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The Ephemeral Meadow

Thursday, October 27, 2011


 Arrgh. It's all going so fast, so fast...the greens are leaving, the browns are coming. We haven't really had a proper fall here in southern Ohio, just a whole bunch of rain and wind and trees dropping their still-green leaves, and other trees that should be riotously colorful just standing around buck naked.

So I'm looking through my photo archives for things to share and it all looks impossibly bright and colorful and fresh and late-summery.

 I could just smell my neighbor winding up to mow this incredible meadow of mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum.) I like to call it "wild ageratum" because that's what it is. It's one of my favorite flowers for the way it can paint a meadow sky-lavender.

I'd drive by the meadow and think, "I have GOT to get in there with the camera before he mows it!" Because when things are at their most beautiful, that's when he gets the bug to mow. You may remember the monarch rescue two years ago, when we saved 67 caterpillars as the tractor was grinding through. To his credit, he helped us gather them--once we told him they were there!

Wonderful guy. Just a different ethos about beauty, that's all. Mowed close is his beautiful. 

Mistflower and butterflies is mine. Here's a pearl crescent.

a clouded sulfur

A leatherwing or soldier beetle, possibly Pennsylvania Leatherwing (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) . You usually see these all over goldenrod.

 I kept stepping back, marveling at the beauty of the biggest stand of mistflower I'd ever seen. Knowing its days were numbered. Thankful it had been left this long.

Common buckeyes, a fall migrant around here, and one of my favorite butterflies. Those white wingbars flash in flight, and I can almost always identify this one on the wing before it alights. That's saying something for a butterfly.

And of course there were monarchs, but they preferred the more vividly colored tall ironweed.

On the leeward side, where he'd already mowed, mistflower still grows in the  uncut shadow of the hayrolls. There's a painting in there somewhere.

You know how I feel about hayrolls...

Not a week later, it was all gone. I guess you have to mow if you're going to make hayrolls.

 But he didn't even take hay this time. Just cleaned it up, made for an early frost.

Zick on NPR-Raspberries

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

photo by Connie Toops

While sitting in a theater (gasp!) watching a much-touted movie about birding, I got a call from my editor at NPR. She was working on a piece I'd submitted to All Things Considered in July about growing raspberries, massaging it a bit so it wouldn't sound out of place in October, and she had a few questions. Mainly, "Can you harvest raspberries in October?" Having eaten a small, glorious handful just a few days prior, I gave an enthusiastic yes!

My dear friend and colleage, natural history writer and photographer Connie Toops, has a penchant for bringing me wonderful plants each year when she comes to speak and guide at the New River Birding and Nature Festival in Fayetteville, WV. She comes up out of the mountains of North Carolina with pots of fabulosity. And last spring she brought me four golden raspberry plants. I kept them in the pots until they were busting out, then set about digging them a soft fluffy garden bed in June. On one of the hottest days of the year. I worked out there, turning the soil, getting all the Virginia creeper and trumpetvine out of it, making a huge mound of manuery soil for their home, edging it with plastic so nobody could get in and they couldn't get out. Got myself a good case of heat exhaustion and had to leave a dinner party that night, practically incoherent, with a pounding head. But oh, were those plants ever worth it. We've had tantalizing hints of the bounty to come in three flushes, one, yes, in October. Never have I tasted a more delicious raspberry. They somehow pack a ridiculously intense raspberry flavor into each tiny bursting globule, belying their pallid color. Absolutely amazing. A gift of the finest kind.

So here's the piece. Give it a listen, and if you like it, hit Recommend, share it on Facebook, Twitter, or whatevah, and leave a comment if you please. Click HERE to listen and read.

Connie's got one of my heirloom lilacs growing down in North Carolina. File under: Sharing. Or What I Love About Gardening.

J.C. Penney FAIL

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I grew up wearing J.C. Penney's clothes. It was always the place to go if you needed a white blouse or blue slacks for a school event. Now, as a parent, I go there to get decent-looking jeans for Phoebe, who, at 15, wears pants I can only get one leg into.

Not long ago I was made aware of this little gem being marketed by J.C. Penney. Oh, cool. Well, sure, if you're pretty it would be untoward to also be smart, right? 

Quick. Somebody tell Phoebe she's got to dumb it down to go with her looks. Oh, wait. This shirt will do it for you. I understand J.C. Penney yanked the shirt when enough people squawked. Well, good. We wouldn't have bought it anyway.

