Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Arachnophilia at Home

Kitchen kritters have been dropping in regularly lately, most of them spiders. Last week, a small arachnid rappelled from the ceiling on a long thread right in front of me. A fast grab at the line enabled me to redirect that one to the nearest potted plant. Then a few days ago, something small and dark, also tethered, landed on the edge of a cast iron skillet I was heating on the stove. Quick action managed, to my surprise, to save even that one.

This is, perhaps, what you get when you operate a permeable, and somewhat flexible, household. I'm more than willing, most of the time, to live and let live. If you're squeamish about things with lots of legs, you might want to move on to another post. A picture is coming around the corner.

Saturday I pulled a can of corn from the pantry, only to find a bug on it. "Harlequin" popped into my mind, but most I find online are shaped the same but colored somewhat differently. It looked most like this one, so perhaps I'm on the right track. It too went to a nearby house plant; one not in the cabbage family (just in case).

Most of my household spiders are nondescript little guys, and I rarely have time for identification while in the process of "rescue." Next up, however, is one I did recognize.

This one came in from the cold on her own, almost. That is, it's hard for me to ignore a critter that is virtually knocking on my back door. Cold weather and certain death ahead, I, um, brought her inside for the winter. Isn't she cute? I figure a couple crickets from the pet store will keep her happy til spring.

What would you have done?

The Black Widow, unfortunately, is the most visible of Colorado's two venomous spiders and is often killed on sight. Patent-leather black, with her distinctive hourglass, she could hardly be a more elegant house guest, if a bit sinister in her jerky movements. (Any fuzziness is the photo, not her.) Having set up housekeeping in a mason jar, she dangled conveniently upside down on her web when I checked in this a.m. Black widow webs lack the symmetrical beauty we appreciate from the orb weavers; they are instead a tangled mishmash of very strong threads. Their venom is strong, about 15 times that of a prairie rattlesnake, but they inject only a tiny amount, so they are less deadly overall. I hope not to bring you a personal report on that experience.

When I lived in Arizona, a fellow grad student once kept a widow, along with her egg sac, in a similar mason jar. A few small airholes in the lid are, of course, important. Unfortunately, though she stayed safely in the jar, her tiny hatchlings had no qualms about using the escape routes!

Right after I took this picture, I was watering houseplants. Pulled a little variegated Hoya down and discovered a sizable web on it. By the time I got it watered, I'd dislodged a medium-sized spider and managed to drop the plant (with its extra water) on the floor. First priority, though, was to catch the spider. (Don't worry, she's fine; safely back in her home, though it now needs some renovation.)

This winter's not the first time we've had spiders in the house. For more on making critters welcome, see Not So Good Housekeeping, over on Small Wonders.

Let's face it: we rarely get to see timber wolves or grizzly bears. Instead, charismatic microfauna such as these are the small wonders with which we live most intimately. These are nature's representatives we are most likely to see most often. If we can't appreciate—and tolerate—them, can we truly call ourselves nature lovers?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

An Earthbound Perspective

As you know, my attention is usually "down to Earth," on this mundane plane where there is more than enough to inspire and excite me. But we needed new binocs, and The Husband brought some home over the holidays, along with an inspiring book on the stars.

I've always enjoyed my few familiar constellations and watching the Moon go through its paces. I've learned to clock the seasons, making sure I check out Orion every winter and Scorpius in summer. Last year, I was surprised to observe a new, very bright, star hovering just above red Antares. It could be a stationary satellite, I thought, "polluting" my night skies, but I'm still not sure even of that.

[I must have skipped over the "planets" chapter. Now we know that we were watching Jupiter all summer, not some satellite. I'll be more enlightened about planetary positions this year!]

But my star-gazing had limits, so it was with surprise that I found myself reading the book (How to Identify: Night Sky), cover to cover. It may be because I do like learning the names of things in nature, and the night sky holds many names. Some were old friends, familiar from a childhood spent reading science fiction, but many were new. My indoor study, however thorough, evaporated in the face of outdoor reality. It will be a long time before very many of the new names sink into my bank of longer term knowledge.

