Friday, September 20, 2013

yellow jackets gorging

yellow jackets gorging
on king solomon's seal fruit
for their last supper

I can tell when the peaches, pears and apples are ripe from the craters left by yellow jackets gorging on the sugary fruit. At the end of summer, I discover a swarm of the yellow and black striped wasps gouging holes in the small black berries of King Solomon's Seal. Why this sudden appetite for anything sweet, from fruit to sugar water in hummingbird feeders to soda pop at a picnic?
          Therein lies a strange story. Like honeybees, yellow jackets are social insects that live in colonies with a queen, female workers and males. The queen is the only one who overwinters. When she emerges in the spring, she builds a small paper nest and lays eggs which hatch and mature into adult workers. The workers expand the nest, defend the nest entrance, forage for food, and feed the queen and larvae. At the peak of population expansion, the queen produces new queens and males, which leave the nest to mate in flight. The fertilized queens seek a protected place to spend the winter while the old queen and the males who mated die. With colder weather, the rest of the colony also begins to die.
          So what causes the end of life sugar feeding frenzy? Most of the summer the adults seek out sources of protein from insects and fish, which they chew up and feed to the larvae. In a win-win exchange known as trophallaxis, the larvae secrete a sugary substance that the adults crave. But in late summer and fall, sources of food become scarce and the yellow jackets scavenge for anything they can find, often attracted to human food sources. Instead of being benevolent destroyers of insect pests in the garden, they become people pests as they are drawn to picnics, outdoor restaurants and garbage cans. They will also rob honey from bee hives, which can weaken the honey bee colony. And to people who are allergic, their sting can be fatal. Some people have swallowed live yellow jackets from an open soda, resulting in a life-threatening sting.
          The best defense is prevention -- keeping food and garbage cans tightly covered. Insecticide sprays may be used on the nest, with caution, as well as non-toxic traps. And a hard freeze will kill all the yellow jackets except the new queens. 
          Fortunately, I was not near the nest entrance of the yellow jackets I photographed as they fed on King Solomon's Seal berries. In their eagerness for sugar, they hardly seemed to notice my presence. But I have learned not to eat fruit while I'm harvesting, so I don't get kissed by a yellow jacket.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

full moon blurred by clouds

full moon blurred by clouds --
pilgrims bearing little lights
up Fuji-san's dark slopes

Awake at 2:30, perhaps the effect of the full moon floating like a blurry pearl between clouds. Fuji-san's dark cone, framed by the shoji frame, is draped with a string of lights winking on and off like fireflies. In Japan, fireflies are traditionally believed to be the souls of the dead. However, the source of these lights is very much alive -- hundreds of mountain climbers with headlamps, hiking the Yoshida Trail at night to reach the summit in time to see the sun rise. 
          At 4:30 I wake again, perhaps the effect of the sudden enlivenment of light as the sun peeks above the ocean horizon. Sensei's house sits on the sunset side of a small mountain above the village of Oshino, west of Fuji-san. The mountain at our backs blocks the sun until it is well up, but the lucky pilgrims who reached the top of Fuji-san will see the sun make its dramatic appearance as a red ball perching briefly in the magical gap between water and air.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

on the deeply furrowed

on the deeply furrowed
bark of a sassafras tree
a face stares back at me

          The day after Labor Day, we're making our annual pilgrimage to the Missouri Ozarks, a pilgrimage that sends me back in time as well as placing me intensely in the present. 
          Crossing the footbridge to our campsite at Pulltite Campgrounds, I find the fallen leaves of sassafras scattered on the bare ground. If you didn't know, you might think these leaves came from different trees. Some are pointed ovals, others have three "fingers" or lobes, and some look like mittens, both right- and left-handed, with one lobe for the thumb. Why they grow this way on one tree is one of the marvelous mysteries of nature.
          In their autumn raiment each leaf is an abstract painting in splashes of green, gold, red and brown, interspersed with dark gray concentric circles like the growth rings of trees. I look around for the source of all these cast offs and find a tall tree, still bearing some green leaves, growing along the little creek that runs under the bridge and into the Current River.
          Picking up a red mitten, I press it to my nose. Ah, that sweet scent takes me back to my childhood. My grandmother used sassafras oil as a fragrance for homemade soap. And every year my grandfather dug up roots from trees on their Southern Illinois farm to make sassafras tea. He said the reddish-brown concoction was good for anything that ails you. Even after I went off to college, he would send me a package of the curled bark of the dried roots so I could steep my own tea. And of course, real root beer was always flavored with safrole, the essential oil from steam distilled sassafras roots. (Yes, I know, safrole oil is no longer legal in the US.)
          My older sister, when she lived in Louisiana, introduced us to gumbo filé, gumbo made with a powder of dried sassafras leaves, a spicy herb that made its way into Creole cuisine from Native American tribes. In addition to the culinary use of sassafras, Native Americans also used sassafras medicinally, as the oil in all parts of the tree has antiseptic and analgesic properties. 
          The oil also makes a good insect repellent, and since we're besieged by mosquitoes this close to the river I rub some of the redolent leaves on my bare skin. Then I gather a handful of the leaves, which will make excellent fire starters.

Monday, September 2, 2013

curving back double

curving back double
diamond-back snake slides slowly
down the mossy stone

Walking down a shady little path to the Kamegawa, I almost step on a long stick lying by the river's edge. The stick moves, and I take a step back. It's a thin, brown snake with a diamond pattern, about a meter long. As I watch it move across a muddy inlet, a young Japanese girl comes down the path. "Hebi!" I say, happy that this happens to be one of the few words I know in Japanese. The girl stops as if struck. An older man comes down behind the girl and she gestures and chatters excitedly about hebi. The girl retreats but the man and I continue to watch the snake as it climbs up a moss-covered outcrop. At the top, it reaches one end, searches the empty air with its head, then doubles back along its length. At one point, as the body forms a long loop, the snake's head and tail are side by side. Then the head dips down the back side of the rocks and the tail obediently follows the entire path traced by the head until it too vanishes.
          When I show the photos to my Japanese friends, they tell me it's auspicious to see a snake. Curious as to what kind of snake it is, I find a website with photos of Japanese snakes. The one that looks the most like my snake is Iwasaki Sedaka Hebi (Pareas iwasakii), Iwasaki's slug snake. This seems a rather inappropriate name for such an elegant snake, which doesn't look like a slug at all.