Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Last Hurrah in the Aromatic Aster

On the 15th of November, about 5 weeks ago, I took a series of photos of the insects nectaring at the last of the aromatic aster blooms.  We'd already had a frost or two and the tomato plants had become black mush weeks before, but the aromatic asters just kept valiently going on, day after day after day.  I'm sure that most of these insects have since descended into their final cold sleep, but it seemed like a good time to share one of the last warm days of 2013 on my blog....

What do the following insects have in common with each other, besides the plant they are nectaring on and the fact that they were still alive on November 15th?

Insect #1

Insect #2

Insect #3

Insect #4

Insect #5

Guesses, anyone?  That's right! The answer is that, despite the striped black and yellow camouflage that some of these guys are wearing, all five of these insects are flies and they are all native pollinators!  What's the tell?  The give-away to their true identity is their antennae and the single pair of wings.  Flies have short, stubby antennae, while bee antennae are longish and usually have a single bend near the forehead.  Flies have a single pair of wings, while bees have two pairs, often "stitched" together by tiny hooks to look like one pair, though.

Why do several of these flies look like bees or wasps?  The better to fool predators and stay uneaten, of course!  Humans aren't the only animals that are wary of getting stung.

Of course there were some true bees nectaring on the asters as well.

There was this classic honeybee...which is NOT native, by the way, although it does function as a pollinator.

And I saw this little beauty, a metallic green solitary bee, brightening up the day for me.  The tiny little shadows of these insects make me feel very tender towards them, for some reason - and you can see the long antennae that helps identify this animal as a bee particularly well in its shadow, too.

As I was snooping into the lives of these 6-legged creatures, I was privileged to see an interesting standoff occur:  this tachinid fly landed right in front of the wheel bug, who was obviously interested and had her beak out as if ready to pounce.

I watched for several minutes, though, and the wheelbug never did actually attack the fly. 

Eventually the fly seemed to get bored and flew away.  Perhaps the wheelbug had already laid her full quota of eggs, was tired, and was just too lazy to go to all the effort of catching and eating even one more insect....

Each year there is only one generation of wheelbugs, fierce predators from the moment they hatch, so perhaps this old lady was getting ready to peacefully let go, her role in the wheelbug lifecycle now complete.

One other insect caught my eye that day, although this one was no longer alive.  This little bee, still festooned with full pollen baskets, had the ill fortune to become a spider's meal.

I never did see the spider, but the little bee's gaudy corpse twisted sadly in the breeze.

The variety of insects I see in my yard and gardens never ceases to amaze me.  What's especially fascinating is how many of them are predators.  Or beneficials, for that matter.  I see major life dramas enacted daily, or come upon the remains of tragedies after they've occurred.  These days, I can't imagine gardening without paying attention to the insect life with which I share my garden.  It's opened up a whole new world to me.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Different Faces of Christmas

We're having a quiet Christmas this year, even quieter than usual.  For the first time since the birth of our elder child over 30 years ago, we won't be celebrating the season with either of our children.  Our daughter is a physician in Florida, on call for the week of Christmas, then going with her boyfriend to his parents' home over New Year's.  Our son has run out of vacation days and is unable to take time off until after the new year.  We were all together over Thanksgiving and had a wonderful time enjoying each others' company, so it's not as much of a hole as it might have been.  In fact, once I got the gifts bought, wrapped, and in the mail, having a quiet Christmas has allowed me to slow down a bit and philosophize.  What in the world is going on with the Christmas holidays these days?

There's so much angst over Christmas right now.  Expectations are sky high.  Time is tight and precious; there never seems to be enough time to get everything done.  Money seems to become scarcer every year.  Commercialism is through the roof and starts before the leaves turn in the fall.  Manipulative calls about a "War on Christmas" turn even a simple greeting of goodwill into a perceived assault against religion.

How can we get some sanity back into the season and into our celebrations of it?  Or has the entire holiday just become an excuse for excess that needs to be excised?

I'm thinking that the answer to that pair of questions is different for different people, depending on their understanding of Christmas...and I've come to recognize that there are many different perceptions and expectations for this major holiday in western culture.

I'm going to ignore some basic (and pretty important) expectations for Christmas, like the perceived need by store owners to make a lot of money during this time of year.  I want to think about and look at the understandings and expectations of the average person at this time of as much as I consider myself to be an "average person," I guess, because mostly I've been thinking about MY personal understandings and expectations for Christmas.

Nowadays, I see 3 different faces of Christmas every year.  The first "face" of Christmas is the religious event that is being marked in Christianity, the birth of Christ.  Without looking it up, I'm assuming that the word, "Christmas", is a shortening of Christ Mass - a mass in celebration of Christ.  "Christ is the reason for the season."  "Let's put Christ back in Christmas."  And so on and so forth.  If a person is a Christian, then I'm all for them celebrating Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Christ.  To me, personally, though, there are further depths and meaning to this holiday.