The new binocs are fine for birds, but without a tripod, the stars were only jiggly swirls of colored light. Shivering didn't help. I will probably never be able to post night sky pictures here, so let me introduce you to someone who is better at it:

Spotlight: Visit Matt, at, as "an aspiring naturalist learns his place." He is managing to combine an earthbound perspective with one more ethereal in his photos Sunday and today, both not to be missed. Beyond his incredible blog from Alaska, he's also undertaken a huge effort to catalog 1,000 species from his chosen habitat.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Front Range Today; Web of Nature

In the interests of balance, full disclosure, et al., here's a picture of the status quo today. I noticed, putting together the slide show in the sidebar last week, that I have a tendency to take pictures when it's wintry, or green and foggy or drizzly—all the days that are a little out of the ordinary. Well, here's the ordinary. We do, it's true, have a lot of brown. Guess that's why I'm given to photographing the green and white!

Before you get to feeling too sorry for us, I just came in from the back patio, where I was basking in 70 degree sunshine. The official temperature, absent such a protected location, is 62 F (17 C). I'm not complaining—this is the "other" typical weather for the Front Range this time of year. Sometimes our January days are more pleasant than those in March! But they are mostly brown.

I just discovered that the new edition of the Tangled Bank carnival (#97) is up over at The Inoculated Mind, featuring our post on alpine wildflowers, Life on a Cushion. FF is a little late to the party, but thanks TIM, for including us!

Reading around...

In other happy news, while getting reacquainted with the blogosphere of nature, I've made several delightful discoveries, many of which you'll find in the sidebar. As in the ecosystem, it's all about connections. Some of my regularly read blogs introduced me to

Fragments from Floyd,

who introduced me to Via Negativa,

who introduced me to naturalist-writer Marcia Bonta, and so on.

Fred also alerted me to the Nature Blog Network, on which FF is now listed. Which in turn informed me that there's a new carnival for plant lovers at Berry Go Round, the first edition of which is posted at Seedsaside.

You get the picture. It's one giant web of life and energy out there. Drop in and enjoy!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

What IS a Naturalist, Anyway?

Lately reviewing material I wrote back in 1988-1993, when I was walking up Mt Falcon on a regular basis, I've been reminded of the naturalist’s perspective. In 2006, I found myself engaged in an extended attempt to reach consensus among diverse users of a local open space: hikers, bikers, trail runners, geologists, equestrians, and those I can only call naturalists, for lack of anything more definitive. In an effort to explain what the latter were about when they went about, I came up with the following:

First, naturalists are not hikers. They may appear to be hiking, because their feet are their mode of transportation. Hikers, however, are going somewhere. Naturalists, most often, are already there as soon as they set foot on the trail. Here’s an example. I led a Native Plant Society field trip at Mt Falcon one summer. I think we got about 200 yards in the first two hours. Maybe.

Naturalists look at things (that’s why they’re usually so slow). Hikers, bikers, others may look at scenery, I’m willing to admit that, but naturalists LOOK, really look, at things. (And touch them and smell them and whatever else.) They may, depending on their type, be looking at or for birds, butterflies, insects, flowers, trees, ferns, spiders, grasses, shrubs, lichens, geology, rocks, fossils, water, patterns, snakes, salamanders, frogs, fish, fungi, bugs, big critters, little critters, or scat, to name a few --but they are most likely looking AT something. They may be looking at or for a specific KIND of something, like carrion beetles, zeolites, sulfurs, oak galls, rock tripes, or moonworts. They may even be looking at or for all of the above.

Naturalists have expectations. If they observe a certain plant or animal or rock at a location in May, they will expect to see it again in September. If they observe it in 1994, they will know exactly where to look for it when they come to the spot again in 2004.