So imagine my delight when I found this similarly erudite shirt being touted as a back-to-school garment by, uh, J.C. Penney.

Yep, that's the message I want my kid to wear on his chest for the first day of school. Go Penney's.

Actually, I probably have little room to complain. Liam is running around today in a vintage Tom and Jerry shirt. One of the teachers stopped him at lunch, studied the picture (which has Jerry shocking the bejabbers out of Tom with some kind of cartoon zappy machine), frowned and shook her head at Liam.

He was unfazed. It's his favorite shirt, and I'm afraid she cemented his fondness for it with that disapproval.  

 I think, for reasons that make perfect sense only to me, that wearing a shirt showing a mouse shocking a cat is fine. I don't think walking around with FAIL on your chest is fine. Because my kids won't fail, and if Liam ever falters, Phoebe swoops in as his in-house math tutor. So much for having your brother do your homework for you because you're too pretty.

Never mind the supercool skull overlain on Liam's polo. Like I said, morbidity and electrocution: suitable shirtfodder. Failing, or acting dumb on purpose, unsuitable.

These are my standards, and I'm sticking to them.

Chet Baker, Haymaker

Sunday, October 23, 2011


One of the many things I adore about Chet Baker is his attentiveness. He watches over me and supervises as I do my work. When I hang out laundry, he assumes a position just uphill and keeps me company. He gives me someone to talk to as I perform the myriad routine chores of keeping the house and yard in shape.  He just leapt up into my lap, so I'm writing this around a dog. He puts his forefeet on the desk and plants his hind feet in my lap and angles himself off to the left where he can watch for chipmunks. Here is a picture from summer before last, meant to be a photo of Libby the dove, but a good illustration of The Position.

The Position is occasionally problematic, given Chet's frequent emanations, but it's very nice most of the time. (cough, splutter, wave!)

Even though he's not wild about the sound of the lawnmower, Chet will supervise mowing and raking. The grass never stopped growing this year, and I put our 19-year-old rider mower over the edge toward the grave. It needs a tuneup, a new blade, probably a new everything--it shudders and shakes and I have to keep my hand on the throttle or it simply declines. Bah. Just one of the things I'd replace if I had the means. We need to rent a trailer to take it into town to the doctor. Hmmph. That's the kind of thing you put off indefinitely. Or at least until the last haycutting, as we call late-season mowing.

So I'm raking the whole durn yard every time I mow, which I tell myself is wonderful exercise. No, we don't have a bag on the mower. And somebody, and I ain't sayin' who, thought the piles of hay would make a good bed for hisself.

It was getting dark, and he was none too enamored of the flash Phoebe used to take his photo.

So I crept up on him in the dying light and documented his inventive tool-using behavior, pawing the hay up into a nice little Chetbed.

Sweet dreams, little supervisor.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Since posting about the bolas spider, I got an email from the co-author of a cool book called Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating
Her name is Leslie Brunetta, and her co-author is arachnologist Catherine Craig. Leslie gave me a great big present in this David Attenborough video of a bolas spider doing her thing. Get a load of this:

To think of my little beauty getting busy with her sticky bolas, slinging it around as hopeful male cutworm moths circle...well, I had to share that one with Science Club, every fourth, fifth and sixth grade member of which now knows about bolas spiders. In the process, I learned how to convert YouTube files to .mov files that I can keep on my computer, because Liam's school blocks YouTube. There's a free service at that will convert the files into a format of your choice and email them to you! Who knew? So you can have awesome film clips without accessing the Net.
 Not long ago I got a comment on my blog informing me that my use of the word "bug" to describe all insects and (shudder) arachnids is incorrect. "Bug," correctly used, refers only to hemipterans, the "true bugs," which have a long sucking tube for a mouth. Stinkbugs, wheel bugs, milkweed bugs, bugs like that. 

