Tuesday, October 29, 2013

woolly bear -- black hair

woolly bear -- black hair
curled in a ball under a log
waiting for winter

Isabella usually goes with the black and orange look for Halloween, but this year she dyed her spiky hair all black. I found her curled up under a log, taking a nap.
          Isabella is a woolly bear caterpillar, and she's not the only one to change her costume. Every single one of the woolly bears I've seen crossing the highway in search of a hidey-hole for the winter have all-black bristles. In all my years of watching woolly bears, I've never seen anything like it. What does it mean? 
          The woolly bear, which is neither a bear nor woolly, is the bristly larva of the Isabella tiger moth. The caterpillar has 13 segments, normally orange-brown in the middle and black on both ends. According to legend, the wider the brown band, the milder the coming winter, so no brown at all would predict a really hard winter. But is it true?
          According to Mike Peters, an entomologist at the University of Massachusetts, the number of brown hairs indicates the age of the caterpillar, reflecting how late it emerged in the spring. A heavy winter or an early spring the previous year would result in a wider brown band. If that's true, then we should have had a harsh winter last year, but actually it was fairly warm with little snow, unlike most winters in Iowa. 
          So who knows, maybe the woolly bears just wanted a new look this year.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

eye of the buck


eye of the buck
opening slowly from inside
its prickly pod

When I was growing up, we lived for some years in Ohio, the Buckeye State. The lawn behind our house sloped down to a woods that bordered old railroad tracks. A short walk down the tracks was the "bum's house," an abandoned concrete shell with empty windows, the walls covered with graffiti, and on the floor a blackened spot from cooking fires.
          We had our own fire pit in our little parcel of the woods, surrounded by logs for sitting around the fire at night, watching the orange sparks fly up from the flames to join the stars peaking through the tree canopy, roasting marshmallows for s'mores and telling tall tales. Sometimes we threw buckeyes in the fire, daring each other to eat the roasted nuts. We saw squirrels eating the raw nuts, but they knew how to chew through the pink outer layer, which is very bitter, to the white inner heart. Once, I tried doing what I heard that the Native Americans did, roasting, mashing and grinding the seeds into a meal which for porridge, but it was not very satisfying.
          During the afternoons and on weekends we ran around in our woods playing games. One of our favorites involved buckeyes. The equipment was simple, but took some time to construct. In early autumn, when the buckeye trees dropped their seed pods, the greenish-gold, leathery husks would split open, revealing one or sometimes two glossy, chestnut brown seeds with a pale circular "eye" that looks like the eye of a buck. Everyone carried a favorite buckeye for good luck, and just for the marvelous feel of the smooth orb. But for this game you searched for the biggest buckeye you could find, through which you drilled a hole and tied one end of a long string through the hole.
          The game consisted of two kids bashing their buckeyes together with the goal of breaking the other buckeye. If you did, you got to add that "coup" to your buckeye. If you broke a buckeye that already had a total coup of seven, then you got to add seven strikes to your buckeye. It took a good deal of mind-body coordination to get two flying objects to connect, and we learned from experience about momentum, velocity, vectors and what happens when two bodies collide. Sometimes the collision involved the other person's arm or hand, but that strike didn't count and could result in your friend holding a strike against you, which was another kind of lesson.
          I still like to collect buckeyes in the fall, but now I leave them in their shells and put them in a bowl on the dining table so I can watch the spiny husks slowly open like eyelids, revealing shiny dark brown eyes.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

no longer hidden

no longer hidden
by leaves, spiny buckeye pods,
a paper wasp nest

On my way home from the mailbox at the highway, I stop to pick up some buckeye pods fallen on the gravel road. Only a scattering of russet five-fingered leaves and spiny pods remain on the nearly naked tree. Looking up, I spot a large gray object the size and shape of a head, hanging from a lower branch. It's a paper hornet nest. Just as I'm wondering if it's abandoned, I see hornets streaming in and out of a hole near the bottom of the nest. Through my zoom lens I can see the white face and the three white stripes on the tail that identifies them as bald-faced hornets, also called white-faced or white-tailed hornets. These are very aggressive insects, which will sting repeatedly if their nest is disturbed. A little scary, realizing how I've been traipsing for months past this nest, hidden by leaves not so very far above my head. I've already suffered an incredibly painful sting on the sole of my foot when I inadvertently stepped on a hornet this summer. Good thing I didn't try shaking the tree to knock down the buckeyes.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

before falling

before falling
locust pods transform, half light,
half curvaceous dark 

While everyone else rushes to lunch, I stand transfixed under the honey locust. It's not the feathery green leaves that capture my attention, although they are quite lovely. Rather it is the long, flat seed pods, curving and curling around each other in clusters. The long legumes are beginning to turn from gold to dark brown, creating fabulous patterns akin to the spots on wild animals. Brown lobes swelling up along the edge of the pod look like fingers or teeth. The thick pods encapsulate shiny brown seeds, the bearers of potential new life. And how marvelous, in the process of dying, the pods produce such graceful curves, this beautiful contrast of dark and light.
          This particular tree, growing in town, is a thornless honey locust, Gleditsia triacanthos inermis. Out where we live in the countryside, the woods are full of the more common thorny variety. Bees are attracted to the clusters of sweet creamy blossoms, but the name of the tree actually derives from the sweet inner pulp of the unripe pods, which Native Americans used for food. Our white-tailed deer love to forage on the sweet pods, passing on and thus dispersing the undigested seeds. On the other hand, I have seen squirrels chew open the leathery brown pods and with their hard teeth consume the hard seeds.