slow-motion explosion?
They don’t just open. They spill. Like milk spreading across a kitchen floor, or water boiling over a pot. Like a snake shedding a too-small skin.
Most of the leaves around here are open, but a few trees remain brown and bare. Watch the buds. See if you don’t see what I mean.
These ones–I believe they are beech–I particularly love, unfolding from their buds like paper fans, their edges furry and corrugated. Look at how elegantly they were packed in and how glad they must now be to stretch, and feel the sun.
I seem to be making a habit of ignorance. Should I see how long I can keep it up for?
What I remember about my childhood home: it was split-level. We had an above-ground pool. My Mom didn’t like it. (I lived there for nine years.)
What I remember about my adolescent home: my bedroom was blue, with a rainbow mural on one wall. The backyard was wedge-shaped with a large deck and a gazebo. We had two sets of stairs, one leading to an upstairs living room. There was a bridge between the guest room and my brother’s room; we used to swing from it. The family room walls were dark blue. The couch was grey. There were built-in bookshelves in the den. My brother and I would swing from the steel beams in the basement ceiling, until my Dad finished the basement. (I lived there for ten years.)
What I remember about the greenbelt near my adolescent home: A ribbon of grey concrete wound along the banks of a creek/drainage ditch, underneath bridges and culverts. There were goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace, thistles, clover, daisies, asters, in their alloted season. The goldenrods grew tall as me and leaned over the path like arches. It wasn’t wild enough to feel like you were isolated from the city–the traffic and highrises were always visible–but it was green, and unplanned, and I could walk for long enough to calm my mind when I was upset. One afternoon, shortly after my diabetes diagnosis when my blood sugar hit 19 and I couldn’t bring it down, I shot up several units and walked for hours and hours and hours until it came down again. When I left, diabetes seemed like the worst thing that could possibly have happened to me; when I returned, it was ok again. One day, after a rainstorm, there were fish swimming in deep puddles on the path. I agonized over those fish, wondering how I could pick them up and return them to the creek. I had nothing to carry them in.
This path wound near my middle school, and there was an unpaved path nearby that the middle school kids liked to hang out on during lunch or after school, called the Suicide Trail. No idea why. So far as I know, no one ever killed themselves there. Maybe it just reflects the preteen state of mind.
(I can’t have spent more than one or two weeks on that path, if you add up all the time.)
What I remember about my grandparents’ cottage near Apsley: It was a tiny little shack. The mattresses were lumpy and small. You couldn’t drink the water. There was no toilet; we had to use an ancient outhouse, even in the middle of the night when there was no light to see by. There was no insulation. Mice lived in the walls and ceilings and you could hear them scurrying when you tried to fall asleep. There was no TV, no radio. We played board games and played in the creek.
Eels’ Creek ran right beside the cottage (called a creek but more the size of a river; deep enough to dive in as attested by the presence of an old, rotted diving board). My father lost his wedding ring swimming in Eels’ Creek. The water was cold, the creek bottom stony and hard, and just fifty feet downstream a decently sized waterfall–big enough to roar, small enough to clamber in. In one pocket of the waterfall an ice-cold natural jacuzzi you could sit in while the rushing water pummeled your back, but the rocks were slippery with algae and moss and you had to position yourself carefully so as not to get swept away. We tossed pinecones, sticks and spiders over the falls. Occasionally a dog would get swept over too. They were always fine; climbing out twenty feet or so downstream, shaking themselves off and running uphill.
The cottage was far enough from its neighbours that you couldn’t see them or hear them, and was surrounded by pine woods with a pine forest’s acidic, bare, dusty floor. The soil felt like sand. You could lie down flat and touch nothing; if you were still enough, ants would climb over you. It tickled.
A stone path led to the creek, flat stones arranged but not too carefully so you had to watch your step. One wobbled. Along the bank several large stones were perfect for sitting. Sometimes there were frogs, but more often crayfish or minnows. If you sat on one of the big rocks, and rested your feet in the water, and were perfectly still, minnows would swarm your feet. That tickled too.
There was a metal drum we’d set fires in for roasting marshmallows and hotdogs. A bakery in town supplied us with treats for breakfast, kaiser rolls for sandwiches for lunch. There was an A&P. But we didn’t go into town much.
Dock spiders grew big as kittens. Mosquitoes, horse flies, deer flies gave us our souveniers. All week we’d stink of bug repellant and sunscreen. Of course, there was no shower. We’d just swim it off in the creek.
Once a bear chased my Dad when he dropped our garbage off at the dump.
If you add up every week I spent there, it would probably come to less than six months. I still remember clearly how the soil felt beneath my hands and bare feet.
What my daughter remembers of the house we lived in up to her third year:
It was bigger. It had a garage and a driveway. There were trees in the backyard. We’d catch frogs there sometimes. She misses the frogs.