I started to write a reply, got all het up and launched as I am wont to do into an essay, then thought better of it and saved it for the blog.  On this blog and in real life, I use "bug" knowingly, tongue firmly in cheek. For a number of reasons, I feel it best to establish myself here as an entomological piker from the get-go. Bugs are scary enough to many readers without getting all pointy-headed about what you call them. You'll find me describing butterflies as bugs, too. I take my lead from my friend and entomological hero, John Acorn, author of the delightful book Bugs of Ontario. He says in his introduction:

"This book is for bugsters. If you haven't heard that term before, don't feel left out--I think I invented it with the help of my friends. We needed a word for people who are fascinated by insects and enjoy them for no other reason than their intrinsic niftiness. 'Amateur entomologist' seemed too stuff, as did 'insect enthusiast' and 'entomophile.' 'Bugger' is out of the question...I did find the term 'entomaniac' popular among some of the people I know, but it probably isn't the best one to use as a recruiting tool. Maniacs are crazy, but we bugsters are merely enthusiastic.

  "Even the word 'bug' is fraught with problems.In the strict language of entomology, a bug is a member of the Order Hemiptera, often pedantically called 'true bugs'...Let's just cut through all of this confusion and call the critters 'bugs,' and the people who love them 'bugsters.'"

All hail John Acorn, who makes nature accessible and fun. I'm aping him as best I can. Bug, bug, insect, beetle, arthropod and arachnid...I love 'em all, except for ticks, mites and house and wood cockroaches, all of which I hate, except for the brown-hooded cockroach, which I adore, capricious bugster that I am.

I will now reprise a post, because I love it too much to trust you to click upon a link to it, that sums up how I feel about bugs. Even odd cockroaches in the bedroom.

It was a magic moment, the kind Science Chimps live for. I was bathing Liam (this tells you how old this post is--2007!)  and from the bedroom Bill said, "Zick! Look at this!" with that note in his voice that could only mean a kind of gross but interesting bug. He came into the bathroom with a wad of Kleenex in his hand, and this huge shiny cockroach, almost 2" long, squirmed free of it and plopped down onto the bathmat. It crawled methodically, squirming side to side like a little Sherman tank, most unroach-like.

I noticed first that its cerci, the two antenna-like projections at the tip of the abdomen that are one of the roach family's distinguishing characteristics, were very small, but still present. Its legs were heavily barbed, strong and stout. It looked like a miniature version of the Madagascar hissing cockroaches I used to visit in their plastic shoeboxes in the Harvard Biolabs. I knew that I had seen this bug before, but only in a photograph. A photograph in my brand-spankin' new Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.

Oh! Oh! Oh! Mad scramble for the book. And there it was, the brown-hooded cockroach, right there on the roach page where I remembered it being. But there, too, in one tantalizing paragraph, was its story. The hair stood up on my legs (which took some doing, since I'd just shaved 'em) when I read this:

The Brown-hooded Cockroach (Cryptocercus punctulatus), often placed in its own family (Cryptocercidae), is a unique social insect of northwestern mountains and the Appalachians. It lives in family groups in rotting wood, females giving live birth to three or four offspring. These nymphs feed on adult feces, consuming protozoans that help digest cellulose. They take six years to mature.

So we've got a native insect, an endemic, almost, with a disjunct range. Which gives live birth, instead of laying a gross little egg capsule like most roaches that infest houses. Whose offspring live on the feces of their parents. Which is social. A social roach. Which takes Six Years to Mature. It was almost too much to take in at one time.

I did a little digging around on the Net. From researchers at Sweetbriar College, via came the following synopsis, which differs in some details from the Eaton/Kaufman story:

Wood roaches are monogamous and exhibit considerable parental care: a mated pair stay together for several years and raise a single set of offspring. After a sexually mature wood roach finds a mate (how? I don't know), the pair establishes a nesting site in a dead log on the forest floor. They will probably stay in one log for the rest of their lives. Wood roaches have ecological and physiological similarities to their close relatives, the termites. Like termites, they feed on dead wood and live in galleries they construct within fallen logs. Since insects lack the enzyme cellulase, they rely on microbes to digest wood. Termites and wood roaches house these microbes, primarily flagellated protozoa, in their gut. The mated female lays a clutch of 50-100 eggs. A newly hatched roach nymph's gut is empty - it does not have any symbiotic microbes. To get these from its mother or father it uses proctodeal trophallaxis (feeding on fluids from the adult's anus). The necessity of obtaining gut microbes is a constraint on the life history of the wood roach: these insects cannot grow to maturity as loners. Initially the nymphs feed exclusively by trophallaxis and are completely dependent on their parents for their nutrients. As they mature, they acquire their own gut flora and begin feeding on dead wood directly. Development to sexual maturity takes more than two years.