In thinking about my frustration with the rallying cries about the "War on Christmas", I've realized that I see an important second face to Christmas.  To me, the Christmas holiday has meaning as a time to celebrate our love for our friends and family, to demonstrate to those who are important to us just how much we care about them, to spend our precious time with them.  Valentine's Day is our day to celebrate our pair bond, if we're lucky enough to be part of a pair, but Christmas is broader - a way to celebrate, as families and friends, the important bonds between and among our family members and within our community-of-choice.

Gifts, then, become a physical manifestation of our bonds of affection - a message that we understand and care about what our loved ones need and want, that we want our loved ones to be happy.  Unfortunately, as our time has become ever more taken up with working away from our homes, gifts have become charged with larger and heavier emotional burdens:  "I'm unable to spend as much time with you as I'd like to, because I have to pay the bills, but this wonderful present will show you how well I know you and how much I love you."   Of course, physical presents will never take the place of time spent together, no matter how much money we spend, but still we try. 

One thing we don't have to try to do any more is petition the sun to start shining again.  This is the third face of Christmas that I've become aware of, and it's the oldest face by far.  Christmas comes shortly after the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  The ancients didn't know what caused the sun to start shining less and less each fall, so they were concerned that some day the sun might just disappear, leaving them in permanent darkness.  Each year, as the days got shorter and darker, the ancients would pray to the sun and the earth spirits to bring back the light and the warmth.  Of course, each year after Winter Solstice, the sun would start to shine a little bit more and, in a few months, the warmth would return as well, bringing the bounty of spring and summer with it.  Each year, the petitions were successful!

These days, with our understanding of the tilt of the Earth's axis and its rotation around the sun, even the least scientific among us knows that the sun stays steadfast, that the Earth revolves around the sun.  We know that the sun "will return to us" without fail, no matter what we do or don't do.  We no longer need to petition for the return of the sun's light and the warmth that comes with it.  I think, though, that there are echoes of the old fear of the winter darkness tiptoeing around inside our psyches, despite our modern understanding of how things really work.

So these are the three primary faces of the Christmas season that I see operating these days:  the religious celebration of Christ's birth, the communal celebration of love between family and friends, and the ancient celebration of the return of sunlight.  Celebrating the return of the light is a primal celebration, usually buried deep within us and mostly unconscious.  Bright sparkling lights on our houses, evergreen trees with bright lights and ornaments decorating their boughs, and roaring fires are manifestations of this ancient winter celebration of "Christmas".  The religious celebration of the birth of Jesus is of critical importance for Christians, and its rituals have become an important part of our winter celebrations as well:  the creche, carols about angels, shepherds, wise men and a baby in a manger, services and masses celebrating the birth of the Christ child.

To me personally, though, the deepest and most important reason to celebrate Christmas is the chance to recognize and celebrate the loving bonds that bring and keep us all together.  As winter's cold descends upon us and we find ourselves together in close proximity for days and weeks on end, isn't it the perfect time to let each other know how much we care?  Isn't it the perfect time to say, "I'm choosing to spend my days with you, because you are important to me!"?

Just after Winter Solstice, it becomes obvious that the physical light of the sun is returning to the Northern Hemisphere, day by day.  What a perfect time to celebrate the deep spiritual and social light of our love and caring for each other!

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Wintery Mix

Saturday brought us the legendary "wintery mix" of precipitation.  Luckily the weather forecasters had seen it coming, because the temperatures dropped along with the precipitation and it's likely to be several more days until the roads are clear again.  We made sure that we had the basics ahead of time so we were able to relax and cocoon all day Sunday.

Cocooning didn't mean confining myself to the house all day, though.  The clouds moved out around noon; mid afternoon found me outside, seeing what I could photograph to share before wind and cold drove me back inside.

Truthfully, I'm glad that we got the moisture, even if it came in a less-than-gentle form and is limiting our mobility a bit for a while.  We've been getting pretty dry.

Everything looked soft and tranquil....

...but certain angles showed the reality beneath the fluffy snow: about 1/4" of ice, coating absolutely everything.

At times like this, thick evergreens are particularly important as shelter for wildlife.  Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), our only native evergreen out here on the prairie, is particularly valuable in weather conditions like this.  In the hedge by our driveway, there were all sorts of mammal tracks along and underneath these trees, as well as signs that birds were roosting in the refuge of the thick branches.

Looking across the front tallgrass, colors were rich but the snow seemed muted - captured and contained by the tall prairie grasses covering the soil.  There won't be much runoff here, as the grasses will hold the snow in place as it melts, allowing the soil to absorb the precious moisture.

Behind the house, one of our cats had walked boldly out, through the Courtyard hedge, into the grasses of the Beyond....

...without even stopping to investigate the myriad twisting strands of bird tracks that meandered between and around the plum bushes which grow under the Amur maples that anchor the Courtyard hedge.

A feather on the snow added a small, rather dramatic spot of color and texture....

Skeins of geese laced the sky....

The path to the Back 5 cut through the Indian grass and big bluestem of the Beyond...

...then crossed the draw...

...and skirted the edge of the big grove of redcedars in the Cedar Grove.

On the south end of the Cedar Grove, a pair of redcedars caught the evening sun and looked like rich Christmas trees glinting in a story book tale.

