Look Small: Dead Stuff

The home of something small and furry in a dead tree stump

The average high in Toronto this time of year is 4C. Yesterday, it got up to 14. Fourteen! Putting aside the global warming concerns: fourteen! Wasn’t it beautiful? Fourteen, sunny, mildly breezey. A perfect day for a walk. It was also the day I finally managed to get myself to a camera store to rent out a macro lens after many years of planning and never finding the spare hour required.

You might wonder, in Toronto in early March, what on earth there is to take a picture of. The birds have not yet returned (though I did see a yellow-bellied sapsucker). The flowers have not yet bloomed; even the bloodroot and trout lilies are still underground. No butterflies, no dragonflies, no caterpillars, no frogs, no turtles, no bumblebees. What good is a macro lens on a gorgeous sunny day when everything is still dead?

What is it? I don't know. But it's dead.

You take pictures of the dead stuff, of course.

dead goldenrods & seeds

I’ve often heard people lament that they wish they and/or their kids had a better connection with nature, but: but they live in the city. But they never get to the parks. But it’s cold so much of the year and there’s nothing to see. But their kids would rather watch tv.

The first three are entirely a result of a lack of vision and imagination, and the last is your fault, parents. Kids aren’t born obsessing over televisions. They are at the very least given the opportunity, if not taught outright. But today we’ll leave the electronic conundrum alone, and talk about the perceived limitations of urban/suburban environments and winter, both of which have more to do with having a preconceived idea of what is worth looking at.

You could live in the most blighted urban slum on the planet, or the most glass- and steel-encased urban paradise, and I guarantee you there is nature there worth seeing. Nothing keeps out the wind, nothing keeps out the birds, and even slabs of concrete and asphalt several feet thick won’t keep out the weeds. Moreover, you and every other person you know are nature; our entire species is just another kind of primate, and the most highly constructed of our highly constructed environments is just another kind of animal habitat. The entire idea that we have somehow banished nature from our cities is the worst kind of hubris: we, and everything we build, are part of nature. But more on that another day.

Winter? Come on.

Look at this stuff. It’s all dead, but isn’t it gorgeous? And mind: I have no idea what most of it is, except that I’m pretty sure a few of them are invasives. Right now, so what? Just get out, walk outside through your front door and really look at whatever’s there. You will find something worth seeing, I promise you. Look small. Look down. Look in the nooks and crannies.

For instance, take this goldenrod fly gall–which was alive until some hungry bird pecked through all that woody protection, and look at the depth! That would be hard. All to get one presumably tasty little morsel of larva, since each of these galls host one, all through the winter, safe and warm (or frozen solid, as the case may be, but at any rate safe), until they pupate in the spring. And then, according to what I learned during the Living Winter session at last weekend’s Toronto Sustainability Forum, the flies–who no longer have mouths–secrete chemicals into a balloon on their forehead to push through the thin membrane left on one side of the gall to their freedom, then fly around for two weeks, mate, and die.

dead gall; larva, missing and presumed eaten

Doesn’t sound like much of a life to me; on the other hand, substitute “gall” with “well-paying stable job,” and you might indeed have the average life of your middle-class westerner, putting in time until they get to push through to the all-to-brief freedom of retirement. I suppose that depends on how much you like your work.

It's magic!

Or take this twig.

If you zoom in, you’ll see that the branch on the left put out a feeder sometime last spring or summer–those crazy-twisty bits that let vines climb walls and trees by growing, springy-sproingy, in all directions at once, until they latch on to something. In this case, the springy-sproingy bit latched on to a twig, which subsequently fell from the tree it originally grew from and has now been permanently suspended in air.

The mushrooms aren’t dead, but the trees they are busily transforming back into soil most certainly are. And that tree stump–absolutely, definitely dead. But look at the shape!

Dead stuff is a very important part of any ecosystem. Many animals and insects make their homes in dead trees and logs. Dead twigs and dead leaves find their way into nests. The nutrients captured and stored in dead plants, dead trees and dead animals are released back into the environment over time, keeping the soil healthy and the whole system running. If you remove all the dead stuff from an ecosystem, it’ll die.

Late winter and early spring is a great time of year to get out and see all the dead stuff before it gets swamped by green. The green is great, don’t get me wrong; I’m looking forward to all the business and noise of spring and summer as much as you. But in this last long pause before life rushes back in, you can see and appreciate the vaccuum itself.

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5 thoughts on “Look Small: Dead Stuff”

  1. this last long pause before life rushes back in

    Lovely, Andrea.

    The lichen here is a bright, vibrant green. My daughter knows I like is so she’s always picking up broken twigs studded with the stuff & giving them to me. I use them for decoration in my house!

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