Here's a roach and its nymph, a picture taken off the Net. Vastly superior to mine. I found this insect a bit tough to photograph, since being out in the light upset it and it made endless circles around the perimeter of its enclosure. This is a jolly good shot, even though it's lifted. (I wish I could find it again to credit the photographer.)

So. Do they lay eggs or give birth to live young? Dunno. Does it take two or six years to reach sexual maturity? Dunno that, either. See how much we don't know for sure about insects? When it comes right down to it, they are unknown, weird piled on weird.

. Hidden cerci. Yeah. Punctulatus would mean spotted. In the words of Tom Morrison, the foreman of the construction crew that built our birding tower, I was "all ate up." I jumped up and down, pumping my fists like Tiger Woods after a birdie. High-fiving Bill. New Bug! Weird Social Long-Lived Bug! In our House! Still am all ate up, to have this venerable Appalachian social cockroach circling around in a plastic pitcher on my kitchen counter. But none of that could have happened unless Kenn Kaufman and Eric Eaton and my beloved publisher, Houghton Mifflin (Harcourt), had gotten it together to make this brand-new field guide to insects, this gift to the planet, to Science Chimps everywhere. Get yourself one at your local bookstore, or order it online. Give yourself the gift of knowing your roaches, your stink bugs, your odd long-horned beetles, your Midas flies and scorpion flies. Let your curiosity rule the day. Tune in to the previously inaccessible world of insects.

I let it go the next day in rotting wood, of course. Hoping there would be a new social group of brown-hooded cockroaches for it to join. What it was doing in the bedroom I can't imagine. As Bill said, "I'm just glad I didn't flush it."

What the Bolas Spider Does

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Now you see a spider...

and now a bit of poop.

 A young female or a male bolas spider hunts by hiding on the underside of leaves, then ambushing insects that walk by. Youngsters and males don't have the huge abdomen, and presumably lack the physical resources to produce a bolas. But a mature female bolas spins a strand of sturdy silk, and from that she suspends a supersticky glob of silk and goo. And she hangs upside down with this lasso dangling, waiting for a moth.

Having read that, I thought, Well, does she station herself beneath a lamp or next to a flower, hoping a moth runs into her bolas? I had to dig a bit to get the real story. 

This spider situates itself in a mothy spot, then emits a perfect copy of the sex pheromone of three species of noctuid moth (the bristly cutworm, bronzed cutworm and smoky tetanolita). Whoa. And when the male cutworm moth comes spiraling in to the perfume, wham! She swings her bolas like an Argentine gaucho, snares it, hauls it in hand over hand, and has a nice meal. 

 As if it weren't cool enough to look exactly like a fresh shiny bird's fecal sac

 and suspend yourself from safety lines and drop yourself down a few feet whenever you need to

and have the cutest little cornicled head and a bunch of adorable jewellike eyes, and sit there with your legs wrapped around your face like a shy Charlotte

and charm the bejabbers out of an eleven-year-old boy and his swooning mama. 

This little beauty, I hope, has laid a bunch of egg sacs in a protected place, and will leave us some beautiful spiderlings come spring. I'd never seen a bolas spider before, but I hope to see many more.

Just another example of the insanely cool stuff going on in backyards everywhere. Sometimes it takes a little fella like Liam to sniff them out. 

When he isn't bombing his sister's profile photos, that is.

Rondeau Ric, KatDoc and FloridaCracker, this Liam's for you!

Beautiful Bolas Spider

Sunday, October 16, 2011


This must be the autumn when we find all the cool bugs. Arachnids. Organisms.  Maybe it’s because there are four of us looking all the time. Liam came into the studio to get me. He said, “There’s this cross between bird poop and a spider. And it’s on your headband on the kitchen table. When I blow on it it moves. So I know it’s a spider. But it looks just like bird poop.”
So I quit what I was doing and hurried into the kitchen to find the organism precisely as billed: a cross between bird poop and a spider.
It had affixed itself to the elastic sweatband with a little pad of cross-hatched silk and seemed happy to hunker there, its legs wrapped around its face, pretending to be poop.

I was immediately captivated. Its abdomen was so shiny, so round, so fully packed! A quick search of my books and the Net revealed that Liam had gifted me with Mastophora hutchinsoni, one of five Mastophora species in the U.S. Their common name is bolas spider. This was a newly mature female, ready to produce her egg sacs.

