Saturday, June 22, 2013

Catalpa: Full of Life

Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing—during a period when the liturgy was chanted in the language of the dead and stained glass windows of aged churches stretched upward in ceremonious supplication—that caused me to stop at the sight of the old catalpa with the huge cavity. The arched opening ushered my eye into a dark interior, like the nave of an ancient cathedral. Jagged wedges of decaying wood were pocked with the traces of wood-boring insects. Brilliant daylight shone through a hole in the trunk. And yet the catalpa tree was very much alive. 
Nave of the catalpa tree

The bumblebee: a friendly sort
A bumblebee posed on one of the broad leaves, while a tick-like arachnid held tight to another. Lifting a leaf or two revealed that much of the action was hidden from view. I settled in to plumb the mysteries of the giant cavity, infected with a reverence befitting the Stations of the Cross.

Suddenly (and I’m not making this up) harp music began to play in the distance. And then, the voice of an angel began to sing:
“It must have been cold there in my shadow,
to never have sunlight on your face.”
Beetle's eye view!

I don’t know anything about the soul that was being memorialized, but hearing “Wind Beneath My Wings” sung in the quiet of the wildlife sanctuary made my beneficent aging catalpa, a haven for creatures of all kinds, seem even more venerable. 

Daddy longlegs lurks beneath

Someday it will fall, and yet another renewal of life will occur. The decayed heartwood will break into chunks, and roots will find their way into the cracks. Invertebrates, from mites to centipedes to slugs and snails, will find passage along these openings. Salamanders and shrews will hide beneath the sloughed bark and rotten wood, and dig tunnels into the crumbly substrate. Fungi will abound.

Before I knew it an hour had passed. Again, a walk in the woods had worked its magic.

Just one hour, in a life filled with hours.  

Tiny spider. Hanging out on a beautiful day.
Woolly aphids make honeydew. Honeydew supports fungi, i.e. sooty mold.

Ref: Maser, C. and others. 1984. The Unseen World of the Fallen Tree.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Social Perils of Gardening

If you are smart, and sensitive to social ramifications of putting your obsessions on display for all the “normal” world to see, you will say “No, but thank you!” to social invitations that come your way during spring, when the natural world is full of exuberance and your gardening spirit has not yet been beaten down by explosions of bugs and infestations of holey foliage. 

“Why” you ask? 

Fava bean in flower!

Realize that you are all too likely to speak your mind. And your mind is, shall we say, differently attuned, than most? Without thinking you may say something like, 

“I’m so excited about my favas!”

Yes, I know, vegetable gardening has become the new “in” thing to do. Still, in the real world, your listener will more than likely reply, 
“…Favas? What’s that?”
“Favas are big beans. Some people call them broad beans!”
“So what do you plan to do with these beans?”
“I’m not really sure … this is the first time I’ve grown them. And they’re absolutely beautiful! Big, sturdy plants standing in handsome rows! Ants have been crawling all over them. You see, the plants have extra-floral nectaries tucked beneath their leaves, which draw the ants, which then keep away other leaf-eating insects … theoretically. It’s like watching a science project!”
Ants and favas. Perfect together?

“Extra what?”
“Extra-floral nectaries. Plant parts that are not flowers that produce nectar!”
“For the ants.”
Ladybugs to the rescue!
“Yes! I don’t think the ants have much to do with the black aphids that congregate on the tops of a lot of the plants, but they might. There’s a lot of research on that but I haven’t found any conclusions. I’m starting to see ladybugs on some plants, which is an exciting development! They’ll help control the aphids. I’ve found that spraying aphids never works. You need the ladybugs.”

At about this time you may notice (or you may not) your listener’s attention straying, and his or her eyes looking around the room for a reason to make a polite escape.
“Aphids, huh.”
“Black aphids. They’re different from the aphids on lettuce, which are usually green, or on tomatoes, which are sometimes pink. Isn’t that absolutely fascinating, how the color of aphids sometimes matches the plant they feed on?”
“Umm, yeah. Hey, I think I see my friend over there …”
“Now the fava flowers are beginning to turn black—that’s what’s supposed to happen—and I’m just starting to see the beans form. I’m wondering if they’ll get as big as they’re supposed to get. The thing about favas is … my son the farmer told me this … it doesn’t even matter that much if you get a big harvest. They’re worth the trouble just for their value as a cover crop! … oh … ok … we’ll catch up later.”

But, no.

The “bore” label has attached itself to you. Like a black aphid on a fava bean plant. Maybe staying home, gardening until dark, and after dark delving into the mysteries that have thrust themselves into your psyche, would have been a better choice.

But there must be a way that we can convert the masses into seeing the fascination, locking in to the mystery.

We need to get them outside.

It’s impossible to describe, in an inside conversation, the thrill of discovering connections, the excitement of getting a glimpse into how it all works. The kick lies in seeing for yourself the adaptations plants make for reasons we are only beginning to understand; becoming conscious of the complex interactions that go on outside the door every minute of every day. They set the mind spinning and exploring and looking for answers that only lead to more questions.

On second thought, say yes.

Because, you just never know.

I just have to tell you about the tiniest little grasshoppers I spotted on my tomato leaves today—they were smaller than my little fingernail. They must have been first instar. Did you know that grasshoppers molt five times before reaching full size? Oh, you have to go? Ok, we’ll talk later …won't we?