Worst of all, naturalists are unpredictable (though they expect Nature not to be). They are prone to sudden right-angle changes of direction whenever their eyes or ears or noses catch something. They are likely to stop dead right in front of you or walk to the edge of the path or drop to hands and knees without warning. They are alert, but not to other trail users. They may be lost in another world, and probably don’t even hear people coming because their senses are tuned to different stimuli. They're dangerous.

Lastly, I can believe that naturalists could travel on horseback. I can’t believe you can experience the naturalist’s perspective from a mountain bike, though I accept that bikers enjoy the outdoors, the aspens, the historic discoveries, etc, in their own ways. First there’s the speed, which severely limits bikers' ability to see the minutiae naturalists are so fond of. Second, the constant off/on, mounting/dismounting if you DID see something would take the fun out of the ride. Third, there seem to be social and physiological benefits to biking that naturalists rarely experience, traveling alone or in small units, and rarely if ever getting to aerobic levels. Let’s call it a different kind of fitness.

Thus, naturalists are just different. Not right or wrong, just different. All part of that human diversity we cherish. The thing is, they need open spaces, especially relatively untrammeled open spaces, for their chosen “sport.” Tamed urban spaces just don’t cut it the way remnants of the wild, however modified, still can.

In hopes of engaging a conversation about this idea, and the fate of naturalists in today's world, I set up a separate blog. Meet me there if you'd like to help create a conversation on what we do and why we do it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Time and Place

Instead of a view from home this morning, we'll take a look at a wider view of the home territory of Foothills Fancies as we know it today. This aerial photo clearly displays the captivating ecotone between the plains (down and right) and the higher mountains to the west—the zone we know as foothills.

Morrison area, about 1990
"Home," in the immediate personal sense, is just out of the picture on the left edge, enabling an excellent view north up the valley into the dramatic sculptures of red sandstone. What intrigues me today is that I fell in love with this view, this area, long before I ever saw it. Growing up in New York State, I couldn't even imagine such landscapes. The photo below, in a college textbook many years ago, introduced me to the concept of a hogback, the striking feature that dominates this photo and now defines my home range.

Morrison area, about 1932Photo by T.S. Lovering, 1932, courtesy USGS.

This geological paradise is hemmed in by the 1.7-billion-year-old rocks of Mt. Morrison on the left and the Dakota Hogback, which defines the eastern edge of the foothills and almost seems to confine the denser forms of human civilization to the plains beyond it. A virtual border we cross regularly, it marks a change in perspective from urban to mountain, from human-dominated landscapes to those where Nature, and especially geology, are factors that can't be entirely forgotten.

These photos, taken more than 50 years apart, also express change. In the earlier image, we see almost nothing artificial. A stretch of the Turkey Creek road on the west (left), a quarry lake on the right, but little else of human creation is visible, despite more than 70 years of "civilized" occupation of this landscape. Another half-century brings a few differences we can see at the scale of these photos. Houses and trees now obscure the road to Turkey Creek. The Dakota Hogback remains, but its base is scarred by a local speedway and a new road traverses it. But the delicate fin of limestone that lay east of it has been obliterated by a superhighway. Still, this landscape is largely protected compared with others in the Front Range. Much of the area of this photo is parkland and open space, preserved for its beauty and for use for recreation.

My very first geology professor taught us that geology is everything. He got our attention; to him even the Civil War was a matter of geology. The Industrial Revolution? Fueled by geology. The unique characters of New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans are shaped by their geology. Civilizations rising or falling, wars won or lost, all were geology, if you looked deeply enough. Geology is, according to ecologist Paul Sears, "the Great Eye-Opener" we need to understand the landscapes we live in and how they shape us. In short, Geology Rocks!

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Winter's Day

It's been a long winter, the Husband remarked this morning. Too true, beginning at Thanksgiving at least, the weather has been unsettled (as is normal) but on the wintery side of its range more days than not. A beautiful day (if you don't have to go anywhere), it's 10 degrees F (-12C) and snow is falling ever so lightly. So slowly and sparsely is this snow coming down that it coats each branch and twig in a decorative layer of white. No breath of wind disturbs this magical creation, brought to us by Nature with, perhaps, a little help from global warming.