I think we're actually going to have a white Christmas this year.


Monday, December 09, 2013

The Glass Menagerie, Botanical Style

Note:  Somehow "Botanical Garden" doesn't have the same feel as "zoo" or "menagerie" to me so, in naming this blog post, I borrowed the title of a famous play and took some serious license with it....

These days we have digital cameras to record plant details.  With their immediate results and cheap cost per image, these wonderful cameras join a long history of technologies and methods with which we've tried to capture the beauty and uniqueness of the plant world to learn about the variety of species and to share our knowledge of plants with others.

Over a hundred years ago, the methods and technologies of recording plant information were much fewer.  The classic methods were written descriptions, botanical drawings, and pressed plants.  All of these methods, while still valuable, were limited.  True 3-D specimens were not possible.  Colors faded.  Visualization from written reports was limited.  Once upon a time, though, several men conspired to find another way, financed by a wealthy mother and daughter....

In the late 1800's, Harvard began to develop a Botanical Museum.  Prof. George Goodale, its first director, wanted to create lifelike models of plants for display, but the only methods for modeling that he knew about were relatively crude, either papier-mache or wax.  When Prof. Goodale heard of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, a father and son team of glass artisans who lived in Germany and created exquisite marine invertebrate models from glass, he traveled to their home to meet them and to see their work firsthand.

The Blaschkas' glass work was, indeed, amazing, so Prof. Goodale talked them into creating a few plant specimens for the newly developing Harvard Botanical Museum.  These specimens were so exquisite that a wealthy Bostonian woman and her daughter offered to finance an entire collection of glass botanical specimens as a memorial to Harvard alumnus, Dr. Charles Eliot Ware.  The results of this combination of generosity and artistry are available for all of us to see, if we have the opportunity and desire to visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When I heard about the Glass Flowers Collection recently, I decided this was definitely something I might enjoy glancing over.  We were heading to Boston to visit our son for Thanksgiving, so I had an opportunity to "Seize the Day!", so to speak.  Greg and Sean both indicated an interest as well, so last Thursday we headed over to Harvard Square on the T and wandered across the Harvard campus until we found the Museum of Natural History.

Although not botanical, the first thing that caught our attention as we entered the museum was a glass case with 3 bird skeletons in it:  a rhea, a great auk, and...a dodo.  This is our son, Sean, standing by the case to give you a sense of scale.  The dodo is the medium sized bird in the middle.

It was quite sobering to stand a few feet from the actual remains of an animal that lived fairly recently and whose entire species is now extinct, due totally to human greed and arrogance.

After pausing for a while to take in the enormity of meeting a dodo, even if it was just a skeleton, we opened the door and went into the Glass Flowers Collection.  Where do I begin to tell you about it?

The collection is exquisite.  Truly.  Even after 100+ years.  As difficult as it is to believe, the specimens don't look like glass.  They are all life sized and they range in type from trees (showing leaves, twigs, flowers, and fruits or nuts) to flowers to grasses to cacti.  There are a few aquatic plants.  There are orchids.  A few of the specimens even have pest species shown as part of the display.  Some of the colors are a bit faded and there is a tiny bit of breakage, but overall the condition of these delicate works of art seems pristine.

One of the first specimens to catch my eye was this pitcher plant.  Each of the "pitchers" is about 9" long.

Other southern species included sweet azalea, Rhododendron arborescens, ...

...and mountain laurel, Kahlmia latifolia.

There were several clematis species, including two of my favorites, Clematis texensis and Clematis crispa....

Note the fine petals on the blossoms of the fringetree, Chionanthus virginicus!

The beautiful arching of the Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis, panicle is perfect, ... is the upright stiffness of the showy penstemon, Penstemon spectabilis, ...

...and the clusters of swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, blossoms at different stages of opening.

Even the spines of the candy barrelcactus, Ferocactus wizlizeni, seem perfect, in both their individuality and their totality....

The accompanying sections of the ovaries with their developing embryos (seeds) caught my eye in their fascinating symmetry.  I find my interest in the plant families and their identifying characteristics ignited after seeing this exhibit.

How did these 2 artisans capture the living details of these plants, especially when so many of the plants live and thrive half a world away from where they lived and worked?  This was well before color photography.

How did these specimens survive shipment from Germany to Boston?

Here is a photo of the type of equipment the Blaschkas used to create these glass marvels.  Such simple and relatively crude tools to create such fine details.

As the following label describes, this project even led to the development of new materials and methods by these talented glass artists....

Here is an overview of the specimens he eventually created to illustrate red maple, Acer rubrum, complete with the vibrantly colored fall foliage. 

There are many, many more examples that I could share with you, but I'll stop here and encourage you to see this collection for yourself, if you are ever in Boston.

I can only imagine what the family of Mrs. Ware and her daughter said upon being first told that they were underwriting the production of this superb collection of glass botanical specimens.  I am deeply thankful, however, that Mrs. Ware and her daughter decided to go ahead and provide the funding, because it has given the world exquisite works of scientifically important art that are still breathtaking and unique, a century after they were made.  There are certainly many, many, less lasting and less important ways to spend money.