Having raised so many orphaned baby birds, I have to say that this spider looks exactly like a fresh fecal sac (those membranous avian “diapers” that enclose the droppings of baby birds still in the nest, which enable the parent birds to remove the droppings and keep the nest clean). It's got the white urates and the brown swirl of feces and, without going on too long about how much it looks like poop and how incredibly beautiful that is, it is perfect in every detail.

This is obviously a potent anti-predator strategy. Nobody wants to eat poop. So this spider can go about her bidness without worrying too much about getting picked off.

Observing her for quite awhile, it became apparent to me that this is a spider who is highly concerned for her safety. With such a big heavy abdomen, she would need to be careful about falling like a stone on a hard surface. Everywhere she crept, and she didn't creep far, she laid down silk, guywires and safety lassos to catch her should she lose her footing. And when she eventually did, there she hung, safe, with my palm as backup. She was cool and heavy as a quarter.

 You'd think a spider with such an impressive abdomen (aka silk factory) might spin a fabulous orb web. And she is related to the orbweavers. But no. What this spider does is ever so much cooler than that. It is a trickster, a faker, a skilled cowgirl among spiders. And I will tell you more Tuesday. For now, please just be content to admire her poopoid beauty.

Love's Labors, Pulped

Thursday, October 13, 2011


We had a heck of a lot of pawpaws to work through, but we could only do half, because only half were ripe enough to process. D'oh! Hence the pungency of my foyer at the moment. I will have to pay the piper tomorrow, because when they're ready, they're ready.

We wound up getting 9.5 pounds of pulp out of about 20 pounds of pawpaws--pretty much a 2:1 ratio of waste to food. I was surprised they were that pulp-rich--those huge brown seeds, the size of limas, are packed in pretty tightly.

We fed the pulp into Ziploc bags and froze it forthwith to use through the winter.

There it is: the fruit of our labor. Almost ten pounds of pawpaw pulp!

I sent half home with Anne to see what wonders she could create. Needless to say we shared a newly baked pawpaw custard for breakfast on Sunday. 
I went a little haywire on the nutmeg, but Anne was kind. We slurped it down. I have to say it was good especially when chilled overnight, so the flavor of pawpaw could pervade the whole custard. It bordered on elegant.

I beat two eggs with two cups of milk, a teaspoon of vanilla and 1/4 cup of sugar, added 1/2 cup of pawpaw pulp, added a rather too vigorous grind of nutmeg, and poured it into custard cups. Set them in 1" of water in a big Pyrex dish and baked at 325 for about an hour. They set up very nicely. Much better chilled than warm, surprisingly. It was kind of like a pawpaw flan. You turn them out of the cups and serve them upside down. Yum. Wish I had one now. Make that three.

Other uses for pawpaws, since you asked: Use it like bananas in breads, cookies, muffins. Use it in smoothies as you would bananas. (Cardamom sets the taste off very nicely). Flavor frostings with it. Make a yogurt sauce for spicy Indian food with it. My favorite use is in a cream sauce (start a white sauce using heavy cream and butter, and add about 1/2 cup of pawpaw, a squirt of honey mustard, a tablespoon or two of honey (sourwood is my fave!), salt and pepper to taste for a savory treat.

If you process your own pawpaws, be sure to get it done before they get too ripe, like my second 16 pounds did. (You'll know because they start turning black and get really soft).  Overripe pawpaw skin won't squeeze off the fruit on one piece. It goes into little bits that can sneak through the colander. And the skin can be allergenic. Believe me, I know. I'm currently on pawpaw embargo. When I'm hive-free, I'm going to try a little bit of Anne's Grade AAA skin-free pulp. Cross your fingers for me. It would be a cruel irony indeed if the Pawpaw Queen were barred forever from enjoying the harvest, processing and consumption.

For more recipes, see this awesome link Anne found:

What fun we had. It was so great to have Anne down to pawpaw country, 

show her some nice birds

                                                              make the perfect BLT

give her some gen-u-ine Boston terrier love

see her soak it all up 
and send her home with a new taste sensation. We love to share what's wonderful about southern Ohio!

Come back soon, Miss Anne! And bring THREE TOYS this time!
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