At first glance, our view this morning looks a lot like that of April 25, 2006. But never truly the same: this time, it won't be melting as quickly, and the ash tree at the right, of course, has no spring leaves to be killed by this frost. The weather returns and repeats, but with a difference, as do many other events in Nature. (Today at Small Wonders, however, we're looking at Single Visions, moments that only come once.)

The Bird Channel is in full swing out there, with our 100 redwinged blackbirds and the attendant smaller flocks entertaining their loyal viewers.

Apparently I have a remarkable gift for worrying, especially over things completely out of my control. On days like this, I worry about what will happen to all these birds we've taught to depend on us after we're gone. Will the next people to occupy this special spot appreciate the wildlife we've found here and leave them room to live? No doubt there will be some adjustments, positive and negative, in the local economy of Nature. I marvel, too, at departments of wildlife who outlaw the artificial feeding of most of the State's wild critters, but seem to look the other way at bird feeders.

In the meantime, though, it's cold and I need to refill the suet feeder.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Something New

Yesterday I spent my blogging time experimenting with one of Blogger's new features, the "Slideshow." It never did work. This morning I did the exact same thing I did so many times yesterday, and suddenly we have a recap of the "views from home" that have decorated posts since this blog started almost two years ago (see sidebar). Sunrises and sunsets and all four seasons are represented, beginning in January. Please be patient, it takes a while to load the first time.

At the moment, there are 26 views, with a goodly portion being from January. Longtime readers know that snow is a regular feature—active forms of weather always tempt the camera. June, August, and September are not yet represented, but we'll remedy that this year. (In 2006, my first and most active blogging year, I was gone the entire month of June; I can't explain the absence of August and September.) I have taken the liberty of adding a few unposted photos from earlier years just to round out the annual glimpse of life in the foothills, will add more when I run across them. (And now they've gotten a bit out of order, but at least it's working!)

Nice to know you can teach this old dog new tricks.

By the by, today is my second blogiversary, marking the attempt to learn another new trick. My first-ever post is at Local History Explorer, my experimental testing ground. To date, I've written 260 posts on 13 different blogs, but Foothills Fancies remains in the lead.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Matter of Perspective

The "usual view" this morning looks more golden to the camera than to the eye. I find it much more of a flat gray out there beneath these glorious clouds. The weatherfolk tell us to expect snow later this week.

This is about all of Nature I get to see lately, being housebound with an injury. Having finished reading all seven of the Harry Potter books in recent weeks, this morning I opted for a change of pace and picked up Faith in a Seed, the final—previously unpublished—works of Henry David Thoreau. The book contains his work on The Dispersion of Seeds and several of his last essays. It also expands our perspective on who Thoreau was and what he was doing in the final decade of his life.

Once the naturalist whose travels and early accounts grounded us in a philosophy of place, now he launched an intensive effort to collect data on the activities and adventures of seeds in the woods of Concord, creating a detailed calendar on the flowering and fruiting of more than two dozen species of trees. He became a scientist, though that word was not widely used at the time and is understood differently in our time. Unlike his contemporaries, who believed that plants could arise spontaneously, Thoreau wrote:

Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up
where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed.
Convince me that you have a seed there,
and I am prepared to expect wonders.

In 1860, just two years before he died, Thoreau was also introduced to the master work of Charles Darwin, which then became "an authoritative context for his observations." * He was among the first Americans to explore and appreciate its implications in the field and on his own work.

Thoreau apparently kept his perspective as a literary naturalist, even as he wrote about the details of his investigations. He shifted from poet to technical writer, naturalist to scientist. I look forward to this opportunity to develop and perhaps shift my own perspective on his work as I explore our shared interest in seed ecology.

* From the foreword by Gary Nabhan. Thoreau had previously read The Voyage of the Beagle and was familiar with the developing ideas of natural selection, but this was his first exposure to On the Origin of Species.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Life on a Cushion

Here in the dark of winter, will a few more alpine wildflowers brighten your day? I'd like to share a few of those specially adapted plants that live nowhere else—unless it's in the arctic tundra, where conditions, at least of temperature, are somewhat similar. It's winter down here too, but on the tundra it's winter with a vengeance!

Today on the tundra (or as close as I can get weather info), it's 6 degrees F (-14 C), but a 12 mph wind ( kph) makes it feel more like -9 F (-23 C). Factor in a few thousand extra feet (1,000 m) of elevation, and it's going to be much colder than that! Probably a good bit more windy as well. Not until the end of May will temperatures again reach above freezing, and they will do so only for about 45 days.

Today the plants known as cushion plants are demonstrating what they're built for—hugging the ground, hiding from the wind, or at least exposing as little area as possible. Each cushion may be perhaps 6 inches (15 cm) wide and hundreds of years old. Each has a substantial taproot anchoring it to what soil there is and extending far down among the rocks. But their above-ground parts rarely reach more than an inch or two (2-5 cm) into the air.

This little Alpine Primrose (Primula angustifolia) is not a cushion plant. But note the tiny leaves forming a background for its larger glossy green leaves. Those leaves are part of a very common cushion plant, the Moss Campion or Moss Pink (Silene acaulis). Its leaves are indeed very like those of mosses. It's the 5th of July, and this cushion is already well past flowering. We'd already missed the profusion of tiny pink flowers of the campion, as well as its fellow cushions, white-flowered alpine Phlox pulvinata and the tiny yellowish flowers of Alpine Nailwort, Paronychia pulvinata. Distracted by showier flowers, I failed to distinguish their matted leaves.

There's a story in the photo above, an example of those occasions when a scientific paper shares an insight that can revolutionize the way we look at things. Why is the primrose (and if you enlarge the photo above, several other plants) growing in the middle of the cushion of Moss Campion? Fernlike leaves to the right of our Primula, and grasslike leaves on the left, suggest that cushion plants can be nurseries for the seeds of other tundra species. This phenomenon, documented by Robert Griggs in 1956, is another small example of the opportunism plants, especially seeds, regularly display. What more secure place for a tiny seed than tucked down amid the leaves of an established cushion?

Alas, science proceeds by a series of successive approximations. A later approximation reported that the seeds (and resulting seedlings) are not as safe and cozy as we might think. In fact, mortality of new seedlings in cushions is just slightly higher than it is for those growing out in the open. Perhaps we'll await the next approximation, in hopes Griggs's original story is confirmed one day.

Refs: Griggs, R.F. 1956. Ecology 37:8-20.
      Bonde, E.K. 1968. Ecology 49:1194-95.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Wintery Wildflowers

Alpine plants are a breed apart. I believe they make a special impression on every visitor, and they certainly did on me. Here are a few favorites I got to see again last summer. These are familiar-looking wildflowers, as tall as 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) and perhaps not unusual in the Rocky Mountain flora except that, in the alpine, they are the tallest plants present. Elsewhere they might be overshadowed by more robust cousins; here they shine. (For more on the alpine, see adjacent posts.)

Alpine Avens (Geum rossii, Acomastylis rossii)
Ubiquitous yellow flowers give the tundra at Summit Lake its claim to "meadow" status. Beautiful members of the Rose Family. Photo July 5, 2007.

Chiming Bells (Mertensia viridis, Mertensia lanceolata)
This member of the Borage Family in the alpine is closely related to taller species from the foothills to the subalpine. Photo early July 5, 2007.

Skypilot (Polemonium viscosum)
Unique to the alpine, this species also has relatives at lower elevations. Phlox Family. Photo August 1, 2007.

Queen's Crown (Sedum rhodanthemum, Clementsia rhodantha)
Rosy clusters of Queen's Crown, or Rosy Crown, occur in the subalpine and alpine, as does the deeper-colored King's Crown. Stonecrop Family. Photo August 1, 2007.

Snowball Saxifrage (Saxifraga rhomboidea, Micranthes rhomboidea)
This little beauty occurs from the foothills to the tundra. A distinctive basal rosette of diamond-shaped, or rhomboid, leaves provides the species name and makes it recognizable in any season. Saxifrage Family. Photo August 1, 2007.

All of these are normal-looking plants, the giants of the tundra. For miniatures, see Life on a Cushion, next post.

Marsh Marigold (Caltha leptosepala, Psychrophila leptosepala)
Any wet spot on the tundra or other high-elevation meadow is home to the Marsh Marigold. (Easterners have a related and very similar yellow species.) On the tundra, low or protected spots where snow lingers are apt habitats for these delightful flowers. Buttercup or Hellebore Family. Photo July 5, 2007.

Why two scientific names? Revisions to the Colorado Flora in recent years have put some of these into less familiar genera, given second; folks outside Colorado may have better luck looking up the first name.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Never Summer

In northern Colorado, there's a chain of mountains called the Never Summer Range, a constant reminder that we can always find winter here if we know where to look. Although its name has now been co-opted by commercial interests, its mountains (whose suggestive names include Mt. Cumulus, Nimbus, Stratus, and Cirrus) remind us of the range of climates we find in Colorado.

My second summer in Colorado was spent entirely in another segment of alpine tundra, 10 solid weeks working above 12,000 ft (3,650 m) at Niwot Ridge, though living a couple thousand feet lower. One of those grand formative experiences available in youth, that summer left me with many fond memories and a new store of knowledge. But memories fade and knowledge grows dusty with disuse.

Last summer, visiting yet another chunk of alpine terrain, I discovered that the names of plants I'd been introduced to so long ago popped happily into my head, like old friends, when I saw them again. There they were: alpine avens and phlox, chiming bells and spring beauty, clovers and saxifrages and bistorts. And, yes, there were some who did need a fresh introduction, as acquaintances will when you meet them at class reunions decades later.

Our first visit to Summit Lake Park on Mt. Evans in early July was at the height of spring. Most of the lake was still locked in ice. The entire growing season must fit into a short span of weeks, and, of course, it can snow or hail anytime. At 12,800 feet (3,900 m), it's a tough place to make a living.

At the peak of summer, though, alpine tundra is lush, fascinating, and diverse. Among outcrops and loose boulders are meadows of wildflowers, grasses, and sedges. All are slow-growing and long-lived, unless they get munched by the few species of herbivores who are adapted to the area.

Plants hug the ground: even shrubs like willows, tucked into protective spots, will be no more than an inch or two (3-5 cm) tall. Many of the wildflowers are cushion plants, others are tucked into crevices away from wind, as this Spring Beauty demonstrates. The interpretive sign reminds us not to trample them; they "grow by the inch, die by the foot." Only a few stomps off-trail can destroy decades of growth.

The largest mammals include these Rocky Mountain goats, "watchable wildlife" at this location. Visitors regularly marvel at their agility on the boulders and cliffs. Sometimes we might also see Elk or Bighorn Sheep, even here on the tundra. Yellow-bellied Marmots (much like the eastern Woodchuck) and the tiny Pika also scramble among the fellfields harvesting hay to store for the long winter.

Tomorrow I'll introduce some of these plant pals rediscovered last summer.
The Sequel: Wintry Wildflowers

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Back-Blog

or Previews of coming attractions?

Almost three-quarters of a year in absentia from Foothills Fancies makes for a new record. It's not one of which I'm particularly proud. But gaps are inevitable, so I'm delighted to join the ranks and share the spirit of Blogging Without Obligation (see sidebar). Let's hope it will help protect you from overly dull routine posts.

Interspersed with current events over the next few weeks, I plan to recreate some of the stories that never did quite make it into cyberspace during my unscheduled disappearance—like a taste of summer in midwinter.

Among these long overdue stories are:
  • The fabulous fungal forays of August 2006 and August-September 2007
  • Adventures in Toadland, also August 2006
  • More on Maine, July 2006
  • Ohio and Indiana, June 2007
  • Return to the alpine and its wildflowers, July-August 2007
  • Revisiting my lovable lichens, summer 2007
  • A fern fantasy, summer 2007

IF and when these are written, I'll turn the above to-do list into links. Damn the chronology, full speed ahead!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Twenty Years and Counting

In 1988, I suddenly started writing, apparently because the mountain decided it had something to say. Before then, I never would have guessed I was interested in being a writer, so it must have been the mountain's idea. In those days, I was hiking the mountain several times a week, at least part way up, and seeing things.

So I came home and wrote. There are thirteen of them in all. I went on to write many other things, and I've had fun with it, even made a few dollars here and there. These first writings still hold a unique place in my heart, and in the interests of the historical record, I'm making a home for them in cyberspace. Today and for the next 12 they will appear on Small Wonders.

Monday, January 07, 2008

A New Year

and I am, it seems, back to blogging. I thought it was finally time to update the look of Foothills Fancies, so here we are. Let me know what you think. Now that we've crossed that magical line of 100 posts, I've also added a list of labels to sort posts by. You'll find it at the end of the sidebar (right) in case you want to look up your favorite topic.

Having converted this blog into Layout mode, I appreciate your patience while I make a few more adjustments to the sidebar and settings. I'm also excited that my friend Cat Woman may decide to join me! She's a few miles south, more than 1,000 feet higher, a great writer. If she takes the plunge, I'm sure she'll bring new insights and stories, as well as improved reliability. I look forward to introducing her to you soon, and I have a couple of other new ideas to implement this year.

p.s. Suggestions are also always welcome, for post topics or otherwise!

See you tomorrow!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Waves of Land

Update June 2011: I found the poem!! I have edited it below for accuracy to the original version, though I happily note I was spot on for the first half, and in order to give proper credit to the author. Added lines are in color.

College Freshman English. Required, even of science majors. Though I was initially reluctant, it turned out to be the moment when literature (after some dismal high school experiences) finally made sense. The Norton Anthology, though grueling, was an eye-opener. John Gardner’s How Does a Poem Mean? became a Rosetta stone, inspiring a lifelong love of poetry that might otherwise have died with childhood. But one poem, not in any book, stands out in my memory.

Google found “about 386,000” results when I asked it for snake poems. found only 86 snake poems, a more manageable list. As I scanned the latter results, I missed Dickinson’s “narrow fellow,” though it must have been there. Finally, after honing my search skills on key phrases, Google reported that:

Your search - "raspberry vines and air" - did not match any documents

Google? Stumped? If it weren’t so firmly entrenched in my memory, I’d think I imagined this poem. Fortunately I can remember much of it, though the couplets are undoubtedly out of order in my head, except the first and last. It is a parody of a familiar poem, but executed with far more grace of technique and clarity of metaphor.

I think that I shall never make
A poem sinuous as a snake:
A snake that can us mammals mock
Whenas he moves upon a rock;

Whose muscular and graceful strength
Dwells in the one dimension, length;
Who has no radiating limb
And yet on waves of land can swim;

Who can, from raspberry vines and air
Devise himself a rocking chair;
Who worships silent in the sun;
Who has no projects to be done;

Who thinks no thought, who makes no sound
Preferring to remain profound;

Who though from dust he scarce can rise,
Appropriates man’s paradise.

I strive, like Adam, every spring
To conjure that elusive thing
An Eden, with my hoe and rake
The serpent only God can make.

—Donald Babcock

Why this poem? Why today? See the following post. And if you know this poem or its author, please let me know! Thank you, Mr. Babcock, for the years of enjoyment knowing this poem has given me.

Bouncing Back to Snakes

Snakes have always been on my list of most beautiful beings. I was intrigued with them, but it wasn’t til I was in college that the fascination turned practical, and I lived with a snake my entire senior year. Much later in life, I cared for a dozen or two snakes of different native species at the museum where I worked for more than a decade, sharing all phases of their life cycle from conception to death. And worrying constantly: were they warm enough? Cool enough? Humid enough? Hungry or overfed? Healthy or sick?

Snakes, and reptiles in general, are so foreign to us. Their condition or status is often signaled by subtle behavioral cues, unlike the mammalian expressiveness of most of the animals we take into our homes. Yet they are often portrayed as “easy pets,” needing little attention or care.

After two snake-free years, again I find myself managing the care of two fine snakes, Rubber Boas this time. Small, secretive, and relatively slow as snakes go, these two are an entirely different experience. This morning, when I entered the study (where the Husband insists I keep them), they reminded me of the poem above. Two coils of boa were visible above the substrate in their cage. Like Nessie swimming in the loch, the small boa was porpoising along the bottom, neither head nor tail visible, swimming on waves of land. I had to watch closely even to tell which direction she was going.

As she continued cruising, I decided to take her out to spend a few moments getting acquainted. It was cool in the room, and she coiled herself around my wrist for warmth, just as described at She seemed content to sit quietly there for awhile, though perhaps disconcerted by the occasional swish through the air when I carefully moved my arm. It was awkward-- next time I’ll put her on the left arm so I can use the camera with my right.

Speaking of heads and tails, as you can see, it’s hard to tell with these critters. Blunt tails and small heads are protective, an attempt to trick a predator into picking on the wrong end. The tail is also used to defend against the attacks of the mother mouse when they’re stealing babies from her nest for dinner. A result of these tactics is that the snakes, in the wild, are often heavily scarred. The larger of my two, who doesn’t like to come out much, has extensive scarring on her tail, but this one is almost unblemished.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Bird Channel

Welcome to the Bird Channel. We start broadcasting in the half-light of dawn and close at dusk each day. Our programming may seem repetitious to some, but rest assured we have a dedicated audience who never fails to check in first thing each morning. Customer loyalty is not a concern for us, at least in winter. We're the only entertainment available. We're currently broadcasting 9.7 hours a day, but will expand to more than 15 hours daily by summer.

Today our first program, Chickadees, opened at 6:54 a.m. The Chickadee quickly grabs a sunflower seed from the tube feeder then hastens to a nearby bush to pound the shell off. By 7:03 a.m., a few Juncos stop by, along with the first finches. The larger actors sleep in.

Gracie (left) and Cadbury, the Chocolate cat, both joined our viewers last spring, and have become steady watchers of the Bird Channel, especially on the snowiest days when we run specials: the cast multiplies and the action is busier than usual. There's so much activity, our viewers have been known to remain glued to the screen for hours, but generally they intersperse their viewing with Catnaps and Kibble.

By 7:23 a.m., just after sunrise, Scrub Jays make their first appearance, along with the local Magpies, who have only fly-on roles except when there's suet out. Shortly a hundred or more Red-winged Blackbirds come onto the set, adding to the excitement and color. Though regulars, their mass appearance and disappearance generate audience enthusiasm. Suet also ensures that other cast members, like the Flickers and Downy Woodpecker, will show up for work.

Throughout the day, performers act out their assigned roles, in harmony with the consistent rhythm of each day's script. Occasionally a guest appearance by a star, like Artemis the sharp-shinned hawk, introduces dramatic elements and new character interaction. Less popular characters, like Pigeons and Starlings, are often spotted but their contributions tend to be overlooked.

To ensure continuous programming, uninterrupted by commercials, feeders are now being filled the night before each day's broadcast. Our shows range from sitcoms to drama, but we never bore our viewers with talk programs. A wide assortment of talented actors keeps the characters familiar to all, but the action varies from day to day. Programming varies seasonally, with new characters introduced each spring, but we always take care to avoid reruns. Stay tuned-- we'll be on the air til 4:30 tonight.